The chapter was short, lasting only two years and 10 months — 1,049 days to be exact. It was, however, a chapter written like no other.
The series of pages came together to form a highlight reel made up of a national championship, deep playoff runs and players who etched their names into the record books. While it only lasted 43 games, much of what happened won’t be easily forgotten in the coming years.
The Mike Houston chapter of the JMU football history book officially came to an end Sunday when he departed the program for the head coaching job at East Carolina University. He left behind a program that posed a constant threat to teams across the FCS.
It was mid-January of 2016 when Houston and his family arrived in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The Franklin, North Carolina, native took over a team that hadn’t won a playoff game in five years and was left without a coach after Everett Withers’ departure.
“Mike Houston, when he took the role here, was exactly what we needed as a head football coach,” JMU Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne said in a press conference Monday. “Not just because of wins and national championships and things of that nature, but how he fit the culture of JMU, how he cared about the well-being of the student athletes, how he grew a family culture here within athletics and ultimately what he did to help shape our young men into winners.”
Houston’s impact on the program was almost immediate. The team he acquired was one that had already tasted success after claiming a share of the CAA regular-season title in 2015, but under Houston, the team was elevated to a new level. From the time he entered the facilities at JMU, he instilled a tight-knit culture throughout the locker room.
“I transferred in Coach Withers’ first year, so [getting a new coach] was kind of stressful for me because it added another coach and that’s the guy that recruited me there to come to James Madison in the first place,” former wide receiver Ishmael Hyman (’18) said. “But it was no dropoff. Coach Houston came in and he did everything that we expected him to do.”
Houston’s personality was more than what could be seen on the sidelines. While fans often only witnessed the Houston who walked up and down the field, gave exuberant speeches and occasionally got in the ear of a ref or two, those who played for him saw a different side of his demeanor.
“I think the biggest difference you see from being with him everyday vs watching him in the stands is that he is very analytical,” former JMU quarterback Bryan Schor (’18) said in a message. “People see his passionate speeches before games and might think he just shoots from the hip as a coach but everything he does has a purpose. If he didn’t believe it would make his team more [successful] whether it be winning more games or getting more players to graduate on time then he wouldn’t do it.”
When it came to what Houston taught his players both about the game of football and in life, things varied among them. For Hyman, Houston made it known that a player’s focus can’t only be on the game.
It’s easy to get caught up in a passion, to let it become the main focus of someone’s time. However, Houston instilled in his players the desire to work hard not only on the field or in the weightroom, but in everything they were tasked to do.
“You can’t be full-in with football and not 100 percent in with school work too,” Hyman said. “If you’re 100 percent in football, you’re working out and your preparation for football, but you’re not going to class, you’re not studying hard, your life won’t be good because you’re not giving 100 percent in everything.”
Houston’s departure from JMU has been difficult for many people connected to the program. However, some of the people it’s impacted the most are the players he’s leaving behind. JMU safety Adam Smith won’t have Houston on the sidelines during his senior campaign, but his mom, Gretchen, is appreciative of the time her son shared with the head coach.
When Adam was coming out of high school, the offers he wanted weren’t there. He spent time traveling to different schools, making a stop at The Citadel along the way to meet with Houston at his former job. The meeting between the two didn’t draw Adam in — his mom said that the military wasn’t for him. However, that wasn’t the last time Adam encountered Houston on the recruiting trail. Not long after the visit to Charleston, South Carolina, Houston was named the head coach for JMU and made a call to Adam — one that changed his playing career.
Adam’s time didn’t come right away. Behind safety Raven Greene for his first two seasons, Adam didn’t see many minutes on defense until this season. But along the way, Houston made the effort to let Adam know his time was coming.
“My son would tell me that Coach Houston would just talk to him,” Gretchen said. “[Houston would] tell him that he has the ability that he just has to wait his time … [Houston] always let my son know ‘you have great talent, you have great ability [to] just hang in there and learn.’”
Houston didn’t only bring in players as true freshmen during his time in Harrisonburg. Defensive lineman Darrious Carter didn’t start his career wearing the purple and gold. The three-star recruit out of high school began his college days 56 miles away from JMU at U. Va.
Carter’s time with the Cavaliers wasn’t easy, and after a few hiccups, he was informed that he was losing his scholarship. While still presented with the opportunity to play there, he parted with the school, looking for another shot — one that Houston gave him.
“He only played in one game at Virginia and he stayed there three years,” Darrious’ father Carl Carter said. “Just to see my son play, I mean, the big sack in North Dakota State, [Houston] believed in my son … Not only did he bring him there, he actually used him … He changed him into a man. My boy is a totally different person.”
Houston’s willingness to bring players in and coach them not only in football but in life, brought the program to the top of the FCS. A national title in his first year and appearance in the game a year later, coupled with a record of 37-6, drew the eyes of bigger schools.
FBS programs took notice of the 47-year-old coach who’d quickly taken the JMU program to national prominence. There were rumors that often surrounded Houston during his time with the Dukes, and while many wished this year’s rumors would fall by the wayside, that wasn’t the case.
“My son really helped me to understand that it’s a business,” Gretchen said. “Every year the discussion was always had by parents, fans, players that we could lose him … I really had thought that we made it through … He has to do what’s best for him and his career and his family.”
Houston has moved on to a bigger program, and while he’ll no longer lead the Dukes out of the tunnel at Bridgeforth Stadium anymore, the impact he had in the three short seasons he was here is one that can’t be erased. Houston has permanently inscribed his name into the JMU football program.
“He was down to earth with his boys,” Carl said. “He walked them through the process, he walked them through it just as much as he walked himself through it … Trust is the key thing, they trusted him and I hope ECU uses him very well because he has a gift.”
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.