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Humble roots drive coach

HARRISONBURG – Mike Houston didn’t always want to be a football coach.

During his senior year at Mars Hill (N.C.) University, Houston said he actually spent time shadowing a local family practitioner. Yes, the man introduced Tuesday as James Madison’s new football coach had once hoped to establish a career in medicine.

That plan didn’t pan out, perhaps for the best.

Houston said his medical-school applications to North Carolina and East Carolina were both denied, forcing him to pursue other opportunities.

“I took a job teaching physics and chemistry in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, coaching football and basketball. Did it for one year and knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Houston said. “I never looked back, and it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Twenty-two years later, Houston is headed to Harrisonburg hoping to build on his track record as a proven winner. The 44-year-old takes over at JMU after making a name for himself in reviving struggling college programs at Lenoir-Rhyne and The Citadel.

But Houston’s start in coaching truly came at the prep level, where he spent 10 seasons – five as a defensive coordinator, another five as head coach – at T.C. Roberson High School in Asheville, N.C.

Those humble roots make sense considering the 1994 Mars Hill graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biology grew up in tiny Franklin, N.C., a town with a population just over 4,000 where high school football is the main attraction.

Fall Friday nights, Houston said, mean everything in Franklin.

“It’s blue-collar, hard-working people. I was the first member of my family to graduate from college. To be honest, if it wasn’t for athletics, I probably wouldn’t have went to college,” said Houston, who was a tight end/H-back at Mars Hill. “I can relate to a lot of the kids I recruit, with the situations they’re in. I owe a lot to the way I was raised by my parents and the community I was in.”

That background has helped Houston learn to build from scratch.

In 2014, when he took over at The Citadel, it had been over two decades since the FCS program in Charleston, S.C., had qualified for postseason play. The Bulldogs went on to knock off Coastal Carolina in a first-round game the very next season, one of the highlights of a 9-4 season that featured a Southern Conference championship.

Houston worked his way up to The Citadel job after spending eight seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne.

The Division II school hadn’t enjoyed a winning season in 12 years when Houston was hired as defensive coordinator in 2007. From 2011-2013, Houston’s three seasons as head coach, L-R went 29-8, capping that run with a national-title game appearance.

“He has really high expectations of people, and that includes himself,” Lenoir-Rhyne President Wayne B. Powell said. “I remember one time we actually lost a game – which didn’t happen very often – but I went into the locker room and Mike just walked in and said, ‘You guys just embarrassed Lenoir-Rhyne. It better not happen again.’ We then won 13 straight games. So, you know, apparently they got the message.

“… He obviously knows football, but he also is a motivator. A lot of football isn’t just talent; it’s also called leadership and inspiring people to perform at the level that they’re capable of. And’s he’s obviously got a pretty good track record.”

Along the way, Houston has become a family man, too. At Tuesday’s press conference inside Bridgeforth Stadium, Houston’s wife – Amanda – was on mom duty, looking after their two energetic young sons – 7-year-old Owen and 3-year-old Reid. While taking questions from reporters, Houston made of point of acknowledging his family and noted he plans on having his boys at JMU’s practices on a regular basis.

“He’s a great dad, and he cares a lot about his boys and family,” Amanda said. “He works really hard in the office and his staff works really hard for him, but it’s really important that when they can leave, they go home and they be with their family. And that’s something that’s so important.”

The married couple of 13 years first met in Asheville, just prior to Houston being named the head coach at T.C. Roberson. Ironically, mutual acquaintances had attempted to set them up on a blind date but they refused, later meeting by chance while working out at a local gym. Their shared small-town roots – Amanda’s hometown of Sylva is a short drive from Franklin – and love of sports established a quick connection.

In her own words, Amanda – a former high school cheerleader and dancer at East Tennessee State – said she eventually fell for the “bright guy” with the “nice smile.”

She doesn’t think her husband has changed much since then.

“He’s the same guy,” she said. “He’s still the same intense coach he’s always been. He’s busier now, but that’s not a bad thing either. I think he loves that and kind of thrives on that, so it’s good.”