HARRISONBURG — James Madison is turning to a former star from its men’s basketball program’s glory days in hopes of energizing its fan base.
JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne announced in a statement Thursday that Louis Rowe has been hired as the school’s new coach.
A first-year assistant this past season at Bowling Green, Rowe was a high-scoring forward for two seasons at Madison under legendary coach Lefty Driesell. The 43-year-old St. Petersburg, Fla., native transferred in after playing two seasons at Florida and emerged as a key figure in JMU’s run to the 1994 NCAA Tournament.
Rowe returned to his alma mater in 2007 to join former coach Dean Keener’s staff and spent four seasons on Brady’s staff from 2008-12 before leaving to take an assistant job at Rider in the summer of 2012.
“The important thing for us is he has a deep understanding of the JMU culture,” Bourne said in a phone interview Thursday night. “He’s an individual our student-athletes can relate to on a personal level, and he will identify very well with them.”
Rowe is set to be introduced as the 10th head coach in Madison’s history at a 3 p.m. press conference Tuesday, the school said in a release.
The Daily-News Record, with confirmation from sources, first reported Rowe’s hiring 40 minutes before JMU published its press release online Thursday.
Rowe — who enjoyed a lengthy professional career overseas after his playing days at JMU — has never been a head coach at the college level. His coaching résumé also includes a two-year stop as an assistant at Florida International.
But Rowe will have an experienced assistant on his bench at JMU. He is bringing back former Madison assistant Mike Deane, the 64-year-old former Marquette head coach confirmed.
After spending the past four seasons on Brady’s staff, Deane said Thursday that he was “disappointed” that the coach was fired but added he is “very excited” to work with Rowe. Brady said in a text message Thursday that he is happy for Rowe, describing his former assistant as a “terrific person.”
“I’m sure that people will be excited about Lou that remember when he played here and what a competitor he was,” Deane said. “And I’m sure he’s going to do the best job possible.”
Bourne said Rowe’s “energy,” “passion” and JMU ties separated him from Madison’s other finalists.
But sources said Rowe was not JMU’s first choice and only emerged as a serious candidate at the very end of the school’s search.
As of Wednesday evening, a source said Madison had completed its search. The source maintained early Thursday morning that JMU and its pick for the school’s next coach — who was believed to be Virginia associate head coach Ron Sanchez — had reached an agreement but no deal had been finalized.
Bourne denied Sanchez was offered the job, calling that report “completely false.”
Said JMU vice president Charlie King in a text message: “Lou is the guy for the job, and you can quote me on that.”
Rowe could not be reached for comment Thursday.
“I believe in discipline and hard work on and off the court,” Rowe said in a school-released statement. “We're going to recruit some young men that will make it a pleasure to come watch JMU men's basketball.”
Sources said Rowe and Sanchez interviewed in Harrisonburg on Tuesday. Bourne said Rowe left for Houston to attend the Final Four after his interview and was not in Harrisonburg on Thursday.
It is unclear why JMU was unable to come to terms with Sanchez.
This season at U.Va., Sanchez made a base salary of $225,000 with an additional supplemental compensation bonus of $45,000. He also earned NCAA Tournament bonuses of $46,875. That amounted to $316,875.
Brady, who went 139-127 with one NCAA berth at JMU, earned a base salary last season of $302,000. Rowe, meanwhile, was paid $95,000 in his first year at Bowling Green.
A source said Wednesday that Rowe was given a courtesy interview and had no expectation of getting the JMU job. Bourne denied that Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey, who a source said interviewed in Harrisonburg on Wednesday, was offered the job.
Bourne said Rowe will sign a five-year contract. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
“I’m very, very happy with Lou Rowe,” Bourne said. “I think he’s going to be an excellent coach. I think he’s going to do a terrific job at JMU, and I know our interview process vetted a broad range of coaches, all of whom are very, very good coaches. They’re very talented.”
Bourne said JMU interviewed six others but refused to reveal their identities. Sources said Kelsey and Georgetown assistant Kevin Sutton — an-ex Madison player — interviewed with Bourne last week in Washington, D.C.
During his final season as a Madison assistant, Rowe played an integral role in putting together a talented recruiting class that included guards Charles Cooke, Ron Curry and Andre Nation along with forward Dimitrije Cabarkapa. Cooke, Curry and Nation were key figures on JMU’s 2013 NCAA Tournament team, helping the school break its 19-year drought.
Curry, who ended his JMU career this past season as the school’s fourth all-time leading scorer, gave high marks to Madison on its hire. Rowe left to take a job at Rider in Lawrenceville, N.J., before Madison’s 2012 recruiting class ever played in a college game, but Curry said he continues to maintain a relationship with Rowe to this day.
It was Rowe’s reputation as a past JMU star, Curry said, that helped Rowe relate to players.
Bourne described Rowe as an “excellent recruiter.”
“I liked everything about Coach Rowe,” Curry said. “Nothing [taken] away from Coach Brady or the coaching staff, Coach Rowe was kind of the reason I came here, to be completely honest. He just so happened to leave. He’s the reason I came here. I built a great relationship with Coach Rowe.”
Madison finished this past season at 21-11, losing to William & Mary in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. It was JMU’s third consecutive conference quarterfinal exit and fifth one-and-done showing over the past six seasons under Brady.
Bowling Green, located near Toledo, Ohio, finished 16-18 overall and 5-13 in the Mid-American Conference this season.
Only three coaches in Madison history have compiled four 20-win seasons, and Brady is one of them. The others are Lou Campanelli and Driesell, a pair of JMU Hall of Famers.
Aside from that lack of recent postseason success, Madison’s slumping attendance and the school’s push to raise funds to build a proposed new $88 million basketball arena also contributed to Brady’s ousting.
Bourne has said Brady, who lives outside of Harrisonburg in Crozet, did not maintain a strong enough community presence during his tenure. Hiring Rowe, Bourne said, is an upgrade over Brady.
This season’s average home attendance was the worst in the Convocation Center’s 34-year history. Rowe played at JMU during the Electric Zoo era, when big-name opponents playing the Dukes in front of sellout crowds at the Convo became commonplace.
However, Rowe’s hiring could instead evoke memories of the Sherman Dillard era at JMU for some fans. Dillard was an all-time Madison great as a player in Harrisonburg and returned to his alma mater as head coach after Driesell was fired in 1997. The Dukes went 93-106 over seven seasons under Dillard, never reaching an NCAA Tournament.
Bourne, though, compared Rowe to a different JMU coach: recently departed women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks, who took over at Virginia Tech this week.
“I think he’s a very good fit for JMU,” Bourne said of Rowe. “I think his interpersonal skills and his ability to relate to the student-athletes is very, very strong. Obviously I think he can end up being a successful coach. There are a lot of similarities and characteristics when you look at a coach like Kenny Brooks and where Kenny was in his career when he was hired. And then where he ended up, obviously as a very successful coach and now leaving and going on to a larger program.”
The 17th-year athletic director is responsible for hiring Brooks, Keener and Brady.
Madison’s search, assisted by former South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler’s consulting firm, lasted 17 days. In the end, a former Dukes star that interviewed just once — according to Bourne — was awarded the job.
When asked why JMU needed to hire a consulting firm if its top target was an alum from the start, Bourne answered “because we looked at a broad range of other very well-qualified coaches.”