Column: ODU vs. JMU Royal Rivalry is a rout, and so is the Dukes’ dominance in the national conversation

Old Dominion and James Madison started the TowneBank Royal Rivalry Challenge as a friendly competition between long-time rivals, ushering the Dukes into the Sun Belt Conference in 2022.

For the second consecutive year, the rivalry looks like a lopsided rout in JMU’s favor. More importantly, JMU is dominating in a much more important category: national relevance. There are signs ODU can gain ground. But for now, the Dukes are dominating.

JMU has won 10 of 13 meetings between the two athletic programs this school year, and the Dukes hold a 6-0 advantage in the marquee sports of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. The Royal Rivalry awards one point for a victory in head-to-head competition and for the best finish in mutual Sun Belt Conference championship events. A tie earns half a point.

JMU won last year’s Rivalry 16½-7½ on the strength of a 5-0 mark in men’s and women’s basketball and a 37-3 football victory at ODU.

Things don’t look much better this year. ODU’s lone head-to-head victories this school year are in field hockey and women’s soccer.

Maybe ODU will close the gap with their usually solid spring sports teams. But there is a seemingly wide margin when it comes to being one of the Sun Belt’s flagship programs.

JMU has dominated the national conversation, beginning with a nationally-ranked football program that welcomed ESPN’s College GameDay to campus in the fall. JMU’s tussle with the NCAA certainly gained the Dukes some sympathy and more attention. JMU was in its second year of transitioning from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision and petitioned for a waiver from the NCAA’s two-year wait for bowl participation.

The glut of bowl bids gave the Dukes a berth anyway. But before a home loss to App State, JMU was unbeaten and surged into the Associated Press Top 25 — a destination ODU has yet to reach since it resuscitated football in 2009. The Monarchs had a fine football season, at least before a cringe-worthy 38-35 loss to Western Kentucky in the Famous Toastery Bowl in which ODU blew a 28-point lead on national television.

Then there’s basketball. JMU’s best men’s basketball season in decades culminated Sunday with a second-round NCAA Tournament game against Duke for a berth in the Sweet 16. The Dukes played a prime time first-round NCAA Tournament game and dominated Wisconsin in the first round Friday.

Sunday’s game against Duke didn’t go as well — the blue-blooded Blue Devils dominated in a 93-55 victory. Still, JMU stayed in the AP Top 25 for two months during the regular season and finished with a program-record 32 victories.

That is a stark contrast to how ODU’s worst season in years ended: The Monarchs, playing most of the season without head coach Jeff Jones after his December heart attack, limped across the finish line 7-25 overall and 3-15 in Sun Belt play. Did we mention the 0-3 mark vs. James Madison?

How did JMU arrive so quickly and gobble up so much attention? According to JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne, it wasn’t done quickly at all.

“The reason you’ve seen since (2015) this astronomical ascent is that we did all the hard work before that,” Bourne told the Associated Press during the NCAA Basketball Tournament. “It took 10 or 15 years of infrastructure building and putting the right people in the right spots to eventually get to a point to where we could capitalize on it.”

At least some of those “right people in the right spots” include adept hires in football and men’s basketball. Meanwhile, the school’s facilities include the $140 million Atlantic Union Bank Center, an 8,900-seat basketball arena built in 2020.

“Anybody who has been to JMU knows our facilities are very elite,” JMU guard Terrence Edwards Jr. told the AP. “As soon as you walk in the building, you just want to commit. We have everything that every high-major school has.”

JMU’s athletic budget for 2022-23 was about $68 million, and $53 million of that comes from student fees — by far the largest sum for any public school in the country — according to Sportico. Worth noting: ODU, also with about a $68 million budget, is No. 2 on the highest-student fees list at $30.2 million.

There are signs JMU could be in for some hiccups:

•Bourne will retire soon and school president Jonathan Alger is leaving for American University.

•Bob Chesney, the former Holy Cross coach, has replaced football coach Curt Cignetti, who departed for Indiana.

•Men’s basketball coach Mark Byington bolted for Vanderbilt before the arena lights were turned off after the loss to Duke, and some players — including Edwards, Jaylen Carey and former Jamestown High star Xavier Brown — have entered the transfer portal.

At ODU, Mike Jones — a former Monarchs basketball star — is the new men’s basketball coach, and his staff includes Odell Hodge, another ODU basketball legend and Jones’ former teammate.

The Monarchs have perennially led their conference in home attendance, and did so this season, averaging 5,975, followed by JMU at 5,411.

Those big crowds at Chartway Arena are hungry for a winner, and should have more to cheer for next season. And maybe that will spur a Royal Rivalry rally.

Jami Frankenberry is sports editor of The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press. Reach him at