HARRISONBURG — Mickey Dean didn’t hide from the obvious Thursday when he explained his decision to leave his position as James Madison softball coach after five seasons to take the same job at Auburn.
The allure of coaching in arguably the best conference in college softball was appealing to the 1983 Spotswood High graduate. That didn’t make leaving his hometown area any easier.
“Being able to compete at that elite level and compete in the SEC, the financial part is always a part of it. It’s a new challenge for me; it’s a big challenge,” Dean said in a phone interview Thursday after Auburn officially announced his hiring. “JMU has been unbelievable, I can’t even put into words what it’s been like to lead this program over the last five years. This is one of the best places I’ve ever been to work, and it wasn’t even like work, it was like being with family every day.
“But sometimes, you need to make decisions.”
JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne immediately promoted Loren LaPorte to be the interim coach. LaPorte served as an assistant under Dean for the past eight seasons, five at JMU and three at Radford from 2010-2012.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with Coach Dean for nine years, and I’m ready for this,” LaPorte said in a phone interview. “He’s prepared me, he’s groomed me and I’m ready for this opportunity. We’re still going to compete at a regional and national level and keep the tradition and culture of what we’ve already established here in the last five years.”
Dean’s tenure at JMU was the most successful in the program’s brief history since its creation in 2002. He finished with a 237-56 record, setting the school mark for wins in each of his five seasons, culminating in last season’s 52-8 record.
The Dukes advanced to the NCAA Tournament in all five years under Dean, hosting two regionals and the 2015 Super Regional against LSU. They won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament three times and the regular-season title four times in his tenure.
Before his time at James Madison, Dean spent six seasons as the coach at Radford. He also served as an assistant coach at Akron (2001-02), Indiana (2002-04) and Longwood (2005-06).
Dean, an Elkton native, said he knows his protégé is ready to take the reins of a top-15 program, citing the responsibility he had already given her within the program. LaPorte was involved in lineup decisions and was the program’s lead recruiter since her arrival.
“She knows exactly what she’s doing and she’s ready to lead a program,” Dean said. “I was worried about what JMU was going to do, but then I wasn’t because I know the type of place it is and I know the people. They didn’t hesitate. I told them I want Loren to go with me, but if they want her as a head coach, they couldn’t find a better person. The players trust her and trust is a big part of it.”
Bourne said the stability of the program was an important factor in LaPorte’s immediate promotion. He said LaPorte’s experience around Dean and her familiarity with the players gave her the insight needed to be able to continue the Dukes’ success next season.
“She is the one individual who is probably more familiar with [Dean’s] leadership style and the issues with our student-athletes right now than anybody,” Bourne said. “At this time of year, it’s incredibly challenging to think about replacing a coach. My biggest concern is the well being of those student-athletes and doing what’s right for them and making sure we have the resources around them and we have the structure in place to help them continue to achieve at a high level.”
Bourne said it was clear early in the process that JMU did not have the resources to retain Dean. Dean’s contract — a five-year extension signed after the 2016 season that paid him $120,000 a year — did not have a buyout clause, and Bourne confirmed Auburn would not compensate JMU for Dean’s hiring.
Auburn went 49-12 in 2017 and fell in the Super Regionals to eventual national champion Oklahoma.
Bourne said LaPorte will be the coach for the 2018 season, but the school would perform a national search after the season ends. Bourne said he expects LaPorte to be a strong candidate for the job, but stressed that it would be misguided not to see what other candidates JMU could attract as a top-25 program.
“Loren is the coach of the JMU Dukes right now and I have full faith in her that she’s going to do extremely well,” Bourne said. “We will at the end of the season, though, open this job — it’s a top-25 program — and we will look at all candidates who we think are dynamic and a good fit for JMU. Obviously, if Loren has a great year and does the things that she’s capable of and can do, she’s going to be a very strong candidate for that permanent position.”
LaPorte takes over a team is slated to return Megan Good, a Fort Defiance graduate who was named the National Player of the Year by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association after the 2017 season.
Dean described his final meeting with the team as difficult and said he understood if the players were hurt by his announcement.
“Our program is founded on trust, love, commitment and sometimes you have to make decisions,” Dean said. “I can’t expect those players to understand at this point why I made the decision I did. For me to expect them to understand that would be unfair. I believe they know that while I was here, I gave it everything.”