HARRISONBURG — When Louis Rowe sat down for his interview with the James Madison University Board of Trustees in March of 2016, he already had a clear plan to present to the people who eventually hired him to be the school’s basketball coach.
At the center of Rowe’s vision was a renewed effort to recruit the surrounding areas, focusing heavily on keeping talented players from Virginia, Washington and southern Maryland in the region. He saw first hand as a player in the mid-1990s how locals could impact a program.
Even as he bounced around his three assistant coaching jobs, Rowe said he always knew where he would focus attention if he ever received his big break in the DMV.
“One of the things I said to myself, if I ever got an opportunity, especially in this area, that I would try to make sure that [we take care of] home base,” Rowe said. “It makes so much sense to me to get the DMV area solid, just to let people know I’m out in the DMV. I want to have a profile in this area, this is home base.”
Rowe accomplished that mission with the incoming freshman class, three of which are from the state of Virginia — guard Matt Lewis and forwards Zach Jacobs and Greg Jones. The three in-state freshmen tie for the most Virginia-schooled players on the Dukes’ roster since the 2005-06 season when there were five.
The momentum has carried over into the next recruiting cycle as well. According to VerbalCommits.com, about a quarter of the scholarship offers Rowe has extended for the class of 2018 have gone to players in Virginia, Washington or Montgomery County, Md. Rowe said his most important accomplishment of his first 16 months on the job was solidifying JMU’s foothold in the Washington metropolitan area.
“The hardest and most crucial part of what we do is trying to get the right kids and establish a footprint in this area because it is a well-recruited area,” Rowe said. “It comes down to working really hard, getting some people to trust you, getting them to know who you really are and trust who you really are.”
A big reason why Rowe has been able to recruit well in Virginia is his ability to sell the social dynamic of attending an in-state school like JMU. The coach said Jacobs, Jones and Lewis all told him during the recruiting process that they had friends at JMU from their respective high schools, which he said might have swayed them to believe they could be successful on and off the court at the school.
Rowe said he believes students from the DMV are naturally more likely to be able to fit in and find success at JMU.
“There’s a lot of ways to do it, but I felt like I could be successful because of the DNA of those kids,” Rowe said. “They’re ballplayers, they’re also good students, they’re kids who to me are JMU-type kids, on and off the court culturally they’re the type of kids who can do well at this school.”
Rowe credits two people with helping him establish his presence in the Washington metropolitan area — Darren McLinton, a teammate of Rowe’s during his two years at JMU, and former assistant coach David Kontaxis, who left last month to join the staff at Oklahoma State. Rowe said the pair opened a lot of doors for him in the community and helped him strengthen his own profile to the point where he is recognized when he walks into gyms across the region.
It is a big reason why Rowe said he wants to make sure whoever he hires to replace Kontaxis will help expand JMU’s profile in the area and build upon the groundwork Kontaxis laid for Rowe, associate head coach Byron Taylor and new assistant Rob Summers, none of whom are from the area.
“For them to get to know me, I had to get the audience,” Rowe said. “Having Dave and the work that Dave did in the DMV and the reputation he had as far as being a hard worker and a really big recruiter with the connections that he had, it got me some sit-downs with guys. That’s why my plan was to always have a guy on my staff to get the ball rolling and keep the ball rolling.”
Rowe does not have that guy on his staff yet, although he said he has a few people in mind for the vacant coaching position. In the meantime, he and his staff are gearing up for what should be a more typical July recruiting period.
Last year, Rowe entered July knowing he’d have to replace at least half his roster with seven seniors set to graduate. This year, however, he has a more manageable four open scholarships to work with and a young crop of talented players to build around.
The main attributes Rowe is looking for will never change — athletic, hard-working players who can play good defense — but the coach said next year’s class will also need to be mentally strong to battle against a class that will earn a lot of playing experience this season.
“We’ve brought in a bunch of young guys, so anybody we bring in behind them, I want them to be good, but I want them to also understand that you’ve got to compete,” Rowe said.