When Mark Byington played basketball for Salem High School in Southwest Virginia, he was not recruited by James Madison.
Now he is JMU’s coach.
Byington stepped down as the men’s basketball coach at Georgia Southern on Friday to take the reins at James Madison. He will be coaching in Harrisonburg, which is less than two hours from his hometown.
“It was a big appeal [of the job],” Byington said about returning to his home state. “Virginia is a talent-rich state. … You have the recent success with the teams in the state that have done really well in basketball. I look at James Madison as a school that should not take a back seat to any of those places.
“But even more than the fact that it was just in Virginia, it was the tremendous leadership and the potential for greatness there.”
Byington spoke on a teleconference from Georgia instead of at a traditional introductory press conference on campus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I would love to be standing in front of everybody, but this is an unsettling, anxious time,” he said. “I’m full of mixed emotions. I know what’s going on in the world. … At the same time, I couldn’t be more excited.
“I’ve always thought for a number of years, growing up an hour and a half from Harrisonburg, that James Madison was a sleeping giant in basketball.”
Byington, 43, steered Sun Belt member Georgia Southern for the past seven years. The Eagles have recorded six straight winning seasons.
JMU plays in the Colonial Athletic Association, which, like the Sun Belt, is usually a one-bid league whose only representative in the NCAA Tournament is the conference tournament champ.
But Byington does not consider this to be a parallel move.
“I had a good thing going … at Georgia Southern. And for me to leave that just shows what I think of James Madison,” Byington said. “It’s one of the best jobs in the Colonial. I feel it has a chance to gain national attention.
“To me, it’s not a parallel move. … To me, James Madison’s big-time.”
Byington agreed to a six-year deal at JMU with annual total pay of $450,000.
Radford coach Mike Jones had said in a text message Friday that he met with JMU but was not offered the job.
JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said his school had “a very rich” pool of applicants.
“I was really impressed with a lot of the coaches,” Bourne said. “At the end of the day, you want to hire a coach who really wants to be at your school. … It doesn’t take long to be around Mark and you’ll feel that excitement.”
Byington was the Group AA boys basketball player of the year and the Timesland male athlete of the year as a high school senior in 1994, when he helped Salem win state titles in basketball and tennis.
“When I was being recruited out of high school, … I went on an official visit to Richmond and Old Dominion and William and Mary and George Mason and all these different places and the one school that I really wanted to recruit me was James Madison, and it was because of [then-coach] Lefty Driesell,” Byington said. “I never got one single letter from James Madison. My brother went there. … If Lefty would’ve offered me a scholarship, I probably would’ve ended up at James Madison.”
Instead, Byington played against JMU. He was a standout at CAA rival UNC Wilmington. JMU officials liked those CAA ties as they considered Byington for the coaching job.
Byington was a Virginia Tech assistant in the 2012-13 season before getting the Georgia Southern job. He was the director of basketball operations at Virginia in the 2004-05 season.
“Having spent time at UVa and Virginia Tech played very heavily on the [search] committee,” Bourne said. “It’s important to have an understanding what that recruiting element looks like from a Virginia perspective.”
In 2015, Byington led Georgia Southern to its first winning season in nine years. He ended his reign there with three straight 20-win seasons.
“What he’s been able to do in that program … is truly a phenomenal accomplishment,” Bourne said.
JMU will be another rebuilding job. The Dukes were 9-21 overall and 2-16 in the CAA this year under former coach Louis Rowe.
The Dukes will be moving into a new arena in the fall.