James Madison has officially accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference, it was announced Saturday.
An FCS powerhouse that won the national title in 2016 and has made two title-game appearances since, James Madison will begin a two-year transition to the FBS after this season and will join the Sun Belt no later than July 1, 2023.
"We are thrilled to welcome James Madison University to the Sun Belt Conference," Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said. "This move brings another strong brand and passionate fan base into the Sun Belt and elevates the Dukes' storied football program to the highest level of NCAA competition. I am grateful to JMU president Jonathan Alger and athletics director Jeff Bourne for their leadership during this process and look forward to working closely with them moving forward."
The Dukes' addition brings the number of Sun Belt members to 16, with the Dukes joining Appalachian State, Little Rock, Arkansas State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Louisiana, ULM, South Alabama, UTA, Texas State and Troy, along with new members Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall, which announced plans to join the Sun Belt last week.
James Madison, previously a member of the Colonial Athletic Conference, will compete in the Sun Belt in all sports. The Dukes participate in 18 varsity sports.
"As James Madison University prepares and anticipates to earn additional national recognition for our academic programs and excellence, admission into the Sun Belt Conference is a natural and complementary next step for our institution," Alger said. "We are thrilled to have received and accepted an invitation into this conference, with a new and visionary opportunity for high-level competition within the eastern region. We have always sought to do things the right way as a university for our students, faculty and staff, student-athletes and coaches and the time is right for JMU to move up to the highest level in D-I athletics and enter the Sun Belt!"
James Madison decided to pursue a move to the Sun Belt Conference despite being told by the Colonial Athletic Association that it will be barred from participating in CAA championships before its actual departure.
The Dukes' withdrawal from the CAA is effective June 30, 2022, the CAA said. The conference had told James Madison that it will be barred from participating in CAA championships before its actual departure.
"JMU has been extremely successful during its time as a member of CAA Football and has brought great recognition to the conference. We understand their desire to move to the FBS level and wish them well in that pursuit," CAA commissioner Joe D'Antonio said in a statement Saturday.
In a statement released before the vote, Alger and Bourne said the CAA's decision to ban the Dukes from competing for league championships in sports other than football "is completely contrary" to the ideals that stress student-athlete welfare.
"We were thorough and heartfelt in appealing to the league's council of presidents, but that appeal was denied," the statement said. "Eight other Division I conferences have full members that have publicly announced an exit and yet all eight have allowed the student-athletes at those institutions to continue competing for championships."
D'Antonio said the decision was in keeping with the league bylaws, which the James Madison officials said are outdated.
"To our knowledge, the CAA is alone in this outdated bylaw. JMU has striven to be a good partner of the CAA and to treat other institutions as they would want to be treated, but that ideal is not being reciprocated," the statement said.
The Dukes, two-time national champions at the FCS level, will not be barred from representing the league in the football playoffs because different bylaws govern that sport in the CAA and the league does not play a championship game.
D'Antonio on Thursday noted that the league exacted the same limitations against Old Dominion and Georgia State when they chose to leave the league in 2013.
James Madison was scheduled to host CAA championships in men's soccer, women's basketball, women's lacrosse and softball, but the league said it will work with the membership to determine new sites for those championships.
The Dukes' departure for the FBS has been anticipated for years, especially after the Dukes became regulars atop the FCS polls. They also expanded Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to hold 25,000 fans for football.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.