- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

Before he became a general and then Father of Our Country, young George Washington strolled the College of William & Mary grounds. So did fellow presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. The British general, Lord Cornwallis, headquartered at the Williamsburg, Va., campus during the American Revolution. After the famous Wren Building nearly burned down in 1862 during the Civil War, the school was closed for seven years.

That’s interesting. But now for the really big news: William & Mary plays host to state and conference rival James Madison tonight in the NCAA Division I-AA football semifinals. The game will be nationally televised by ESPN2, with the field illuminated by portable lights for the first night game there in 69 years.

The winner plays for it all next Friday in Chattanooga, Tenn., against the winner of the semifinal between Sam Houston State and Montana. Neither W&M; nor James Madison has gotten this far before, and the excitement is growing on both campuses of both Virginia schools.

“I’ve never seen this type of excitement, this type of enthusiasm, this type of interest,” said William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock, who pretty much had seen it all until this.

The college was chartered in 1693, and it seems almost as if alum Laycock has been around that long, too. His 25 years on the job puts him behind only Penn State’s Joe Paterno and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden among Division I and I-AA coaches who have stayed at the same school.

“I came here the other morning at 7 o’clock, and about 200 students were camped out,” Laycock said. “They gave me an ovation. I ended up going to the cafeteria and sent them a bunch of doughnuts.”

At James Madison, whose athletic success over the years has been defined mostly by basketball, the game also represents a plunge into uncharted waters.

“If you wear an item of JMU football clothing, you can’t walk around campus without someone saying something to you,” said tight end Tom Ridley, a Dukes tight end from Fairfax County’s Oakton High School. “Everyone’s trying to get tickets.”

Good luck. William & Mary’s Zable Stadium at Cary Field holds just 12,259 spectators, and the game quickly sold out. Mickey Matthews, the sixth-year James Madison coach, said he literally begged for more visitors’ tickets.

“We should probably be playing in Charlottesville because we could sell 50,000 tickets,” he said, meaning at the University of Virginia’s 61,000-capacity Scott Stadium.

The game appears even. Both teams are 11-2, with William & Mary winning the regular-season Atlantic-10 game 27-24 a month ago.

“Never has the support been this extreme, and I don’t think anyone ever imagined it being like this, especially during finals,” said William & Mary senior quarterback Lang Campbell, a former walk-on who became conference offensive player of the year this season. “On Saturday, there [usually were] almost as many students in the library studying as watching home games.”

Campbell passed for 342 yards and three touchdowns in the Tribe’s 44-38 double-overtime win against I-AA defending champion Delaware last week. This week he and his teammates havebeen trying to meet the dual challenges of classwork and preparing for the biggest game of their lives.

Known as a “public Ivy” because of its strong academic reputation, William & Mary tries to keep the student in student-athlete. Only a few players have gone on to the NFL. The most notable one of recent times is Green Bay Packers safety Darren Sharper, who this week sent an inspirational video to the team. Since 1997, 100 percent of the football players have graduated.

“All of us on the team are joking that our grades are probably gonna go down a little this semester,” said Campbell, who will graduate in the spring with a double major in history and economics and hopes to get a shot at the NFL. “The finals here are hard enough as it is. And to have a distraction of this magnitude … You just have to focus a little more, work at home. You kind of lead a double life.”

Imagine the Southern California and Oklahoma players calling their Orange Bowl game for the presumed national championship a “distraction.”

“We try to graduate our kids and give them the best competitive opportunity they could have,” William & Mary athletic director Terry Driscoll said. Unlike some of his Division I counterparts, Driscoll can say this and still sleep at night.

At James Madison, where academic standards also are high and the players likewise are wrestling with finals, a backdrop to the game is provided by coach Matthews and his family. His22-year-old son, Clayton, a JMU quarterback, was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident last year. A subsequent accident caused further damage, and the entire community was deeply affected.

“Clayton’s doing fine,” said Matthews, who comes from west Texas and sounds uncannily like President Bush. “But it’s been a struggle. Like a lot of tough things in life, you always think something like that is gonna happen to somebody else. Then all of a sudden, it’s my son. But we’re dealing with it the best we can.”

Matthews has held several coaching jobs. One was as an assistant at Georgia, where he helped recruit future NFL star Champ Bailey. But for Matthews, like everyone else involved in tonight’s game, this is as big as it gets. He got an indication of the interest after his team’s 14-13 victory over Furman on Saturday when he walked into his Monday press conference, held at a restaurant where the public is invited.

“We usually get 10 people, maximum, including the waiters,” Matthews said. “I walked in and the place was packed. People from all over town. You’d have thought they had a deal on French fries. People always told me, ‘Coach, if you won, this would be a football town and the university would go crazy.’ And it has.”

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