FRISCO, Texas (STATS) - Older players in the program were getting the third different head coach of their James Madison careers when Mike Houston was hired in January.
The way Houston saw it, the veterans were either going to rebel against the change or buy into the vision his staff would be selling.
"It's a credit to the older players in the program," he said Thursday, two days before James Madison plays Youngstown State in the NCAA Division I FCS Championship Game.
"These kids bought in."
The coaching change was met by the players with both uncertainty and hope. While the Dukes would be starting over in some ways, they also felt their CAA Football program had underachieved in the final few seasons under Mickey Matthews, who was fired, and in the last two years, when they lost their first playoff games at home under coach Everett Withers, who left Harrisonburg, Virginia, to take over at Texas State.
But few players departed the program, unlike a normal coaching change.
"We were nervous about change," junior left guard A.J. Bolden said. "Change is good. When change was needed whether that be a coach or a player, we're more than happy to work with and try to work through. When we heard that we were getting coach Houston, we knew he was a great coach and as long as we bought in to what he was doing, we would be just fine."
Houston, who won a share of the 2015 Southern Conference title at The Citadel while running a triple- option offense, wisely kept James Madison's spread attack in place, but he stressed a more physical style in the run game. He also sought to improve the defense, whose struggles had helped divide the team in some aspects. It wasn't a complete overhaul, just Houston and his staff pointing the team in a better direction.
"It is strange to have (a national championship game appearance) happen in the first year," Houston said. "Certainly when we took the job, I think everybody knew there was talent at JMU."
"Coach came into a good situation, into a good program," senior cornerback Taylor Reynolds said. "We have some very talented players. The previous coaches did a wonderful job recruiting.
"We have a very special senior group, a lot of good leaders. I think coach Houston, he established what we wanted out of us - he wanted us to be a smart, physical team, he wanted us to play together and rely on each other during tough times."
James Madison hasn't lost to an FCS team, just 56-28 to North Carolina in September. Having won their first outright CAA Football title since 2008, the Dukes bring an 11-game winning streak into Saturday's game at Toyota Stadium (noon ET, ESPN2). They captured the 2004 national title under Matthews in their only other championship game appearance.
The Dukes have beaten nationally ranked opponents in five of their last six games, including the 27-17 semifinal-round win at North Dakota State that ended the Bison's five-year run as FCS champions.
But how they bonded in the offseason has meant just as much to their season as what has happened on the field.
"We all just had to stick together and tell each other that we were going to be fine," junior left tackle Aaron Stinnie said. "We had to trust into the administration at JMU that they were going to do a great job and get us a great coach. And I think they did that."