HARRISONBURG - A season away from the game left Marlin Ikenberry thirsting to get back into baseball.
James Madison is giving him the chance to quench that thirst.
“When the call came in April, my juices got flowing again,” said Ikenberry, who was named JMU’s new coach last week. “The more I thought about it, the more I missed it. I really missed the camaraderie and the relationships with the kids, and that development piece. And obviously, I like to compete.”
Ikenberry, a former standout baseball player at Douglas Freeman High School, coached VMI for 11 seasons. But after his father’s death in September, he took a job at Richmond-based Arms Software, a company that develops and sells software for college athletics departments.
The new position kept him around the game, traveling to meet with athletics directors and coaches. But in April, JMU associate athletics director Kevin White phoned Ikenberry to gauge his interest in replacing longtime Dukes coach Spanky McFarland, who retired after last season.
“You don’t go out of coaching to become a VP of business development and then get back into coaching,” said Ikenberry, who also played for the Keydets for four years. “It’s a little different path, but I’m tickled to death.”
At VMI, Ikenberry won despite modest resources, winning 20 games or more nine times in 11 seasons, impressive when you consider the Keydets had won 20 games or more just twice in the nine years before he took over.
He finished winning a program-best 282 games (opposite 307 losses and one tie) at VMI, despite having about five scholarships to work with.
“When you dig deeper into his story, you find out what a great job he really did,” JMU athletics director Jeff Bourne said.
Knowing the odds were against him in Lexington pushed Ikenberry, he said.
“That’s what drove me to work so hard at VMI,” Ikenberry said. “When someone tells you you can't do something, you do everything you can to prove them wrong. That’s kind of what fueled me for so many years at VMI.”
At VMI, Ikenberry often recruited some of the same players JMU was targeting. That’s not the only familiarity he has with the Dukes’ program. Before taking over at VMI, Ikenberry was an assistant at another CAA school, William and Mary.
And, on JMU’s Harrisonburg campus, there is a dorm – Ikenberry Hall – named for his great uncle.
At JMU, Ikenberry will have the resources to compete in the conference. And, he said, he’ll be taking over a program that has some talent.
But it’s also a program whose success lagged in the final years of McFarland’s tenure.
The Dukes went 42-19 and played in the NCAA tournament in 2011, but since then, they’ve posted four consecutive losing seasons. JMU went 18-33 this past season.
“Our goal was to find somebody who was a good fit for the institution and someone whose baseball acumen would get our program back on solid footing," Bourne said. "Marlin has those skills.”
Ikenberry, who agreed to a five-year contract that pays him about $95,000 annually, thinks the formula he followed at VMI can be successful at James Madison.
“It’s a similar blueprint to what I had at VMI,” Ikenberry said. “We’re going to develop, not only on the field but off the field. We’re going to go out and attract the highest level of baseball player we possibly can.”