HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Mark Byington said he has mixed emotions at the moment.
"This is an unsettling, anxious time," said Byington, during a conference call with media Saturday afternoon less than 24 hours after he was named head coach of the James Madison University men's basketball program. "I know what's going on in the world and kind of the fear that's going on with that. At the same time, I couldn't be more excited to be the head basketball coach at James Madison University."
Byington, of course, was referencing the impact COVID-19 has had on the sports industry and the world as a whole in recent weeks. Normally, his introductory press conference would be held on-campus at JMU with media in attendance. However, the recent public health crisis forced his first conversation with local media to be over the phone.
"I can't wait to get up there, coach, meet the guys, have everything in place," said Byington.
Byington joins the Dukes after seven successful seasons as the head coach at Georgia Southern. He's a Virginia native who starred as a prep basketball player at Salem High School before performing at an All-CAA level in college at UNCW. Byington's connection to Virginia includes time on the coaching staffs at the University of Virginia of Virginia and Virginia Tech.
JMU Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne said the job opening at James Madison drew a great deal of interest but Byington stood out during the interview process.
“Once in a while you just have that feeling in your stomach that intuitively you have the right person," said Bourne. "For us, (Byington) gave us hope for the future.”
Building a coaching staff and re-recruiting players on the current roster are Byington's first tasks as head coach. He praised the talent level of JMU's returning players and believes the Dukes have the pieces in place to win immediately.
"I don't want anybody to leave," said Byington, in reference to the current roster. "My goal is, everybody on the roster, to retain them. I don't want to get rid of anybody. I feel like there's a lot of talent that, if this group comes back, they could do great, great things."
Prior to Saturday's conference call, JMU junior Darius Banks announced on Twitter that he is entering the NCAA Transfer Portal. Byington said he was aware of Banks' intentions but hopes the Dukes' second-leading scorer from last season will return. Athletes who put their name in the Transfer Portal can still return to their original school.
Whoever is on the roster when the 2020-2021 season begins, they will join Byington in opening a new home for JMU basketball. The Atlantic Union Bank Center is an 8,500-seat, on-campus arena slated to open in time for the upcoming season. With the AUBC soon to open, JMU has invested in Byington to produce a winning basketball program in Harrisonburg. He signed a six-year contract with a base salary of $375,000 per year. Byington will make an addition $75,000 per year to help with fundraising, ticket sales promotions, and other external responsibilities. Byington's total compensation is $450,000 per year to coach the Dukes.
"One of the things that drew me to the job at James Madison is understanding that there is a passionate fan base that loves James Madison," said Byington. "The City of Harrisonburg embraces it. So I want us to be one with the community. I want the program to be something they can be proud of. I want to play an exciting brand of basketball that brings the arena to be packed and to be a hot ticket in town.”
Months still stand in the way of Byington and his first game as JMU head coach. COVID-19's full impact on sports at JMU and around the world is still unknown. But Byington knows one thing for sure: he's ready to get started with the Dukes.
"I don't know if I can put into words how excited I am," said Byington. "I'm anxious. I want to get going. I really want to start practice tomorrow."