Southern Miss has enlisted a deputy athletic director with over two decades of experience in the SEC to help guide its athletic department on the tough road ahead.
USM introduced Tennessee deputy athletic director Jon Gilbert as its new athletic director on Tuesday. He replaces Bill McGillis, who recently stepped down at Southern Miss to take over as athletic director at the University of San Diego.
Gilbert has worked under some of the biggest names in SEC administration, including former Alabama AD Mal Moore and Tennessee AD Dave Hart, who is retiring at the end of June.
Gilbert, who served as the No. 2 man to Hart, held multiple responsibilities for the Volunteers, including overseeing the men's basketball program.
Gilbert worked with Hart at Alabama before he arrived at Tennessee in 2011. During his 16-year stint at Alabama, he was responsible for facilities management, external operations and athletics development.
Gilbert, a native of Lakeland, Florida, felt USM was a good fit for him and his family. He and his wife, Katie, have two teenage children, daughter Larsen and son Kent.
“There are a lot of places that are great places to be an athletic director, but I really wanted to make sure I was a cultural fit, and more so my family was,” he said. “I have a long history of knowledge of Southern Miss and its athletic programs. I was in the stands in 1989 when Southern Miss defeated Florida State. I was at Legion Field when Jeff Bower's team defeated the Crimson Tide.
“I saw what a passionate fan base it was. A lot of those things, you can't generate. There are schools that can't generate the fan base, the excitement and tradition we have. That's really what led me here.”
The move from the SEC to Conference USA involves a major drop off in terms of revenue, but Gilbert was confident Tuesday that he could help bolster USM's finances.
Tennessee has an athletic budget of approximately $126 million while USM checks in at $25 million.
“I really don't think the processes are any different,” Gilbert said when comparing Tennessee to USM. “When we arrived at Tennessee, we were under some financial constraints there. Now, I understand that's all relative. As far as where they were in the SEC, they were on the lower end financially. I'll go about the process the same way. We'll do it inside, out. What I mean by that is that we'll look internally to make sure that our organizational structure is aligned. We'll make sure that we're efficient in how we spend those dollars.
“Then we'll do a deep dive on what our mission is. I want to make sure that from a mission standpoint that we're all speaking the exact same thing. As we go out and convey what we're doing inside the athletic department that we're all conveying the same message. I think you have to do it that way in order to present yourself to individuals with resources that want to invest in your program.”
USM president Rodney Bennett introduced Gilbert on Tuesday to media members and school officials at the Duff Athletic Center. Bennett made sure the event was low key in respect to victims of the tornado that hit south Hattiesburg early Sunday morning.
The two men sat side by side afterward in a question-and-answer session with members of the media. There was an obvious chemistry between the two men as they addressed a wide range of topics.
“I really wanted someone who wanted to be at the University of Southern Mississippi,” Bennett said. “As I transitioned into Jon, we almost immediately had an amazing chemistry. I look forward to building on that chemistry for a very long time to come.”
Basketball looms large
Gilbert will face several significant challenges once he officially takes over at USM in late February.
The USM men's basketball program is still feeling the impact of NCAA sanctions due to an investigation of Donnie Tyndall's time as head coach from 2012-14. The Golden Eagles are eligible for the postseason this year, but they will still face a reduction of three scholarships over the next two seasons.
Gilbert is likely more aware of the challenges at USM than most candidates considering Tyndall was the head coach at Tennessee for a year before being fired after word spread of the NCAA probe in Hattiesburg.
“There were conversations between the two schools when the issues arose,” Gilbert said. “We were in a different position at Tennessee than they were at Southern Miss. There was dialogue. I will tell you it was at a minimum at a very high level. Both institutions suffered from that. I'm hopeful we can all move on and continue the healing process that's already begun.”
Gilbert acknowledged that the aging home of the men's basketball program, Reed Green Coliseum, is an issue to be addressed. McGillis commissioned a study that produced a plan for a $35-40 million renovation, but the plan made little progress as the program continued to work its way out from under NCAA sanctions.
“I'm aware of Reed Green with relation to the study that was done,” Gilbert said. “Dr. Bennett and I did not do a deep dive on what that was. We know it's an issue that needs to be resolved. We'll look at exploring what our options are.”