Southern Miss

USM president admits concern over instability in athletic department. Here’s his plan.

Southern Miss president Rodney Bennett, left, sits by new athletic director Jon Gilbert at his introductory press conference on Jan. 24, 2017, in Hattiesburg. Gilbert stepped down on Sunday and Bennett has laid out his plan to find his replacement.
Southern Miss president Rodney Bennett, left, sits by new athletic director Jon Gilbert at his introductory press conference on Jan. 24, 2017, in Hattiesburg. Gilbert stepped down on Sunday and Bennett has laid out his plan to find his replacement. pmagee@sunherald.com file

Southern Miss is seeking its third athletic director since 2013, and USM president Rodney Bennett admits he isn’t thrilled to be going through the process yet again.

Bennett sent an email to members of the USM Alumni Association on Wednesday that laid out his plans to find a new AD and named the man who will serve in the role on an interim basis — Jeff Mitchell, who has been the deputy director of athletics since August.

Jon Gilbert stepped down as the USM athletic director on Sunday and he was announced on Monday as the new man in charge of the East Carolina athletic department.

Gilbert had been the AD at Southern Miss since January 2017 after previously serving as a deputy AD at Tennessee. He replaced Bill McGillis, who was hired in July of 2013 and resigned in December of 2016 to take the same job at the University of San Diego.

To make situation even more difficult for USM fans, the football team was denied a bowl bid on Sunday despite being eligible with a record of 6-5.

Bennett acknowledged the concerns of boosters in the email:

“Like you, I am concerned that we are searching for a new athletics director for the third time in recent years. I am committed to a thorough selection process that will result in a Director of Athletics who will bring stability to the department, as well as consistent and sustained success for many years.

Like you, I am disappointed that bowl and television executives did not select our football program for participation in a bowl game this year. I do not agree with their decision, but I am now focused on how to help our football program become increasingly competitive next season.

And like you, I am not satisfied with our current place in the landscape of college athletics. I believe strongly we should be aspirational about our place both within Conference USA and in the NCAA.”

Bennett said that he plans to take his time in choosing the next athletic director.

“The selection process for our next Director of Athletics will not be quick,” he said. “The complexity of our challenges will necessitate a different approach to the hiring process, one that requires patience, the engagement of our stakeholders, and a thorough review of our department. The process must include an intentional review to evaluate how we got here — how we got to this place of searching for our third Director of Athletics in recent years, how we got to this place of not being selected for postseason bowl competition, how we got to this place of unrest with our placement within the NCAA, how we got to this place of continued uncertainty with our financial sustainability within the department — and to determine what can be done to address these systemic challenges.”

Mitchell was hired as Gilbert’s No. 2 in August after serving as the senior associate athletic director external operations at Santa Clara University in California. He grew up in Magnolia, Mississippi, and attended Millsaps College in Jackson.

Also, Brian Morrison has been named the interim deputy director of athletics.

Bennett said that he plans to visit several cities to hear from USM stakeholders about what have to say about the athletic department. He listed Hattiesburg, Gulfport, Jackson, Houston, Nashville, Birmingham and Mobile to be among the likely locations. The dates of those visits have yet to be determined.

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee.
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