The happiest man during Monday’s introductory press conference for the new Southern Miss athletic director, Jeremy McClain, had to be USM president Rodney Bennett.
He displayed a wide grin as he talked about his brief and successful pursuit of the Troy athletic director and even showed off a fist pump when McClain said he expected to start his new job in May — a little earlier than first expected.
Bennett believes he found the perfect fit to take over the USM athletic department and it’s hard to find anyone in Hattiesburg that disagrees with him.
Bennett’s process to hire a new athletic director began with a slate of seven listening sessions that took him around the state and southeast to hear what Golden Eagles boosters had in mind for the future of the athletic department.
It became clear over time that McClain, who worked as a deputy athletic director at USM for three years prior to landing at Troy in August of 2015, fit the model of what was needed in Hattiesburg. He has experience as an athletic director on the Division I level and knowledge of the issues that USM faces.
“Then the challenge, obviously, became, would Jeremy leave Troy and come back to Hattiesburg?” Bennett said. “I think if most of us were honest, we were shocked that he would leave Troy and come back. But, the ole university president still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Don’t count me out just yet. Once I set my mind to something, and I know what’s good for the university, I’m willing to go to bat for what I need to make sure USM continues on this very important trajectory that we were on.
“I laid it on thick. It was a full-court press.”
A native of Houlka, Mississippi, McClain was receptive of Bennett’s pitch to return to his home state.
“At the end of the day, (Bennett) realized how special Southern Miss was to me,” McClain said. “He laid it on thick. There’s some truth to that.
“The decision was about where we are and what we wanted moving forward. When you’re in my seat, it’s about my family and I had to make sure everybody was on board. It was not a difficult decision. We love Hattiesburg. It really did happen quickly.”
Bennett first contacted McClain for the job opening on March 29 and the president announced the hiring on Thursday.
Bennett said that interim athletic director Jeff Mitchell will continue as a member of the athletic department staff along with interim deputy athletic director Brian Morrison.
The long haul
In December, Bennett wrote a letter to boosters not long after the departure of former AD Jon Gilbert to East Carolina, acknowledging his concern over the lack of stability in the athletic department. McClain will be the fifth USM athletic director since Richard Giannini stepped down in late 2011.
McClain described Southern Miss Monday as “a special place” and said he was ready for a lengthy stint as athletic director.
“I’m not a guy who is out looking for a job and I wasn’t out looking for this job,” McClain said. “That’s how things lined up and then I got a phone call. If I’m going to come to a place, I’m going to be committed to it. What I’m going to do here is be committed to being here long term. There’s nothing worse than walking away from something that we haven’t completed. My plan is to get us to the finish line on a lot of things we’re trying to do. That’s going to take a while and that’s why I plan on being here a while.”
Bennett said that McClain will receive a four-year contract and “there will be some other considerations” similar to those received by Gilbert and his predecessor, Bill McGillis.
Gilbert was paid $350,000 annually at USM. McClain’s salary at Troy was $210,000.
Among fans and coaches, the response to McClain’s hiring has been overwhelmingly positive.
Men’s basketball coach Doc Sadler admitted to being “a little surprised” when he first got word that McClain was on his way back to USM.
“But obviously once that happened and you realized that was going to happen, I don’t know anyone else is a better fit to take this to whatever that next level is,” Sadler said. “I think most of the coaches here have had the opportunity to work with him. That’s a little unusual. He’s been in a position to have to tell people no already, but you respect that what he tells you is going to be the way it is and not just try to get through that conversation. I think respect would probably be the word I most use.”
At 42, McClain is considered by many to be an up-and-coming athletic director in the FBS ranks thanks to a strong run of 3 ½ years at Troy, which has recently seen historic success on the football field and increased investment in facilities across the board.
McClain, who was a star baseball player at Delta State, served as the athletic director at Div. II DSU for five-plus years before he was hired by Jeff Hammond as his No. 2 at USM in 2012.
“He was a coach’s administrator,” USM baseball coach Scott Berry said of McClain’s first stint at USM. “He listened to your concerns. He wanted to do what he could to help you resource your team the best he could, but he was also very student-athlete minded. And he should be, as we all should be.”
Just like his predecessors, McClain will face plenty of questions going forward about USM and its affiliation with Conference USA, which has dealt with departures and diminished revenue.
For McClain, it’s about focusing on the matters that he can control.
“It’s always going to be Southern Miss’ plan to put our university, student-athletes, our coaches and our department in the best position possible,” McClain said. “We’re always going to be striving to do that. The first step for us, and it’s kind of like putting your house on the market. If you’re going to have people come look at your house, you’re going to make sure it’s in the best shape it can be in.
“Our focus today is to make sure we’re in the best shape we can be in and then over time put ourselves in position to continue to elevate our program. Whether it’s Conference USA or another stop that puts us in a better spot, we’re always going to look to put our institution in the best shape possible.”