Keeping Score

USM seeks outside help on conference affiliation

Southern Miss is asking for outside help in its pursuit of better conference affiliation.

USM is in the process of hiring an external firm to evaluate its standing in the constantly changing landscape of college athletics.

USM athletic director Jeff Hammond confirmed the decision today without naming the company that he plans to do business with.

“We're finalizing a contract with an external agency,” Hammond said. “They'll come in and look at us and help us see ourselves in the way others see us outside of Mississippi. They can help us understand our strengths and weaknesses and help us understand what opportunities we have down the road. In the next week or two, we'll start the business of the firm coming in and conducting interviews and analysis.

“They'll provide a necessary strategic snapshot. We'll be looking in the mirror and trying to understand what we really need to do to market ourselves outside of South Mississippi.”

USM has been overlooked during the conference realignment that has plagued big-time college athletics in recent years. The school's fans have watched as many other Conference USA mates have been recruited away by the Big East.

The possibility of Big East inclusion increases for USM as the league continues to be diluted with departures, but there has been no invitation. Southern Miss made unofficial overtures to some Big 12 athletic directors, but made little progress in that direction.

USM's reputation as a scrappy school that takes on some of the nation's top programs has done little to improve its standing as a potential target for a more prestigious conference. The lack of a large market and a small athletic budget have hindered the school's perception by larger leagues.

Hammond said that the study will also help give new USM president Rodney Bennett an in-depth understanding of the state of the USM athletic department and what's needed in the future.

“We need an external assessment,” Hammond said. “We will have the ability to understand the way we are viewed now.”

USM isn't the first college to hire an outside firm to help improve its standing when it comes to conference affiliation. Chuck Neinas, a former Big Eight and Big 12 commissioner, runs Neinas Sports Services, a consulting firm that offers similar services to what Hammond is seeking.

“We've got a great school, a great program,” Hammond said. “But sometimes you have to stop what you're doing and have someone come in from the outside. One of worst things you can do is fall in love with your own plans. We don't want to fall in love with what we're doing in athletics. I want someone to come in from the outside to make sure we're steering the right course.”