(The following is a statement from Dr. Rodney Bennett, president of Southern Miss.)
I am writing today to share my initial plans for selecting a new Director of Athletics and, more importantly, to address concerns related to our Department of Athletics.
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.
As President of The University of Southern Mississippi, my expectation is that our student-athletes graduate with a treasured degree and that our athletics programs—all of our athletics programs—win championships and compete in postseason play. Our next Director of Athletics will be key to ensuring the success of our student-athletes in the classroom and in competition, and I am committed to bringing leadership stability to all areas of the University, including our Department of Athletics.
The selection process for our next Director of Athletics will not be quick. 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.
To prepare for the future we want in athletics, we must cultivate sustainable change. We must ask and answer these questions before we initiate a selection process for a new director.
So, for now, the following three actions will be taken.
First, I am appointing Jeff Mitchell, current Deputy Director of Athletics, as our interim Director of Athletics, effective immediately. Jeff is an experienced athletics administrator who, prior to coming to Southern Miss, served as a member of the senior management team at Santa Clara University. He earned his bachelor’s degree and Master of Business Administration from Millsaps College and his Juris Doctorate from the University of Mississippi School of Law. Jeff is a native Mississippian who is certainly qualified to serve in this interim capacity, but most importantly, he is committed to helping us resolve the challenges we face in athletics.
Second, I am naming Brian Morrison to the position of interim Deputy Director of Athletics, effective immediately. Brian is a longtime, well-respected Southern Miss staff member who has most recently served as Senior Associate Athletics Director for Development. Jeff, Brian, and I will work together to identify a staff member to serve as the lead athletics fundraiser during this interim period.
Third, I will be visiting several cities in the spring for the purpose of hearing from Southern Miss stakeholders about our athletics programs. Cities will include Hattiesburg, Gulfport, Jackson, Houston, Nashville, Birmingham, Mobile, and other locations if needed. The dates, times, and specific locations will be announced in the first part of the new year. I look forward to our conversations and the contributions of your ideas. What we learn from this self-evaluation will help determine the timeline for my hire of a permanent Director of Athletics.
Although we again find ourselves searching for a new Director of Athletics, we should not forget who we are—we are The University of Southern Mississippi. For more than 108 years, Southern Miss has never walked away from a challenge. Our story is one of ordinary people doing extraordinary things; it is one in which neither persistence nor resiliency wavers. Our journey is one in which we have always worked harder than required to succeed. It starts with me, but our success will require the commitment and action of all of our stakeholders.
As an institution, we have positive momentum in many areas—our enrollment is rising, fundraising has reached record levels, and we have continued to improve our reputation and status as a major research university. I am excited about the future of The University of Southern Mississippi, including our athletics programs. Nevertheless, we cannot be satisfied with our current level of success in any area. As we continue on our current trajectory toward becoming the model for public higher education across the country, we must continue to transform every aspect of the University.
Intercollegiate athletics has provided thousands of students with the opportunity to pursue and complete their degree requirements while playing their sports at the highest amateur levels since the earliest days of this institution. There are more than 300 Division I athletics programs across the country, and The University of Southern Mississippi is proud to be among that group. We are at another crossroads in Southern Miss athletics’ path to the top; however, each time The University of Southern Mississippi has faced a challenge, we have persevered. And we will do so yet again.
Thank you for your support of our institution.
Rodney D. Bennett
The University of Southern Mississippi