Fresh eyes: Mitchell wants to examine entire athletic department

By CAMAL PETRO,

Sometimes getting a fresh pair of eyes on something can prove to be the difference.

Newly-named interim Director of Athletics Jeff Mitchell never imagined the chair he’d be sitting in six months ago. He just returned to Mississippi in the fall to take the Deputy Athletics Director post at Southern Miss after 12 years in California.

Mitchell, a native of Magnolia, is a Mississippi man. He went to Millsaps for undergraduate and graduate school, then received his Juris Doctor degree from Ole Miss’ law school before moving to a state that’s the opposite of his home state. His college sweetheart and wife, April Mitchell, was already working in California, so he made the move and joined Santa Clara’s staff, originally as a volunteer.

Now, he’s back in Mississippi and it’s been a whirlwind ever since.

“I was elated (to come back to Mississippi),” Mitchell said when he received the deputy position from then-Southern Miss Director of Athletics Jon Gilbert. “My wife is a native of Mississippi, too, and we had always talked about if there was an appropriate job for me, then we’d make the move.”

Gilbert left for East Carolina in early December, and Mitchell was tapped to take over Gilbert’s position as the interim. So, what can an interim Director of Athletics do at a Division I university? Are there limitations, restrictions or more hoops to jump through to get things done? Not exactly for Mitchell, he says.

Southern Miss President Dr. Rodney Bennett put all of his trust in Mitchell to run the athletic department as he sees fit.

“He has given me the keys to the car,” Mitchell said. “I can unlock the doors, sit in the driver’s seat, start the engine and drive. He has given me zero restrictions. He wants me to do the job, and I think there’s a very clear job for me to do right now, which is this analysis, this evaluation of who we are and how we operate.”

It’s more than driving a car, though. Mitchell has four fundamental elements he’s trying to implement during what he’s calling a “discovery mode.”

First, is to be positive in everything Southern Miss athletics does. It’s not a secret, Southern Miss faces challenges daily, but Mitchell wants the athletic department to be positive. Second, he wants the communication throughout the department to improve. From student athletes all the way up to the athletic director’s desk, communication is key, according to Mitchell. Third, Mitchell wants everybody to help each other. For an example, if the coaches help the support staff, the culture of helpfulness will get better. Finally, have a growth mindset.

“We’re always going to ask the question of, ‘What’s next?” If we’re doing something really well, we’re not going to be complacent about it,” Mitchell said.

Basically, Mitchell and his staff are turning over every rock inside the athletic department. He wants to know how every little thing has worked in the past, and what can be changed to improve it, if it’s needed.

By the start of the 2019-2020 academic school year, Mitchell wants to see the athletic department show signs of a healthier department. One that’s more stable and poised to grow.

“We are just picking apart every little operational component of the department from development to marketing to promotions to strength and conditioning to academic support and even day to day operations,” Mitchell said. “Do we need to do certain things the way we do it? I don’t accept the statement, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’

“Those things are going into helping us establish who we are, and that’s really the charge from Dr. Bennett.”

For a struggling athletics department, Mitchell could be the right man for the job. While Southern Miss has seen a decrease in revenue, Mitchell helped Santa Clara’s revenue grow for three consecutive years while tripling the size of the external operations staff and negotiating numerous deals with partners to help grow the department even more.

Mitchell has the right background to help lead Southern Miss into the future, or at the very least, the immediate future if Bennett opts to hire a different athletics director.

“The well-rounded experiences that I’ve had in this profession, in a relatively short amount of time, I think uniquely positions me to be in this role right now,” Mitchell said. “There are a lot of similarities between the departments at Santa Clara and Southern Miss. The unique thing about Southern Miss is there’s so much passion around the university and athletics. Everybody that’s a fan wants it to be better. You can poll everybody in (the athletic department) today, and they’ll all tell you the same thing.”

The hat Mitchell wears now isn’t one he thought he’d wear when he took the Deputy Athletics Director position at Southern Miss, or at least not so soon. He had no idea Gilbert would bolt for East Carolina either, and he didn’t exactly know what his future looked like immediately after the news came out.

Mitchell committed to Santa Clara that he’d be there a while, although he didn’t imagine he’d be there for 12 years, and now he’s committed to Southern Miss and Mississippi, where his set of fresh eyes can help the university.

There are two ways to look at it. While a Mississippian, Mitchell was new to Southern Miss when he arrived last fall, so some think it isn’t a good idea to have someone without immediate ties as the athletic director. On the other hand, since he didn’t know Southern Miss that well, and he has an experienced pedigree and tons of Mississippi connections, he can look at how the department operates from a different angle.

He wasn’t losing sleep when Bennett decided who to promote to the interim position, and he won’t lose any sleep while an AD search takes place. One thing is for sure, everything Mitchell is doing today is for the possibility of receiving the final nod from Dr. Bennett when he finishes his search.

“This is going to be Bennett’s decision,” Mitchell said. “I’m certainly enjoying the opportunity now. I wouldn’t be doing this the way I’m doing it if I wasn’t interested in continuing in this capacity. I respect the process Dr. Bennett is going through and I don’t think about it. I’m more focused on what we can accomplish today. Then when that day is over, we think about what’s next.”