Southern Miss President Rodney Bennett had his eyes on the prize. He knew what he wanted, and he wasn’t going to be stopped. That’s how he described it Monday, at least, and sitting to Bennett’s left was his prize – Jeremy McClain.
Southern Miss announced the hire of McClain as its new Director of Athletics Friday, but he was formally introduced to the public Monday.
As Bennett went through the process of hiring a new athletics director, he wasn’t sure if his No. 1 candidate was willing to leave a good situation at Troy University. The Southern Miss president began to woo McClain.
“Then the challenge, obviously, became, would Jeremy leave Troy and come back to Hattiesburg? I think if most of us were honest, we were shocked that he would leave Troy and come back,” Bennett said. “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’m telling you, I laid it on thick. It was a full court press. I had to do what I had to do to make sure I got a ‘yes’ and get across the finish line. I had to do that in pretty short order because we have work to do.”
While Bennett put on his full-court press, the decision wasn’t that difficult for the Mississippi native. McClain loved the idea of returning to Southern Miss, so it came down to if it made sense for his family to make the move back to Hattiesburg.
“We all see these decisions being made and think they’re either easy or they’re hard, but at the end of the day, when you’re in my seat, it’s about your family,” McClain said. “I had to make sure everybody was on board to do this, and really, that was not a difficult conversation because they love Hattiesburg, they love the people here and people here love them.
“It really did happen really quickly from our first conversation.”
Bennett held several, what he calls, “listening sessions” around the Southern Miss community. He wanted to hear from the Golden Eagle faithful about what they wanted in a new athletics director. Bennett then made a figurative checklist from those sessions, and McClain checked every box.
“It didn’t take long for a set of themes to develop in terms of the type of individual who would best serve this university for where we are in our history,” Bennett said. “As our alumni talked to me, it just became clear to me that there were a couple of people who just sort of popped in my head.”
When Bennett arrived at Southern Miss, McClain was already here in the Deputy Director of Athletics role. Bennett saw first hand his evolution in the role, and his familiarity with McClain played a huge part when going through a list of candidates to take over as athletics director.
The two confirmed they first talked on Friday, March 29, give or take a day, and Bennett’s wooing was effective. A week later, Southern Miss had its new athletics director.
McClain’s contract is still in the works, but he’ll receive a four-year deal with the dollar figures and incentives mirroring what past directors of athletics received at Southern Miss. He’ll start no later than July 1, but both agreed mid-May was a possibility. McClain still has a job to wrap up in Troy, however.
“I just asked (Bennett) to make sure that I could leave Troy in the right way,” McClain said “That was really important to me, and I appreciate his understanding of that. I anticipate getting here in May. That should give me enough time to tie up loose ends and do the things I need to do. Again, if I need to do both things for a while, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
When McClain said he anticipated starting in May, Bennett jokingly – but also seriously – gave a fist pump in jubilation.
The Southern Miss job has its challenges, for sure, and while McClain has goals and ideas in mind, it’ll take him getting here fulltime to decide what’s the first priority. He’s been on the phone with interim Director of Athletics Jeff Mitchell and interim Deputy Director of Athletics Brian Morrison quite a bit the last few days, and those conversations will continue.
“We’ll have some things we’ll prioritize and try to get knocked out,” McClain said. “I’m not comfortable sitting here today saying, ‘This, this and this,’ but I do have a sense about what’s going to be important for us to get to the finish line. We’ll very quickly start our path to getting those things done, and I’ll probably share more once I get on the ground about what I think those are.”
When McClain was introduced to the Southern Miss community prior to his time with the local media, he outlined five common goals: 1) be student-athlete focused with every decision made in the department, 2) operate with integrity, 3) be in the campus and in the community to help grow the Southern Miss brand, 4) maximize the department’s resources and 5) win championships.
“However, the things I just told you can only happen if we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction,” McClain said to the crowd. “I mean our student-athletes, our coaches, our staff, the people in this room and the people across campus, if you hold a degree from Southern Miss or if you wear a Golden Eagle on your shirt, we’ve all got to be pulling the rope in the same direction or it can’t happen.”
Mitchell, who arrived last fall as the school’s Deputy Director of Athletics, served in the interim Director of Athletics position when Jon Gilbert left in December. Both Bennett and McClain praised Mitchell and Morrison for their roles during the uncertain time.
“I’m very excited about the three of them working together,” Bennett said. “I would submit that you’d be hard-pressed to find another athletics administrative team that would be better than, or more effective than, Jeremy, Jeff and Brian. So, from the president’s office perspective, I think we have among the strongest bench strength of individuals leading any intercollegiate athletics program across the country.”
McClain marks the fourth non-interim Director of Athletics Southern Miss has had since 2013, but the Houlka native plans for there not to be a fifth anytime soon.
“I’m not a guy who’s out looking for a job, and I wasn’t looking for this job,” McClain said. “Things lined up and I got a phone call. If I’m going to come to a place, I want to be committed to it, and what I’m going to do here is be committed to being here long term.
“There’s nothing I think is worse than walking away from something when you haven’t gotten to the finish line and completed what you wanted to complete. What I can say to you today is that my plan is to get us to the finish line in a lot of things we’re trying to do. That’s going to take a while, so I plan on being here awhile.”