Sept. 7, 2011
Just when it looked like conference realignment had settled down for a year or two, once again it has the American sports media and college fans buzzing. Many are trying to figure out the different scenarios of the makeup of future conference affiliations. Driving the entire issue are the BCS automatic qualifying conferences and their potential realignment. Watching all this are members of the BCS non-automatic conferences who are seeking to be a part of a BCS AQ league.
Where does Southern Miss stand on this issue? What has the university been doing to make it possible to play at the highest level of college football and athletics?
For historical purposes, Mike Slive, former Commissioner of C-USA and current Commissioner of the SEC, told Southern Miss officials in 1999, if the Golden Eagles wanted to compete at the highest level of collegiate athletics, it had to make a major financial commitment to its athletic facilities. This was the major issue facing USM's battle to be competitive.
Southern Miss and its major donors and fans answered Mike Slive's challenge and in the last 10 years invested over $70 million in upgrades to all its sports venues, especially in football, which has been the driving force behind realignment. USM built a new state of the art Athletic Center ($12 million) to house the football program, purchased an artificial surface ($600k) to replace grass on the football field, added a new $3 million video board with all the bells and whistles, enclosed the south end of Carlisle-Faulkner Field at Roberts Stadium to include 34 suites, a 336 seat club level area and 2,000 general admission seats, including restrooms and concessions stands and constructed a 532 seat club level area with restrooms on the Westside of the stadium at a cost of $32 million. Currently, the University is renovating all the restrooms in the stadium ($700k). We also increased and added new lighting to the stadium ($400k) and improved our football practice field facilities to include lights ($125k). Although we may not have the largest football complex in America, our football facilities are outstanding and as nice as any in the nation.
In addition to the football construction and renovations, Southern Miss has more than doubled its budget from $9 million in 1999 to over $20 million last year. We also have enhanced our football schedule to expose our program to other leagues in the nation as we have played home and home contests in recent years with national programs such as Cal, Boise State, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina State, Oklahoma State and Virginia. We have future series with BYU, Boise State, Mississippi State and Nebraska. During this period we continue to produce a winning football program with 17 consecutive winning seasons, nine consecutive bowls games and 13 bowl appearances in the last 14 years. We have been one of the leading football programs in C-USA, having won four championships, and are the only league team to win a football, basketball and baseball title.
We have also shared with our national constituents that our market size is much bigger than the Hattiesburg market. We enjoy strong coverage from Memphis/North Mississippi to Jackson, Meridian, Vicksburg, and to the Gulf Coast, New Orleans/Slidell/North Shore and the Mobile/Pensacola markets. This represents nearly seven million in the DMA market area, which would place the Golden Eagles in the top five DMA markets in the nation. This is very significant because Southern Miss can claim all these market areas cover the Eagles in print, radio and television on a daily basis.
Both Dr. Saunders and I have frequent conversations with our peers nationally in discussing conference realignment. As director of athletics, I have attended every national meeting possible to promote our athletics program. Personally, I have had the opportunity to sit in the room with the top athletic directors in the nation as I represent C-USA on the advisory board of the NCAA Division I Athletic Directors Association as well as representing the league on the NCAA Football Issues/Post-Season Football Committee for the past 10 years. We also have hired former nationally noted athletic directors and former conference commissioners to serve as consultants to review our program and assist behind the scenes to expose our program to other parts of the country. Our consultants have a very positive feeling about the outstanding progress that Southern Miss has made over the years and the tremendous academic and collegiate environment we enjoy in South Mississippi.
At this point, no one knows how conference realignment will end up. The only given is the fact that Texas A&M has publically stated it is leaving the Big 12 to go to the SEC and the SEC has accepted them on a conditional basis, based on possible future lawsuits and conference exit fees. Others have indicated they are exploring their options. Our goal has always been to be in a position to play at the highest level possible and have the ability to compete for a national championship in all sports. That will always be our primary goal in addition to graduating our student-athletes. We will continue to do everything possible to make sure we can attain those goals. We are a much stronger institution than we have ever been, both academically and athletically.
C-USA continues to get stronger and stronger and is highly competitive. Our league must put a team in a BCS Bowl game, and of course, that is our goal at Southern Miss. Whatever the fallout of realignment, C-USA will remain strong and realignment can make it even stronger. The league continues to pursue out- of-the-box thinking as it pertains to realignment. What every conference is trying to do is enhance its quality and market share to attract more revenue. C-USA is exploring unique opportunities that will do both for our league.
During this delicate and sensitive time of conference realignment, the one thing Southern Miss will not do is expose its plan publically to the world to see. Most conference and institutions do not want to openly discuss or publicly campaign for conference realignment. Some institutions have publicly announced their desire to seek another conference affiliation only to be left out and embarrassed when not chosen. Our fans should be aware that between President Saunders, our consultants and I, we are doing everything possible to showcase our institution while protecting the integrity of our University. We developed a strategic plan for realignment several years ago with input from our consultants and other experts and we continue to monitor, update and proceed with this strategy.
No matter what happens, Southern Miss will continue to fight the battle daily to improve, grow stronger and take both the University and its athletics program to a higher level. SOUTHERN MISS TO THE TOP!