Photos by: Sean Smith
Southern Miss has formally accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference (SBC).
The official announcement came through a joint press conference with Director of Athletics Jeremy McClain, University of Southern Mississippi President Dr. Rodney Bennett and Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill.
Gill opened the conference immediately, stating, “On behalf of the Sun Belt, presidents, chancellors, directors and directors of athletics, I’d like to officially announce that the University of Southern Mississippi has accepted our invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference.”
The statement got a resounding round of applause in the press conference room. Bennent, in his opening statement, shared the room’s excitement.
“Membership in the Sun Belt is an exciting opportunity for our university, an exciting opportunity for our student-athletes and [offers] exciting opportunities for our alumni and fans,” said Bennett. “I believe without a doubt that this move will allow our student-athletes to compete in what is fast becoming the best group of five conferences in the country.”
“Today is a great day for Southern Miss,” McClain said. “We are extremely excited to become a member of the Sun Belt Conference.”
This is McClain’s second time working with the Sun Belt Conference, as he was an Athletic Director for SBC’s Troy University from 2015 to 2019.
Since first becoming a charter member of Conference USA (C-USA), Southern Miss has been through a number of ups and downs with the league. This past week marked the biggest roadblock with the conference, however, as C-USA lost half of its teams within the same week.
There had long been speculation that this move was coming, but there had been no serious talks from officials. However, in July, Oklahoma and Texas announced that they had accepted invitations to join with the Southeastern Conference (SEC). These moves led fans to speculate about how these national realignments would change the scope of all the other conferences.
It seems we now have our answer. On Oct. 21, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) announced the addition of six C-USA schools: UAB, FAU, Charlotte, North Texas, Rice and UTSA. But Southern Miss had failed in the past to realign with other schools.
But Southern Miss did not make fans speculate for too long this go around. This press conference, held five days after the initial AAC split, showed that Southern Miss is also changing course.
“We [the Sun Belt] take pride in the fact that all of our members focus on the academic and personal development of our students,” said Gill. “We are in the education business, after all, and our most important responsibility is to support the health and academic competitiveness and personal development of our students. The best part of the announcement is that Southern Mississippi is a perfect match for those values.”
Considering Southern Miss’s long history with C-USA, some fans were concerned about possible downsides of the change. However, McClain reassured any holdouts that he had already prepared for any possibility.
“I’m always looking for a landmine or an issue that could create some real challenges for us,” McClain said. “The thing here that I have been blown away with is that we couldn’t find that, and I don’t say that lightly. […] It made a lot of sense for our fan base. It made a lot of sense for our student-athletes. We haven’t had to stop and say, ‘Man, do we need this or not?’ And that was more affirmation to me that this was the right decision.”
The conference also makes a lot more sense geographically for Southern Miss, and that has a number of benefits to it. Southern Miss will be joining Sun Belt West, which includes teams like Texas State, South Alabama, Louisiana Monroe and Arkansas State. Outside of Texas State, most of the teams are within driving distance of Hattiesburg, which will significantly reduce travel costs for the program.
“It is kind of hard to pin down in numbers, but it could easily be half a million dollars [in savings] annually for us,” said McClain.
There are some money concerns with C-USA, though. To leave the conference, Southern Miss will have to pay a significant amount in exit fees. McClain estimated that those costs would probably amount to around three million dollars.
“We have planned for that,” McClain said. “Dr. Bennett and I sat and talked through that early on in the process to make sure that was not going to be a roadblock for us.”
Southern Miss will begin to play in the Sun Belt Conference on July 1, 2023.