Southern Miss joins Sun Belt Conference

Published 9:37 am Wednesday, October 27, 2021

HATTIESBURG — The University of Southern Mississippi and the Sun Belt Conference held a joint press conference Tuesday afternoon to announce the Golden Eagles had accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt. 

A unanimous vote approved them for membership no later than July 1, 2023. Athletic director Jeremy McClain said he was excited to join the Sun Belt. 

“We are excited for many reasons,” McClain said. “It allows us to join one of the most competitive group of five conferences. We will also reduce travel for our Student-Athletes. I think we will be on the stage we want to be on.” 

McClain has some familiarity with the Sun Belt Conference. Before becoming the AD at USM, he was at Troy for four years.

Formerly, USM was a founding member of Conference-USA in 1995. Before 1995, USM was a member of the Metro Conference. By joining the Sun Belt, USM joins ranks with Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, University of Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas State and Troy. University of Arkansas Little Rock and the University of Texas at Arlington play basketball in the conference. 

What dominoes fell

In July 2021, news of Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 for the SEC broke as McClain was sitting on a beach during his vacation. He said he started having conversations with other athletic directors about conference realignment. Those conversations intensified in the past week, he said.

Slowly but surely, athletic programs began to make decisions. Six teams from Conference USA moved to the American Athletic Conference. This was one of the final puzzle pieces to fall in place, he said. 

The last piece was when the Sun Belt extended an invitation to the Golden Eagles to join their conference. This past week, McClain said he did not get a lot of sleep before the move became official. 

Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill said he grew up a Florida State fan and had his heartbroken by Southern Miss on numerous occasions. The school’s tradition and fanbase stood out to him, he said. 

“When national realignment discussions began, our goal was to only add members who add value to our conference,” Gill said. “Southern Miss does that, and they mirror our athletic and academic missions. We are thrilled to have them join. One of the reasons USM rose to the top is because of its fanbase. We are excited this is the first piece of the puzzle.” 

What will change

Moving forward, Southern Miss will leave Conference USA. According to the conference by-laws, McClain said they would have to pay two years of distribution as their exit fee. He said the estimated distribution for two years is $3 million over the next couple of years. He said the University has a plan for paying the exit fee, and they feel good about moving forward with leaving CUSA. 

Currently, the Sun Belt has a media rights deal with ESPN to broadcast their games. Gill said the contract does not expire until 2031. The agreement signed this summer promised an increase of 50% more games to be televised. McClain said ESPN’s use of their streaming service ESPN+ was another benefit for the Golden Eagles as streaming is becoming more popular in the industry.

Geographically, the move brings the Golden Eagles close to several teams. Louisiana at Lafayette and Louisiana Monroe are three hours away, South Alabama is an hour and 45 minutes and Troy is four hours away. The move would save Student-Athletes time out of the classroom and could save the Athletic Department money. McClain estimates their travel cost in the CUSA was about $500,000 annually. USM President Rodney Bennett said the move should ignite regional rivalries.  

“The Sun Belt’s geographic footprint will create new regional rivalries and will encourage more visitors to Mississippi, further increasing our athletic programs, giving us a $41 million economic impact on the state,” Bennett said. “Most importantly, I’m excited for our student-athletes who will have greater opportunity to have friends and family watch them compete at the collegiate level.” 

Local fans react

University of Southern Mississippi fan Richard McKinney said his two sons and his wife went to school at USM. They are the reason why he became a fan of the Golden Eagles. Their move to the Sun Belt could mean big things for USM, he said. 

“It would be better competition, and there should be more fans. Should have a lot more revenue,” McKinney said. “I think it would be good for them. I think it’s a good move for them. I’m all for it.”

Chip Sturdivant, Vice President of the USM Southwestern Mississippi Alumni Association, said he became a fan of the Golden Eagles when his sister attended there in the late 1970s. When he became a student at Southern Miss, he became a die-hard fan. Now, he is a member of USM’s Eagle Club and is excited about the move.

“I think it is a great fit for Southern Miss and will create regional rivalries which have already been established in years past,” Sturdivant said. “It will be great to play these teams. I could go to away games now. Now I can go to Lafayette, Monroe, or Mobile. It will be nice to follow my team.”

Ariel Gardner, who Sturdivant said was a die-hard USM fan with a lot of knowledge, is a USM graduate. She attended the school from 2003 to 2006 and remembers the days of Jeff Bower as head coach. 

Since he departed from USM in 2007, the Golden Eagles have gone through some rough seasons. 2012 was the worst season. The past 15 years have been tough for Conference-USA. Over time, membership dwindled as teams left for the American Athletic Conference. Fellow CUSA member Old Dominion signed Tuesday to join the Sun Belt in addition to USM. 

“It’s unfortunate to see the decline of CUSA, but I’m excited for the changes and the growth potential for the Sun Belt,” Gardner said. “Especially for football and baseball. Over the last four or five years, you have seen the rise of the Sun Belt. Just a few years ago, Coastal Carolina won the College World Series.”