HATTIESBURG, MS _ Jeff Mitchell is about to become a very, very busy athletics administrator.
Mitchell, who had spent the past three months or so as the University of Southern Mississippi’s deputy athletic director, was appointed interim athletic director about 72 hours after the Sunday resignation of Jon Gilbert.
With Gilbert’s departure to East Carolina University after less than two years in Hattiesburg, USM will be undertaking a search for an athletic director for the third time in the past seven years.
USM President Rodney Bennett pulled no punches Wednesday in a strongly-worded message to alumni expressing his frustration and irritation.
“Like you, I am concerned that we are searching for a new athletics director for the third time in recent years,” Bennett wrote. “I am committed to a thorough selection process that will result in a director of athletics who will bring stability to the department, as well as consistent and sustained success for many years.
“Like you, I am disappointed that bowl and television executives did not select our football program for participation in a bowl game this year. I do not agree with their decision, but I am now focused on how to help our football program become increasingly competitive next season.
“And like you, I am not satisfied with our current place in the landscape of college athletics. I believe strongly we should be aspirational about our place both within Conference USA and in the NCAA.”
Enter Jeff Mitchell.
The 39-year-old Magnolia, MS, native was tapped not only to take the reins of the athletic department, but also commence a soul-searching, internal review of the athletics department.
“At this point, the objective that has been laid out before us is to do the self-study, and I’m certainly very confident of being able to lead us through that and have great respect for what Dr. Bennett wants to achieve,” Mitchell said Thursday afternoon. “I’m really going to be focused on that primary goal, which is to evaluate where we are and what’s needed to take us where we want to go.”
And not until then, and only then, will the search for a new, permanent athletic director be undertaken.
“The selection process for our next director of athletics will not be quick,” Bennett wrote. “The complexity of our challenges will necessitate a different approach to the hiring process, one that requires patience, the engagement of our stakeholders, and a thorough review of our department.
“The process must include an intentional review to evaluate how we got here – how we got to this place of searching for our third director of athletics in recent years, how we got to this place of not being selected for postseason bowl competition, how we got to this place of unrest with our placement within the NCAA, how we got to this place of continued uncertainty with our financial sustainability within the department – and to determine what can be done to address these systemic challenges.”
Mitchell may be as unequally suited for the task as any USM could have found.
He spent 12 years at Santa Clara University, rising in the ranks to second in the athletics department hierarchy as senior associate athletic director external affairs , even serving as interim athletic director for a period.
“In athletics, things change every day, so I’m fortunate to have had this experience before, serving in this capacity at Santa Clara,” Mitchell said. “This is not uncharted territory for me and I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Mitchell said Bennett made the marching orders quite clear.
“At this point, the objective that has been laid out before us is to do the self-study, and I’m certainly very confident of being able to lead us through,” Mitchell said. “I have great respect for what Dr. Bennett wants to achieve, so I’m really going to be focused in that primary goal, which is evaluate where we are and what’s needed to take us where we want to go.”
In addition to overseeing the evaluation, Mitchell will be running the athletic department as well.
“Dr. Bennett has given me great confidence that I can drive the car,” Mitchell said. “I have the keys and I can unlock doors and start the vehicle. He wants me to run it and we are going to do that.
“I have great confidence in him and his direction for us going forward. I was very inspired our conversations leading up to this appointment.”
Bennett appointed Brian Morrison, senior associate athletics director for development, as Mitchell’s deputy director. Mitchell, Morrison and Bennett will then identify a staff member to serve as the lead athletics fundraiser during the interim period.
Mitchell, who graduated from Millsaps College and University of Mississippi, was itching to get back to Mississippi when the USM position popped open.
“The pull to come home was fairly apparent and good opportunities don’t present themselves very often, and this certainly was an opportunity to serve,” Mitchell said. “With Jon Gilbert leaving to take over at East Carolina, I was in the right place at the right time to try and help lead the University of Southern Mississippi forward.”
Mitchell said from what he’s seen, USM has a firm base to build upon.
“Competitively, within the league, competitively, within the region, I think we’re pretty strong,” Mitchell said. “Now, we have some work to do. but, we are coming at this in a position of strength. That’s my opinion. But we still need to evaluate where we are and where we want to be and then establish a roadmap for how to get there.
“We have a chance to make the University of Southern Mississippi better. We have a chance to make the University of Southern Mississippi athletics better. I’m really looking forward to it.”