HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Jon Gilbert definitely wanted to become the athletic director at The University of Southern Mississippi. In fact, he said yes before USM President Rodney Bennett could complete the offer.
"When he called, he couldn't even finish and I said, 'yes," Gilbert said Tuesday morning.
Thirty-six days after the resignation of Bill McGillis was announced, Bennett introduced the 48-year-old Gilbert as USM's seventh athletic director, calling him "the right person at the right time."
"I really wanted someone (who) wanted to be at Southern Miss," Bennett said. "I wanted a person with compassion, and not in a corny way, but to see their soul. I wanted someone with a real sense of compassion, transparency, honesty and someone who shares the values of Southern Miss."
Gilbert, who spent the past six years at the University of Tennessee as executive senior associate athletic director, is expected to begin in Hattiesburg no later than March 1, pending approval of his hiring by the State College Board.
USM strength and conditioning coach Zac Woodfin, who Bennett had appointed interim athletic director during the search for McGillis' successor, would remain in that position until Gilbert's arrival.
Terms of Gilbert's contract were not available at Tuesday's announcement. McGillis, who was named USM athletic director on July 18, 2013, signed a four-year contract later that summer.
Bennett said he considered postponing Tuesday's announcement in deference to those in the Pine Belt still reeling from an EF-3 tornado that killed four people and caused widespread, major damage early Saturday morning.
"But I believe that this individual can begin making leadership contributions immediately as we shape the University of Southern Mississippi's community offerings and recovery efforts," Bennett said.
Instead, a moment of silence was held prior to Gilbert's introduction.
Gilbert became emotional during his initial comments, choking up as he thanked his parents for their role in shaping his life and career path.
He also thanked his wife, Katie, and daughter, Larsen, who attended Tuesday's ceremony, as well as his son, Kent, who had a basketball game and could not make the trip.
Gilbert began his career in collegiate athletic administration at the University of Alabama, starting at $12,500 a year in event management/facilities before being shifted by former Alabama athletic director Mal Moore into athletic development.
"For those of you who are familiar with how athletics works, most people don't make the transition from event management/facilities guy into asking people for money," Gilbert said.
In his time, the development office generated $82 million in gifts and pledges for the Crimson Tide Foundation. Gilbert, who spent nearly 17 years in Tuscaloosa, Ala., eventually oversaw marketing and promotions, as well the ticket office and seat licensing program.
Following his mentor, David Hart, to Tennessee, Gilbert not only oversaw day-to-day operations of the department, but was instrumental in the negotiations that brought a Tennessee football game to Bristol Motor Speedway.
With USM athletics operating with a budget of about $25 million, fund-raising experience and budget management was a crucial consideration during the candidate search, Bennett said.
"That is a very important part of Southern Miss moving forward," Bennett said.
Gilbert, a native of Lakeland, Florida, a three-year football letterman and graduate at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C., said he intended to focus on how to better the experience of the student-athlete at USM, both on and off the field.
"I am a product of that student-athlete experience and I was transformed by that experience," Gilbert said. "But this is not about Jon Gilbert. This is about Southern Miss, our student-athletes, the athletic department and the university as a whole. I'll be happy when this day is done because my focus will be on our student-athletes and our coaches."
And while acknowledging that USM may not have the financial wherewithal compared to other universities, he said the tough-nosed, competitive heart of the Golden Eagles, which he referred to as USM's "brand," was one of the main considerations that drew him to Hattiesburg.
"I knew about the long-standing success of the University of Southern Mississippi," said Gilbert, who was in attendance when the Golden Eagles knocked off Florida State in Jacksonville in 1989 and shut out the Crimson Tide in Birmingham in 2000. "The brand that Southern Miss has is profound across the Southeast. It's something that I hold dear. There are a lot of institutions that have things that maybe we don't have, but I can tell you this, they don't have our brand."
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