Jon Gilbert, the new athletic director at Southern Miss, comes to Hattiesburg with high praise from numerous experts for his people skills and organizational acumen.
And that’s fine. You have to work well with people of all sorts to succeed as an athletic director. You must possess the same organizational skills of a big business CEO.
But it says here that whether or not Gilbert succeeds at USM will depend mostly on his ability to generate additional revenue. The title is athletic director. It probably should be athletic director/chief fund raiser.
The problems Gilbert will face at Southern Miss can be measured in millions. Of dollars.
In college athletics, expenses have soared. At USM, revenue has remained largely stagnant. Anyone with a household budget knows what happens when costs increase and revenue does not. It’s no fun.
And, at USM, mitigating circumstances exist. Because of past on-field and on-court successes, fan expectations are high. The old saying about champagne tastes and beer budget does apply here.
More on that to come, but first let’s explore Gilbert’s background and experience. One of the first texts on my phone this morning was from ex-Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton, who serves as a key consultant to the Southeastern Conference and has worked with Gilbert when the latter was at Alabama and at Tennessee.
“Southern Miss has just hired a good one,” Templeton wrote. “Jon knows the trade and he is a do-er.”
Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork: “I know Jon well. … As AD openings occurred across the country, Jon was always viewed as someone who’s ready for ‘the chair.’ He’s learned under some of the best AD’s in the business. I have gotten to know (USM president) Dr. (Rodney) Bennett and his vision for USM, and I believe Jon is a great fit and will do great things. I look forward to welcoming him to Mississippi.”
Gilbert has been the No. 2 guy in the Tennessee athletics department since 2011. Before that, he was the associate athletic director for external operations at Alabama. He served various other roles at Alabama including athletics development, facilities, event management, ticket office and oversight of numerous sports.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, formerly of Mississippi State, says he recommended Gilbert for the USM job.
“Jon is a hard-working guy who understands all the facets that make a successful athletic program,” Stricklin said. “I’m excited to to see a friend – someone I’ve gotten to know well during the last 10-plus years in the SEC – get an opportunity like USM. I know he’ll do a fine job in Hattiesburg leading the Golden Eagles.”
Gilbert is a graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C., where he was a three-year letterman on the football team. He also earned his master’s degree at Eastern Kentucky University, where he served as a graduate assistant under legendary EKU football coach Roy Kidd.
“Southern Miss is getting an athletics director who is both a quality person and an outstanding leader,” Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “I have known Jon throughout his time at Alabama and Tennessee, and he brings the right kind of vision and leadership that will serve Southern Miss well.”
Clearly, Gilbert has been successful in fundraising efforts at both Alabama, where he spent 17 years and rose to associate athletic director from a $12,500-per-year events manager job, and at Tennessee.
Balancing the books at Southern Miss is a different deal, decidedly more difficult. The best way to illustrate might be this: Each SEC school received $32.7 million from the league as its bowls/TV payout in 2016. USM’s entire athletic budget is approximately $25 million. Of that, about $200,000 comes from the Conference USA payout. We’re not talking apples and oranges; we’re talking apple orchards and an apple.
So finding new revenue is critical and should be Gilbert’s first objective, which dovetails into the second objective: Renovate (or blow up) Reed Green Coliseum, which USM fans not-so-lovingly call “The Yurt,” as in an ancient Mongolian shelter.
That’s a $30-$75 million project, depending on which way you go. To this observer it has always seemed the best approach would be a university/city/county/state approach that has worked elsewhere.
A third objective: Decide on a conference destination for USM, whether it is remaining in C-USA, continuing to angle for an invitation to the American Athletic Conference or spearheading a plan for a more regional league that would combine the best of the Sun Belt and C-USA.
I lean toward the third, but that’s a column for another day …
Besides, Jon Gilbert has enough on his plate today.
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