Why Southern Miss athletics is leaving Conference USA for Sun Belt

Langston Newsome
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

HATTIESBURG — Conference realignment in college athletics has reached Mississippi. Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Keith Gill announced the addition of Southern Miss during a press conference with the university president Rodney Bennett and director of athletics Jeremy McClain on Tuesday.

The Golden Eagles will leave Conference USA and will join their new conference in July of 2023. Southern Miss was a founding member of Conference USA in 1995. 

“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’ve been blown away with is that we couldn’t find that and I don’t say that lightly. But it made a lot of sense geographically. It made a lot of sense for our fan base. It made a lot of sense for our student-athletes.” 

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From Left: Southern Miss Athletic Director Jeremy McClain, Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Keith Gill and Southern Miss President Dr. Rodney D. Bennett pose for a photo after the university announced it was joining the NCAA Sun Belt Conference at the Southern Miss Trent Lott Center in Hattiesburg, Miss. on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.

The exit fee for leaving Conference USA is two years of conference revenue distribution, McClain said. He estimates that loss to be $3 million. 

“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 wasn’t going to be a roadblock for us.” 

Southern Miss is the latest in a mass exodus from Conference USA. UTSA, North Texas, Rice, Charlotte, FAU and UAB were approved for membership by the American Athletic Conference last week

However, the sparks of conference realignment across college athletics were lit in July with the news of Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference.

The Sun Belt  began positioning itself for a possible expansion since then, according to Gill. 

“When you think about the process it really did start when we all looked at our phones and saw that Texas and Oklahoma were going to the SEC,” Gill said. 

“And really working through the process and trying to understand what are the implications of that move. I would say this process started in July and for us it's still not over. We’ll see when the music finally stops.” 

Gill said it’s “safe to say” the conference is not done exploring expansion. 

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McClain has engaged in several conversations about leaving Conference USA over the last few months but serious conversations with the Sun Belt took place over the “last week or so." 

Six other members of Conference USA leaving didn’t spur the Golden Eagles into action, according to McClain. 

“It was just one of 30 pieces to the puzzle,” McClain said. “This was the decision these people made so now we’re in a position to make a decision for ourselves. I wouldn’t say it was a deciding factor. It’s just part of the process.” 

The move will be a homecoming of sorts for McClain. He was the director of athletics for Troy, a member of the Sun Belt, from 2015-19. 

"We got better today," Gill said about the conference. "I feel like we had a strong lineup and now we're getting stronger because we're sitting here in Hattiesburg and Southern Miss agreed to join. That's going to make us better."