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October 22, 2012

Fixing Southern Miss

At BigGoldNation.com we seldom glean our inspiration from motor-sports and race care drivers. But, stumbling on a quote from NHRA funny car driver Larry Dixon, it caused us to stop and think. Here's what he had to say.

"Winning teams have the least amount of distractions, they have a group of people working towards a common goal. Without that they will fail."

Reading this quote it's hard not to apply it to Southern Miss football and in a broader sense the entire Southern Miss community right now.

Over the past 10 months the Southern Miss community has been turned upon it's head. It began with the departure of head football coach Larry Fedora and head basketball coach Larry Eustachy.

After a somewhat controversial search, Ellis Johnson was named the new head football coach. Within weeks Athletic Director Richard Giannini was forced into an early retirement. Friends and supporters of the long-time director were livid.

Senior Associate Director of Athletics Jeff Hammond assumed the interim roll and led a search that hired Donnie Tyndall as head basketball coach.

In the meantime the fan-base splintered into camps each with their own feelings on who would be best to lead the Southern Miss Athletic Department.

The factions including fans, alumni, boosters, athletic department and university employees and even IHL trustees, none involved willing to give an inch on the candidate they favored or even the candidate they opposed.

Family feuds like this often result in collateral damage, this one is no different. It has caused hard feelings between friends, ill-will between team-mates, it has caused individuals to boycott local businesses and divisions in the Southern Miss family that may never heal.

It even claimed the Presidency of Dr. Martha Saunders.

Former President Aubrey Lucas was appointed by the IHL as interim President and the divisions deepened. Both sides lobbied their cause to Lucas, one side insisting that the interim tag must be removed from Hammond with the other insisting that anyone but Hammond be named to the position.

Taking the easy way out Lucas opted to give Hammond a one year contract. If pressed he will surely tell you that the next President should have the opportunity to make that hire. And, there is some truth in that. But, in reality it was a way to pacify both factions. Hammond supporters were giving a small victory while those opposing him were given hope that he would be on the outs shortly.

All the while football and basketball were in transition with new coaches talking the helm. Football began to face some of the distractions that Dixon spoke about over the summer when they had to make major position changes.

Rickey Bustle stepped down as offensive coordinator and in stepped Steve Buckley to fill the role. They also had to replace another offensive staff member who wasn't in Hattiesburg long enough for me to remember his name. With the change the offense that had been installed during the spring was scrapped and they began to implement a different style.

While Johnson and his staff dealt with these distractions there was no healing in the Southern Miss Family. Those same frayed nerves, hard feelings and ill will still linger.

The departure of Saunders created a leadership void at Southern Miss. The installation of a semi-popular figure head president has created a vacuum.

The maddening aspect of these circumstances is that Southern Miss has never had more clout in political circles and state government.

The sitting Governor of Mississippi - Phil Bryant, the Commissioner of the IHL - Dr. Hank Bounds and the chair of the powerful Senate Committee on Colleges and Universities - John Polk are all Southern Miss graduates.

Southern Miss has never had more representation on the IHL Board of Trustees and yet the University sits in limbo.

Dr. Hank Bounds has officially stated that he is not (or no longer) a candidate for the Presidency at Southern Miss. Many believed that Bounds was the front runner for the position and it was only a matter of time before he was named. With Bounds remaining in the Commissioner's Chair it could be a positive for Southern Miss moving forward.

Bounds has been a positive advocate for Southern Miss in many ways while serving as Commissioner. Gov. Bryant has long shown strong support for the University. John Polk's support for the University and Athletics is unquestioned.

Priority one at Southern Miss should be finding the right person to take the helm as President as soon as possible.

With advocates like Bryant, Bounds and Polk, Southern Miss has never been in a better position to attract a large number of highly qualified candidates who have the ability to lead a Carnegie Level Research University.

The individual who assumes this role must have the ability to bring this community back together, and because of the divided fan-base the potential leader likely needs to come from outside of the family and have few if any ties to Southern Miss and Mississippi.

Only with a strong President in place can we expect to see the University and the Athletic Department begin to move forward again.

Currently that just isn't possible, because Lucas has no intentions of making long term decisions, Hammond's effectiveness is severely limited because of the one year contract and the entire situation has caused more distractions for football, basketball and other sports than many realize.

Lets take a look back at Dixon's quote and apply it step by step to Southern Miss.

Aside from maybe Auburn, there's probably not a program in the nation facing the distractions that Southern Miss is faced with right now.

Southern Miss doesn't currently have a group of people working toward a common goal, they have several groups working toward completely different goals.

Taking all of this into to consideration it's not shocking that the athletic budget is millions in debt and the football team is 0-7.

At some point the Southern Miss family is going to have to come back together if the school is going to be successful on the academic and athletic side of the house. The IHL can do a lot to make this happen, advocates like Bryant, Bounds and Polk can help keep the committee focused, but each fan has a role to play as well.

We encourage every alumni, booster and fan to dig deep, do some soul searching and seek out your role in helping fix Southern Miss.

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