Southern Miss joining Sun Belt Conference
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi announced Tuesday it will be leaving Conference USA and joining the Sun Belt Conference.
Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Keith Gill, USM President Dr. Rodney Bennett and Southern Miss Athletics Director Jeremy McClain were present for the announcement.
At the start of the conference, Gill made the official announcement of the addition of USM in the conference.
“On behalf of the Sun Belt presidents, chancellors and directors of athletics, I would like to officially announce that the University of Southern Mississippi has accepted our invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference,” Gill said. “Welcome to the Sun Belt!”
Gill spoke on how USM became a candidate to be added into the Sun Belt, stating that it met their expectations to add value to the conference.
“When national realignment discussions began, our goal was to only add a school if it added value to our conference, and Southern Mississippi certainly does that. Hattiesburg clearly fits perfectly into the Sun Belt footprint, which spans from the Carolinas to Texas. Plus, Southern Mississippi mirrors our conference athletics and academic missions,” said Gill.
According to The Associated Press, USM accepted an invitation to the conference last week and is expected to join as early as 2023.
“Membership in the Sun Belt is an exciting opportunity. An exciting opportunity for our university, an exciting opportunity of our student-athletes, an exciting opportunity for alumni and fans...,” Bennett said.
Bennett also spoke on how joining the conference will help create new regional rivalries due to the Sun Belt’s “geographical footprint,” and encourage new visitors to the State of Mississippi.
Bennett recognized USM’s long-membership with its soon-to-be-former conference, Conference USA, as the university was one of the original members of the conference.
“As most of you know, the University of Southern Mississippi was a founding member of Conference USA when it was established in 1995... As President of the University of Southern Mississippi, I want to express my appreciation for the staff that work at Conference USA, and the work they have done on our behalf as a founding member for many, many years... Thank you for what you have done for USM and for member institutions for Conference USA,” Bennett said.
McClain expressed his gratitude to USM for joining the Sun Belt after the acceptance of the conference’s invitation, along with speaking on what the move means for the future of the university.
“Today is a great day for Southern Miss. We’re extremely excited to become members of the Sun Belt,” said McClain. “We’re excited about this opportunity for many reasons. This move allows us to join, what I believe, one of the most competitive group of five conferences in the country. We’re going to be able to create regional rivalries and reduce travel for our student-athletes. We’re also going to be able to have our fans travel...”
While talking about what USM’s move to the Sun Belt means for the university, McClain mentioned how they will experience more media exposure as the Sun Belt has a partnership with ESPN.
“And then this gives us greater exposure for our programs. From a media standpoint, from a television standpoint, I think we’re going to be on a stage we want to be on, and that is obviously a national stage,” McClain said. “We look forward to soon competing in the Sun Belt and helping to continue to elevate the conference and our programs on that national stage.”
McClain, who is a former Sun Belt athletic director for Troy University, said conversations began about conference realignment around July, with talks with the Sun Belt sparking rather quickly.
Gill spoke on USM’s fan base as a factor in considering the university to become a member of the Sun Belt, as he talked about visiting the campus when the Golden Eagles took on Troy this past September.
“The thing that I was really struck by was there was a tremendous storm that kind of hit 45 minutes before that game started. Obviously, everyone scattered,” Gill said. “When kickoff happened, the place was pretty full, you know. In my head, I went, ‘Well I would’ve gone home if I wasn’t the commissioner.’”
“Fan bases are important. I think one of the reasons Southern Miss rose to the top was because of the passionate fan base, and we want to make sure that, one, we are growing the atmosphere at our games and trying to make sure they are full as possible, and also making sure the fans have a chance to go.”
McClain spoke on behalf of the coaches at USM when asked how did they feel about joining the Sun Belt, along with how he thinks the competition will be against other Sun Belt schools.
“I’ll say our coaches are very excited,” McClain said. “As we got into the process and started approaching them about the possibility, kind of having some private conversations, they were very excited about what this looks like. And then, from a standpoint from the competitive nature, I just say the proof is kind of in the numbers.”
USM is the latest school to leave Conference USA, which recently lost UAB, Florida Atlantic, UNC Charlotte, North Texas, Rice and UTSA.
The university is expected to officially join the conference no later than July 23, 2023.
Below is a list of schools that are currently in the Sun Belt:
- Appalachian State
- Arkansas State
- Coastal Carolina
- Georgia Southern
- Georgia State
- Arkansas-Little Rock
- South Alabama
- Texas State
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