HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) _ Jeremy McClain said he had no plans to leave his job as athletic director at Troy University.
“I wasn’t out looking for a job,” McClain said. “Then, I got a phone call.”
And during that March 29 phone call, McClain was offered the opportunity to return to the Pine Belt and become the University of Southern Mississippi’s next athletic director.
“I’m telling you, I laid it on thick,” USM President Rodney Bennett said. “It was a full-court press, but I had to do what I had to do to get a ‘yes,’ to get across the finish line and get across it in fairly short order because we have work to do.”
Neither Bennett nor McClain provided details of that conversation, but whatever was said proved convincing.
Monday evening, Bennett introduced McClain as USM’s next athletic director before a couple of hundred people at the Trent Lott National Center.that included McClain’s parents and as well as USM sports administrators, coaches, boosters and backers
McClain, 42, replaces Jon Gilbert, who left in December to become athletic director East Carolina University.
He leaves Troy after more than 3 ½ years to return to the athletic program he served for three years as deputy associate athletic director for external affairs prior heading east to the Alabama plains.
“He was a coach’s administrator when he was here but also very concerned about the student-athlete,” USM baseball coach Scott Berry said. “I’m very encouraged.”
Until the final details of his four-year pact are worked out and submitted for state College Board approval, Bennett declined to address McClain’s salary.
But Bennett did say that the form and language in McClain’s contract would be similar as the ones given his predecessors, Gilbert and Bill McGillis.
Gilbert was making $350,000 when he left USM. Various reports had McClain making $210,000 at Troy.
McLain, who grew up in the small, north Mississippi town of Houlka and graduated from Delta State University, said it wasn’t an easy decision to leave Troy.
"But at the end of the day, (Bennett) knew how special Southern Miss was to me,” McClain said.
Initial conversation included what kind of shape the athletic department was in and “where (Bennett) wanted to go moving forward,” McClain said. “After that it became a discussion from a family perspective.”
McClain’s wife, Christie, and three children, son, Cannon, and daughters, Kate and Piper, quickly gave the thumb’s up.
“That wet easier than I thought, but they’d been loved on here in Hattiesburg, too,” McClain said. “They did a lot of growing up here in Hattiesburg. It’s a big day for our family.
“I’m excited about being back and at a place where you can have an impact at a spot that means so much to you ... I understand the good, the challenges, the things that are happening here. As Dr. Bennett said, today’s an opportunity for us to set a new path for Southern Miss athletics, and that’s what my plan is.”
Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker said he like what he heard from McClain.
“I love the idea about raising the expectation level of this athletic department,” Barker said. “When you think of Southern Miss, you think about us punching above our weight class. You think of us competing in leagues that ordinary people might not think possible. We have to get back to that.
“As an athletic department, as a university, as a school district, as a city, we all need to be striving to do that, so I was excited to hear that.”
The initial announcement of McClain’s impending hire had USM’s new AD taking the reins no later than July 1, but both McLain and Bennett said his boots-on-ground first day likely would be sometime in mid-May.
Until then, interim athletic director Jeff Mitchell and interim deputy athletic director Brian Morrison will remain in charge the day-to-day.
Both received thanks and praise from both Bennett and McClain, apparently, both play roles in McClain’s administration.
“I look forward to working with you both for years to come,” McClain said.
Bennett sounded as if he’d be delighted if that was precisely the case.
“I think if most of us were honest, most of us would think, would be shocked, that he would leave Troy and come back,” Bennett said.”But the ol’ university president still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Don’t count me out just yet.
“Once I set my mind on something, and I know what’s good for the university, I’m willing to go to bat for what we need to make sure that we continue on this very important trajectory that we were on, so that’s when I reached out to Jeremy.”