Coach and Athletic Director
Southern Miss Names Hammond As New A.D.
Hattiesburg American, Patrick Magee
HATTIESBURG— Five months and a fair amount of drama later, the University of Southern Mississippi has hired Jeff Hammond as its athletic director.
Hammond, a former USM quarterback and retired Army major general, was announced Wednesday as the AD after serving in an interim capacity since January.
"Entering the second century in Southern Miss athletics, who better to lead us than a man who developed his leadership abilities in our classrooms and on our playing fields?" said Aubrey K. Lucas, who will take over as USM's interim president at the end of this month.
Charged with hiring an AD, Lucas settled on a man he knows well. When Hammond was on the USM football team from 1976-78, Lucas was early in his first run as president at the school.
There was some question as to whom Lucas would hire when it was announced he would replace Martha Saunders five weeks ago, but the two picked up quickly on a relationship that's crossed four decades.
"It was kind of like father, son in some respects," Hammond, 56, said. "He was my president, and throughout the years I maintained contact with him.
"When I came back to the university, I consulted with him. My interaction with him was very warm. There's no one I respect more than Dr. Aubrey Lucas."
Hammond replaces Richard Giannini, who retired in December. Hammond joined the USM staff in July 2010 as a senior associate director of athletics.
Lucas, 77, talked glowingly about Hammond. "In some ways, he's my boy," Lucas said. "That's a horrible thing to say, but I really mean that. He was a student here when I was a president. I followed him in his career in the military, and I am so proud of him.
"Then, he came back. We've had opportunities to visit and talk. He knows about the leadership I want and I think that's natural for him."
Hammond will receive a one-year contract, not the customary four-year deal signed by most athletic directors in Mississippi.
Lucas said the one-year deal will allow the next administration to have an option to make its own move.
"I will not be here that full year," Lucas said. "And when the new president comes in, the new president needs an opportunity to make a choice."
"I'm OK with that," said Hammond. "To me, it's a day-to-day thing. I don't count years and days. I count it as a blessing to do the right thing."
Lucas said he expects Hammond's salary to be on par with past deals. Giannini made about $300,000 a year.
Lucas said Hammond's hiring was delayed by the state College Board after the financial status of the USM athletic department was questioned.
In April, Hammond said the department, which has an annual budget of about $20 million, faced a $1 million deficit. On Wednesday, he wouldn't talk about where the debt stands but said a financially sound athletic department is a goal.
"I'd like for us to be self-sufficient," he said. "I think any athletic director's goal today is to be self-sufficient financially. That's what we all want. That's what good businesses do."
Lucas said the College Board did a financial review of the entire university.
"It was a good business decision," Lucas said of the board's delay in taking up Hammond's candidacy.
When Hammond spoke Wednesday, he preached "Mission, family and team."
The family aspect of his mantra has much to do with piecing together a fractured fan base that's been divided in its support of Hammond.
Some prominent boosters opposed Hammond as athletic director while many fans rallied around him.
"We've got to be a family," Hammond said. "Families can have differences. We can argue. We can get mad. That's what families do, but at the end of the day, when the sun goes down, it's a terrible situation if a family member doesn't find the time to say, 'I love you,' and settle the differences."
Some of the most pointed public criticism of Hammond over the last two months has come from his own staff.
Sonya Varnell, a current associate athletic director, and Diane Stark, a former associate AD, have both filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Jackson claiming Hammond bullied them in the workplace and that they were denied a fair chance at becoming interim AD.
Stark's attorney, Kim Chaze, said Wednesday the position of his client has not changed since the complaint was filed in April.
"I would love to have our differences resolved amicably," Chaze said. "If not, we have little choice but to proceed to court."
Lucas acknowledged Hammond had made some mistakes, but he said he thought he was learning from them.
"There may be something to some of the complaints," Lucas said. "I don't know because I haven't talked to everybody. I worked with him now for five weeks, a short time really. That's why I didn't make the announcement earlier. I needed time to take his measure and for him to take my measure. There would be criticism and I would follow through and find that it really had no validity.
"That's not to say that every criticism hasn't had some validity, but he and I shoot straight with each other."
Saunders welcomed Wednesday's announcement. She did not waver in her support of Hammond as athletic director before the announcement April 27 that she would resign effective June 30.
"He's just a great guy," Saunders said. "I'm sorry I'm not going to be here to cheer him on up close."
For Hammond, Wednesday's announcement was the end of a difficult process. When asked what it meant to him to navigate the last two difficult months, he looked over at his wife, Diane.
"We had some long nights, didn't we?" he said.
Hammond recognized fans and faculty who were vocal in their support.
"What surprised me was a fan base that owns the university and the athletic department," Hammond said. "They believe it's their university and that's wonderful. You never really know until things start flying different directions, but the fan base here made it well known that they wanted to be heard. This middle-class university belonged to the people."
Lucas acknowledged he's been lobbied over the hiring of the new athletic director.
"I've got a lot of emails," Lucas said. "I read every one, answered every one. Though, I did use a stock answer.
"I have to remind myself that this is good. We should celebrate the fact that people care about this athletic program. So I took it as a sign of interest and support and didn't feel burdened about it. But I did get a lot of advice both ways. I received it and said I will look at it carefully. I did."