To Buy Out Failed Coach, Southern Miss Sold Home-Field Advantage Back To Nebraska for $2.1 MillionS

What's the market price for an easy home win in college football? The Southern Miss Golden Eagles have made a deal to move next season's opener—a long-anticipated matchup against Nebraska in Hattiesburg—to Nebraska instead. In a letter between the schools' athletic directors dated last week, which was viewed by Deadspin, Southern Miss agreed to sell home-field advantage to the Cornhuskers for $2,125,000, which is almost exactly the amount Southern Miss owes to its newly fired football coach.

The contract, sent from Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne to Southern Miss AD Jeff Hammond, serves as an amendment to a three-year deal signed in 2008. It was officially signed by USM's president this morning. Here's how it reads:

The location for the game shall be changed from M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, MS to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, NE.

The visiting team (the University of Southern Mississippi) shall be paid a flat dollar guarantee of $2,125,000,00.

On Tuesday, USM announced the firing of coach Ellis Johnson. For a debt-ridden athletics department, the cost of buying out the remaining three years of his contract is steep: $2.1 million. Funny how things work out.

* * *

It's not a secret that schools rent out their programs to act as home punching bags for big programs, nor is it a surprise how much money is at stake. But it's instructive to see the bald calculus of college sports: Southern Miss, forced by the shame of a winless year to swallow a coach's contract, is able to turn around days later and sign a deal that completely covers its expenses.

A year ago, this would've been inconceivable. Southern Miss, a cupcake on someone else's schedule? Last December, the Golden Eagles were on top of the world: a surprise 12-2 season, a Conference USA title, and a bowl victory to top off their 18th consecutive winning campaign. They finished the year ranked No. 20 by the AP, their high-water mark of the century. They had a hot-shot, in-demand coach, a skilled roster, an athletic director who was happy to put money into the program, and nowhere to go but down.

Richard Giannini had held the AD position since 1999, but football's fortunes really began to soar with the hiring of Larry Fedora as coach for the 2008 season. Fedora recruited USM's first five-star prospect in recent memory, and installed a spread offense that gave Southern Miss its four highest-scoring seasons in school history. But it was a four-year plan, and last year's success was built on the back of a senior-heavy team. And it became just a matter of time before Fedora was poached by a bigger program.

"Larry's going to win 11 or 12 games with us this season, and we'll never be able to keep him," Giannini said midway through the year. "If he leaves, I'd love to see him in Chapel Hill."

To Buy Out Failed Coach, Southern Miss Sold Home-Field Advantage Back To Nebraska for $2.1 Million
Former AD Richard Giannini

Fedora indeed took the UNC job, announcing in early December that USM's bowl would be his last game. Fan anger was raging about Fedora's departure, and the inexplicable fact that USM had accepted a second-tier bowl in far-off Hawaii, against middling Nevada (the Eagles had the option of playing Penn State in Dallas, but declined). School president Martha Saunders took Giannini aside, and told him he was out, too. Two days after Fedora announced he was leaving, Giannini announced his own retirement, effective January.

The favorite to replace Giannini was Jeffrey Hammond, who couldn't have forseen anything that would happen in 2012. As interim AD, he ended up with a coach he didn't hire. He found that his predecessor had spent the athletics department into debt. He saw the school president, his biggest supporter, retire under curious circumstance amid a battle over Hammond's permanent hiring. It came out that prominent donors and trustees lobbied against his selection. It's enough to make a guy long for the predictability of Iraq.

Hammond may have taken the unlikeliest career path of any FBS athletic director. A star QB at Southern Miss in the late '70s, he set nearly every school passing record—only to see them all shattered by Brett Favre. After school he joined the army, working his way up to major general. Along the way he served during Desert Storm, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and had command of all troops in Baghdad from 2007-2009. In 2010 he left the Army to take an associate athletic director position at his alma mater, under Richard Giannini.

(If the names, dates, and events of the past year at Southern Miss get confusing, refer to the Hattiesburg American's helpful timeline.)

After announcing his forced retirement, Giannini stuck around long enough to head the committee searching for Fedora's replacement. They settled on a surprising choice—South Carolina assistant Ellis Johnson, who had been USM's defensive coordinator in the 1980s. Johnson's defensive-minded philosophy would be a complete 180 from Fedora's offensive fireworks, and the timing of his hiring raised eyebrows as well. Giannini and Hammond introduced Johnson at a news conference in Hattiesburg, while the team was 4,000 miles away in Hawaii, preparing for its bowl.

It's not fair to say that Johnson was Giannini's choice, though the lame-duck AD was a powerful voice on the search committee. But he definitely wasn't Hammond's man—at that time, Hammond was still just an associate athletic director, third in line, and had little say on the coaching hire. Even today, a source intimately familiar with the coaching search has no idea who made the final say to hire Johnson.

To Buy Out Failed Coach, Southern Miss Sold Home-Field Advantage Back To Nebraska for $2.1 Million
Southern Miss AD Jeff Hammond (left) and newly deposed head coach Ellis Johnson

Johnson was given four years, for almost $3 million—and many were concerned that nearly all that money was guaranteed. Usually a coach's base salary will be around half the total amount, with the rest covered by various bonuses and incentives. But Johnson's guaranteed salary was $700,000 a year, meaning he'd be owed all of it in the event that he was fired. Hammond fought against those contract terms, but lost.

Nor was Hammond Giannini's choice to succeed him—the two had clashed, with Giannini resenting Hammond for being an outsider to the world of athletics and for having the open support of the president. Weeks after Saunders named Hammond interim AD in January, associate athletic director Diane Stark quit. A few months later, she filed suit against Hammond, claiming harassment and discrimination.

People who have worked with Hammond describe him as personable, but a military man to the core. ("A hard-ass," one says.) He's used to his subordinates falling in line, and he's not above yelling at them when they don't. Stark's lawsuit stems from an incident soon after Hammond took over, when he made his first priority fundraising for the Eagle Club. Hammond went office to office in the athletics department, strongly insisting that employees make their own contributions. Stark refused.

"At one point, Mr. Hammond angrily and inappropriately leaned over the desk of plaintiff, inches from her face, and began yelling and screaming at plaintiff while verbally attacking her and attacking her character," the complaint claims. "He was in a complete rage."

Sources close to the program confirm the incident, but also indicate that the lawsuit was politically motivated. Stark was a favorite of Giannini, and was part of a group opposed to Hammond being in charge. A common rumor around the office is that Stark's lawyer was paid for by a former high-ranking school official loyal to Giannini.

Hammond's fundraising efforts, the focal point of his first months on the job, also rankled some major boosters. His uncompromising pitch paid off with a surge of new donations, but it alienated established donors when Hammond pressed them to give more.

To Buy Out Failed Coach, Southern Miss Sold Home-Field Advantage Back To Nebraska for $2.1 Million
Trustee Doug Rouse

In the spring, the athletics department began a nationwide search for a permanent athletic director, and many on the USM committee hoped to hire an outside candidate. President Saunders supported Hammond; a faction, led by trustee Doug Rouse and donors loyal to Giannini, fought her every step of the way.

Rouse may have had it out for Hammond after he was cited for potential ethics violations, which were discovered by Hammond's audit. Rouse lobbied Saunders hard not to hire Hammond, according to a series of texts obtained by the Hattiesburg American.

"How are we looking for a decision on AD by tomorrow?" one text reads. Another says, "Would love to talk about search whenever you have a chance."

And one from April 15 shows Rouse trying to dissuade Saunders from hiring current AD Jeff Hammond before talking to local business leaders.

"Sorry we couldn't connect, but wanted you to know Evan Dillard, Lawrence Warren, Mickey Hudson, Ed Langton and Carl Nicholson called today stating they are against in-house hire for AD position (Hammond)," writes Rouse.

"These are not Richard (Giannini, former athletic director) supporters but people who support the Univ. as a whole, and I hope you will talk to them before hiring."

Some boosters went so far as to threaten to withdraw their funding if Hammond were hired.

To Buy Out Failed Coach, Southern Miss Sold Home-Field Advantage Back To Nebraska for $2.1 Million
Former president Martha Saunders

Before a decision could be made, Saunders unexpectedly retired. It was obvious to everyone that the battle over hiring an athletic director had grown so contentious that the trustees were willing to take Saunders down for it. Just last week, WLOX-TV uncovered documents indicating that "Saunders' exit was carefully orchestrated by the board." At her goodbye press conference in April, Saunders didn't directly address the reasons for her departure, but she didn't exactly deny the rumors either.

"It's not all about athletics," she said, repeating it a second and third time for good measure.

* * *

Saunders's retirement was only the second-worst thing to happen to Hammond that week. The same day she held her press conference, Hammond announced that he had commissioned an internal audit of the athletics department's finances, and revealed that the Golden Eagles were solidly, shockingly in the red. The audit found that USM sports had a deficit of $1.27 million and Hammond, though still just interim AD, had no hesitation about pointing the finger at his predecessor.

"It was due to a lack of leadership," Hammond told reporters. "It was due to mismanagement. It was due to a lack of accountability and probably a lack of creative thinking in ways to develop revenue."

Giannini fired back from retirement, claiming the department had been audited every year of his 13-year tenure. "I stand by my record," he said. But the fact was that Hammond had inherited a program that had to change the way it operated. He had also found his campaign platform, as a decision on Southern Miss's permanent AD neared. USM had prospered short-term on the field by spending, without finding the requisite income. Hammond was going to do business.

"We're going to get it fixed," Hammond said. "It will not be fixed this year. The prediction models out are that we could be in a similar debt for the next two years as well. There just wasn't a lot of thought put into bringing in revenue. When you spend more than you bring in, that's a problem.

"We're working hard to do everything we can to make up for some lost opportunities and create some new revenue streams."

His promise—and the intervention of an old friend—got him the permanent job. Southern Miss had hired Aubrey K. Lucas to be its interim school president, replacing Saunders. Lucas had been USM president from 1975-1996, and is one of the most respected men in the state, and early in his first term had enjoyed watching a Golden Eagle football team quarterbacked by one Jeff Hammond.

Hammond also had the support of a large portion of the fan base, who loved that he was a conservative military man—and that he was critical of Giannini, whom they still blamed for Fedora's departure and the Hawaii Bowl fiasco. Hammond was named athletic director in June, but rather than the four-year contract customary for ADs in Mississippi, he only received a one-year deal, as a compromise with the college board that didn't want him in the first place. Hammond had a large debt to address, and he didn't have much time to do it.

* * *

Hammond had his eye on a specific revenue-generator from the beginning. When the department's deficit was discovered, he openly wondered why Southern Miss hadn't taken advantage of one of the most common payouts available to lower- and mid-tier programs: a whopping check in exchange for being a sacrificial lamb.

"Two years ago, we played at South Carolina and they paid us over $900,000," Hammond said. "For some reason totally unexplained, for this past season and the next two or three seasons, the previous athletic director decided to no longer do that."

Cupcake scheduling is a vital part of college football in the BCS era. As a team fills its non-conference slate, the value of an early-season guaranteed win is soaring. And while there's debate over whether farces like FCS school Savannah State traveling to Oklahoma State and FSU in back-to-back weeks is good for the sport, there's no argument about the money: Savannah State received nearly a million dollars to lose by a combined score of 139.

A team like Southern Miss, not much of a threat but still from a mid-major conference, could command much more.

Luckily for Jeff Hammond, he had a likely candidate already on the slate. In 2008, USM and Nebraska had signed a three-year deal that would see the schools play each other in 2012, 2013, 2014. The first and last would be in Lincoln; the middle game would be at Hattiesburg. The visiting team would receive $300,000. Almost immediately upon taking over as interim AD, Hammond began exploring the possibility of moving the 2013 game to a neutral site that would offer a larger payout.

In March, Hammond hinted that New Orleans might be the place. A two-hour drive from campus, the Superdome would still have been a de facto home game for the Golden Eagles. With nearly 40,000 more seats than M.M. Roberts stadium, the revenues would have been significant. Hammond suggested as much as $1.5 million for USM—a source close to the negotations says the Superdome's actual offer was much closer to $1 million.

Nebraska was amenable to the venue change, going so far as to tease it on Huskers athletics' official website, even naming an on-sale date. Meanwhile, Hammond was still shopping around, seeing what he could get. The owners of Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City reached out informally, expressing interest in hosting the Nebraska-USM game. According to a source in the department, no dollar figures were exchanged, but Hammond kept it in his back pocket.

In June, Hammond announced that he had reached a deal for Southern Miss's second game of the 2013 season. It would be at Arkansas, and though no dollar figure was announced, a source puts USM's payout in excess of $1 million.

As the 2012 season got underway, something unexpected happened: Southern Miss kept losing. Everyone had known that the season would see a downturn from the success of 2011. Fedora was gone, and with him the Golden Eagles' starting quarterback, two top receivers, and an all-conference tackle. The team's leading rusher was injured in the Hawaii Bowl, required multiple surgeries, and missed the entire season. So when USM was blown out in its opener at Nebraska, no one was surprised. But the losses continued to pile up. As a tough non-conference schedule ended, USM started falling to Conference USA teams, including UAB and UTEP, which would both finish at 3-9. It was clear that this wasn't just going to be a disappointing season for first-year coach Ellis Johnson; it would be disastrous.

After an early-season loss to ECU, according to a source, the players held a meeting without Johnson—but with Jeff Hammond. They voiced their concerns, claiming they were weren't being properly prepared for games; often, they didn't receive the game plan with enough time to study it before kickoff.

Hammond called up his contact in Kansas City. USM, now projecting as closer to a Savannah State-level cupcake than anyone could have guessed, was now willing to play the part. Arrowhead Stadium would still be a neutral site, but its proximity to Nebraska promised a huge crowd, as well as the loss of any home field advantage. The possibility of the scheduling change—though without a dollar figure—quickly leaked. According to someone familiar with the negotiations, Arrowhead offered Southern Miss $2 million for the game.

Once the Arrowhead news became public, Hammond dropped his counterpart at Nebraska a line. Instead of a neutral site, even one remarkably close to Lincoln, why not just make it a home game for the Huskers? They could use their own operations staff, pocket all the revenue, and start the 2013 season off with a guaranteed win against a name opponent. A source close to Hammond says he had only one condition: Nebraska would have to outbid Arrowhead. If this was going to be about money, USM wouldn't settle for anything less than it could get.

Money was about to be a bigger issue in Hattiesburg, because it had become clear that Ellis Johnson was going to have to go. Though Hammond's platform as athletic director, both publicly and privately, was all about financial stability, that tends to go out the window after a winless season. Hammond had to make a coaching move, both to show the community that 0-12 is unacceptable, and to show the people he'll have to convince to rehire him that he's able to build a winning team.

A source close to Johnson says he was told that if he fired his coordinators, he'd be able to remain coach; Johnson refused. USM would have to bite the bullet, and pay Johnson's buyout clause: $700,000 for each of the three years remaining on his contract. It's a huge hit for a department already in debt, but Hammond's job depended on Johnson losing his.

Before USM's final game of the year, a 42-24 loss at Memphis, Hammond took Johnson aside. The two had a cold relationship ever since his players had aired their grievances to Hammond (a meeting Johnson quickly found out about), and, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation, Hammond told Johnson that he was going to move the Nebraska game explicitly because the school needed money for Johnson's buyout. Hammond also wanted to explain that there were no hard feelings. They shook on it—it was just business.

* * *

Nebraska faxed over the paperwork on Nov. 21. They had barely outbid Arrowhead Stadium, but every dollar matters. After clearing it with lawyers and the school president, the Sept. 7, 2013, game will be played at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium, with Big Ten officiating, and Southern Miss will receive 350 tickets. The $2.125 million will be paid on or before March 1, 2014, and will just cover Ellis Johnson's buyout.

"Athletics is entertaining, it's theater," interim president Lucas told the Hattiesburg American. "And when people quit buying tickets to go see the play, something has to happen."

The show never ends at places like Nebraska, where Tom Osborne happily spends $2 million to secure an easy home victory to start 2013. It won't make that much of a dent—per the latest figures, Nebraska's athletics budget is around $80 million, and pulls in north of $30 million in profits.

Meanwhile, Jeff Hammond's one-year contract is up in June, when he'll have to argue his case before the same college board that didn't want him. He won't have Lucas in his corner this time—the school plans on hiring a full-time president before the school year is out. Even after paying off Johnson's buyout, the athletics department is severely in debt. He's got a whole new coaching staff to hire. He's lost a signature home game against Nebraska. Yesterday, the starting quarterback was arrested on assault charges. Nothing, not even Clausewitz, could've prepared the major general for the challenges of college sports.

Update, 6:50 EST: We just received an email from Richard Giannini. In full, it reads:

After reading your slanderous and misinformed article about The University of Southern Mississippi, you should have done your research and made sure your facts were correct.

1. Dr. Joe Paul, Vice President of USM, was the chairman of the search committee to hire Ellis Johnson. Richard Giannini was a member of the search committee and had one vote out of 10 individuals. Ellis Johnson was the second choice of the majority of the committee. Ultimately, Ellis Johnson was the unanimous choice of the committee. Two members had him listed as their third choice, but had no real objections to him and made the vote unanimous .In fact, Hammond made the statement in introducing Johnson at a major booster meeting in February, that stated, "when I looked into Ellis's eye (during search process), I knew we had our man." Giannini was not in the final decision nor had anything to do with the negotiation of the agreement with Ellis.

2. Prior to Giannini leaving the program, he provided Saunders, Hammond and the VP of Finance, the projected budget for the remainder of the year. He told them that if additional revenue came in before the end of the year that a $1.2 projected deficit in January could be reduced to several hundred thousand dollars by the end of the year. In fact that is what happened and the year ending deficit out of an almost $21 million budget was $370,000. Most of that deficit in 2012 was complied by the transition of football and basketball coaching staffs and the search process of four positions. Giannini asked for an audit at his departure, but this was denied by Saunders. When Hammond accused Giannini of mismanagement in the spring, the IHL and the State Auditor conducted audit of the athletic department and found no irregularities or mismanagement on behalf of Giannini or his staff. When Giannini was hired in 1999, he inherited a $1.2 million accumulated deficit and in June 30, 2012, the accumulated debt was still $1.2 million. The audit this spring showed that the University, under Saunders, had not provided athletics with the maximum amount of state dollars allowed by the IHL.

3. Giannini's statement about Fedora going to UNC was taken out of context by a friend in the media of over 40 years, who had no official capacity at UNC. The statement was not printed until September of 2012 and was later retracted by the author. Fedora in fact, had four or five major BCS offers last year, following the season.

Obviously, the individuals who you received your information from were biased. An ethical reporter or publication would have received both sides of the story.

Richard Giannini