Last month, we took a look at the University of Southern Mississippi football program and its athletic director, Jeff Hammond, who a year ago inherited a coach he never wanted and a multi-million-dollar athletic department deficit he had to fix. Last month, he addressed the former by firing coach Ellis Johnson after an 0-12 season, even with $2.1 million remaining on his contract, and he had an eye on the latter when he moved USM's 2013 game against Nebraska from Hattiesburg, Miss., to Lincoln, Neb., for a payout of ... $2.1 million.
"In the end, the Nebraska option in Lincoln provided us the greatest financial opportunity to help us set future conditions for this program," Hammond said. "This is not something that I wanted to do. No one wanted to do this."
Hammond, we've learned, may not be done trying to wring more money out of the Golden Eagles' schedule. In July 2011, then-AD Richard Giannini—whom Hammond blamed for USM's sorry finances—finalized an agreement with BYU for a home-and-home series in 2014 and 2015. That contract is published here, and it's a fascinating glimpse at the legal framework behind football scheduling, but the thing to focus on is the guaranteed payments.
For each game of the home-and-home, the visitors receive $200,000. BYU is a fairly sexy non-conference opponent for a terrible Southern Miss team, but as Hammond showed when he gave up a home game against Nebraska, he's not concerned with glamour; he's concerned with money. And breaking even on two slots in the schedule that might otherwise bring in some money isn't going to get the job done.
In response to an open records request, Deadspin has obtained a number of emails to and from Jeff Hammond. (All of these emails can be found at the bottom of the post.) One, dated June 21, just two weeks after Hammond was named full-time athletic director, seems to indicate he was already working on voiding USM's agreement with BYU.
(Jason Gray is Southern Miss's senior associate athletic director; Rebecca Johnston is Hammond's executive secretary.)
Messages left with both Southern Miss and BYU last week were not returned, so we'll have to do some speculating here. The contract includes a $1 million cancellation penalty; either the program has a compensatory gig as a pay-to-play patsy in mind or it expects to negotiate down the fee. It's also not clear what the current status of the BYU series is. As of October, the BYU games were still listed on USM's internal upcoming schedule (more on which in a bit).
Another email shows that Hammond has been aggressive about booking other non-conference games. One, dated Aug. 15, was written to Hammond by Russ Potts regarding a potential matchup with Tulane. Potts is a former state senator from Virginia as well as a former AD at Southern Methodist University, and since 1982 he has run Russ Potts Productions, which promotes and organizes sporting events. These days that more often than not means brokering college football neutral-site games—Potts was Hammond's point man when he was originally trying to hold the Nebraska- USM game at the New Orleans Superdome.
A Tulane game has not yet been announced—not publicly, and not on USM's internal calendar. Dated Oct. 24 is possibly the most interesting document in the whole dump: Southern Miss's upcoming schedule for the next 10 seasons. This is what an athletic department uses to keep track of its non-conference agreements and see what holes need to be filled (each team must have at least five home games a year). USM has commitments nearly a decade in the future: On Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, USM will open its season at South Alabama.
Southern Miss's schedule runs through 2022; this page only covers through 2019. The left column shows the just-completed 2012 season. As this internal schedule is from October, it still shows the 2013 Nebraska game as a home game, which would have cost USM $300,000.
There are some moneymakers coming up for Hammond and Southern Miss in the next few years. In addition to the $2.1 million from Nebraska next year, USM will also receive nearly a million for traveling to Arkansas. Another game at Nebraska in 2015 will pay $700,000; a game at LSU in 2016 will pay $950,000; and the 2017 season opener in Knoxville will net the Golden Eagles another $850,000.
(All these away games mean USM has to scramble to fill its home schedule. Hammond's emails show a verbal agreement for a home-and-home with Texas State—though interestingly, only the first leg, at Southern Miss, was officially announced. The emails also contain negotiations with the AD at Alcorn State for a game in Hattiesburg, in either 2014 or 2015.)
When Hammond took over as AD, he bemoaned his predecessor's choice not to offer up Southern Miss as a sacrificial lamb for the big programs, in exchange for major paydays.
"Knowing the financial situation we're in now, I don't know why the decision to not play these pay games was made," he said. "We're working hard to do everything we can to make up for some lost opportunities and create some new revenue streams."
You can start to see the scheduling philosophy underpinning all these moves: home games against tiny schools that won't ask for much money; road games against much bigger and better opponents that are happy to pay for an easy home win. That's the ideal, in any case. It's going to take a while for Hammond to dig out of the hole he didn't create, but he's working on it.