USM Paid $1.75 Million to Exit C-USA


A C-USA flag flies above M. M. Roberts Stadium before the game in 2019.

The University of Southern Mississippi paid $1.75 million to Conference USA as “Consideration Paid to the Conference for Early Withdrawal” according to an agreement document obtained by the USM Student Media Center today. 

The “Confidential Settlement Agreement and Mutual Release” was signed on March 29 by the presidents of USM, Marshall University and Old Dominion University, the three schools that left C-USA. According to the document, USM had 30 days to pay the settlement from the time the document was approved. The Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning unanimously approved a motion to agree to this settlement on March 31.

How we got here 

On October 21, 2021, Southern Miss announced it would be leaving C-USA to join the Sun Belt July 2023. Southern Miss held a press conference featuring former university president Rodney Bennett, athletic director Jeremy McClain and SBC Commissioner Keith Gill to announce the move. 

However, the university – alongside Marshall and Old Dominion – decided to leave C-USA one year early in a joint announcement in February of this year. In a statement released February 11, 2022, Southern Miss Athletics said, “The University has from the outset expressed its desire to work with Conference USA to achieve an amicable separation…Conference USA has so far refused to discuss any such arrangement with the University.”

Four days later, Conference USA held its ground and included Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall on its 2022 football schedule. The conference threatened legal action, which led to the long process that followed.

The three universities received multiple temporary restraining orders against C-USA from their respective local courts, with the first of these coming on February 24. One week later on March 1, the Sun Belt Conference released its 2022 football schedule, featuring Southern Miss and the other two universities. Southern Miss acknowledged this schedule release while it remained silent after C-USA’s release. This put Southern Miss in an incredibly awkward position as it was on two different football schedules.

Four weeks later on March 29, the stalemate was broken. Conference USA and Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall agreed on an exit plan. The three universities were free to join the Sun Belt Conference – which they eventually did. The Student Media Center requested a copy of the separation agreement, but Conference USA took it to court to keep the agreement secret. Nearly six months later, the Student Media Center obtained the documents.

The Separation Agreement

It was previously reported that the typical Conference USA exit fee was $3 million, but the conference and the universities agreed to settle for a $1.75 million buyout. This was also a penalty for not giving the required 14 months’ notice before leaving. Southern Miss was required to pay the fee within 30 calendar days of receiving the notice, which it appears they have done so. 

The document revealed that Conference USA would not withhold any funding towards the universities from the NCAA, including the academic enhancing fund, academic performance fund, student assistance fund, sports sponsorships and grants-in-aid. Conference USA stated that they would not distribute any other funding towards the universities regarding the 2021-2022 fiscal year. This includes $400,000 for the C-USA television contract in football as well as $1 million from the conference for bowl appearances.

The agreement allowed Southern Miss to host the 2022 Conference USA Baseball Tournament as previously planned. There was debate on whether or not the conference would find a new host after Southern Miss broke the contract, but the tournament occurred at Pete Taylor Park as planned. 

Confidentiality was an important aspect of the agreement, as Conference USA made it clear that it did not want the agreement to become public. The Student Media Center and other media organizations requested a copy of the document on or around March 31, but C-USA filed a protective agreement on April 21 to keep the documents confidential. The matter was slated to go to court on Sept. 15 before C-USA changed course, allowing the documents to become public.

The agreement required Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss to refrain from disclosing the agreement with other universities. The documents specifically named Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA and UAB as schools to not share the information with. 

Where are we now?

Southern Miss officially joined the Sun Belt on July 1 after being a founding member of Conference USA. Southern Miss’ final sanctioned C-USA contest was the Hattiesburg Super Regional which concluded June 12. 

At the initial Sun Belt press conference on October 26, 2021, Southern Miss Athletics Director Jeremy McClain said that Southern Miss would save money on travel costs which could lead to Southern Miss regaining the forfeited money in the coming years.

“It is kind of hard to pin down in numbers, but it could easily be half a million dollars annually for us,” McClain said at the press conference. 

Southern Miss’ first Sun Belt conference matchup was September 17 at Marshall where the Golden Eagles won 3-1. Volleyball begins SBC play September 23 against South Alabama, and football travels to Troy October 8 to begin conference play.