What $5 million in welfare money bought Southern Miss volleyball

HATTIESBURG — The voice booming from the public address microphone welcomes fans to the “Southern Miss Volleyball Wellness Center” – a subtle nod to the true purpose of this vaguely named building, which was primarily funded by money earmarked for Mississippi's most vulnerable people.

The Wellness Center, as it is officially called, is a product of one of the largest public corruption scandals in Mississippi history, which, according to forensic auditors, misspent at least $77 million in federal funds.

With a reported cost of $7 million, the Wellness Center project received at least $5 million from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Text messages obtained by Mississippi Today show USM legend and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre lobbied former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and nonprofit leader Nancy New for help funding the facility.

“(Nancy New) has strong connections and gave me 5 million for Vball facility via grant money,” a text from Favre to a business partner reads.

On this night, that facility is hosting a women’s volleyball match between Southern Miss and South Alabama, marking the Sun Belt Conference debut for the Golden Eagles.

The official attendance lists 371 fans in the building, but the building’s voice feels louder than what those numbers would indicate.

The University of Southern Mississippi Wellness Center in Hattiesburg, Miss, seen Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, is home to the USM women's volleyball program. Texts entered recently into the state’s ongoing civil lawsuit over the welfare scandal reveal former Gov. Phil Bryant, Bret Favre and others worked together to channel state welfare funds to build the state-of-the-art volleyball stadium.
The University of Southern Mississippi Wellness Center in Hattiesburg, Miss, seen Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, is home to the USM women's volleyball program. Texts entered recently into the state’s ongoing civil lawsuit over the welfare scandal reveal former Gov. Phil Bryant, Bret Favre and others worked together to channel state welfare funds to build the state-of-the-art volleyball stadium.

Part of that is owed to the Wellness Center’s design, which creates an intimate feel — almost like what you might find at one of the built-for-purpose basketball arenas around the country which prioritize atmosphere and volume over capacity.

With the front-row seats just a few yards from the action and even closer to the team benches, verbal input from spectators is certainly in play.

One younger fan settles on his battle cry early on.

“Roll tide,” he yells over and over again, garnering some looks of confusion from the South Alabama players, who do not share that tagline with their northern neighbors from Tuscaloosa. Mission accomplished.

Later on in the match, a man in the gymnasium-style bleachers vies for the attention of first-year Southern Miss coach Jenny Hazelwood. His input is more constructive, offering tactical insight on South Alabama’s setup.

There is no verbal acknowledgment from anyone of the ethical cloud that hangs over this building.

FAVRE:Brett Favre's charity strayed from its stated purpose, gave money to Southern Miss athletics

TIES CUT:Abby Wambach cuts ties with Brett Favre-backed venture that received Mississippi welfare funds

TIMELINE:A timeline of Brett Favre's involvement in the Mississippi welfare fraud scheme

Favre's daughter, Breleigh, played indoor and outdoor volleyball at Southern Miss beginning in 2017 before transferring to LSU this summer. Mississippi Today reporting shows Favre corresponded via text with Bryant and New for help funding the volleyball facility. He also sought help constructing an indoor practice facility for Southern Miss football, according to the Associated Press, but that reached a dead end.

New pleaded guilty in April to four counts of bribing a public official, two counts of fraud against the government, six counts of wire fraud and racketeering. Her son, Zach New, also pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

According to Mississippi Today, the project sidestepped regulations that prevent the use of TANF funds for brick-and-mortar projects by using a lease agreement between the News' nonprofit and the Southern Miss Athletic Foundation — of which Nancy New previously sat on the board.

Southern Miss’ announcement of the project in 2017 stated the Wellness Center would "provide space for community programming, volleyball courts, training room, weight room, locker rooms, classrooms, administrative offices and additional meeting space." It is unclear how many of those spaces exist and how often they are used.

According to the AP, Favre indicated in his correspondence that there were plans to hold workshops and youth clinics in the volleyball arena built on money earmarked for poor Mississippi residents. It is unclear how much community programming has taken place at the Wellness Center.

Asked for clarity regarding the facility’s use by The Hattiesburg American, Southern Miss athletics declined to comment. USM athletics also declined to comment on whether Favre remains welcome at its events.

The University of Southern Mississippi volleyball team takes on South Alabama at the Wellness Center in Hattiesburg, Miss, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Texts entered recently into the state’s ongoing civil lawsuit over the welfare scandal reveal former Gov. Phil Bryant, Bret Favre and others worked together to channel state welfare funds to build the state-of-the-art volleyball stadium.
The University of Southern Mississippi volleyball team takes on South Alabama at the Wellness Center in Hattiesburg, Miss, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Texts entered recently into the state’s ongoing civil lawsuit over the welfare scandal reveal former Gov. Phil Bryant, Bret Favre and others worked together to channel state welfare funds to build the state-of-the-art volleyball stadium.

Back in the arena, an open-concept lobby and a wall of paneled windows with a perfect view of the action leads the way to the noise.

The arena traps the sound inside, one of several new-age features to pair with its old-school vibes. The Golden Eagles make a determined comeback in the fourth set, trailing two sets to one, and the volume reaches a fever pitch. It’s difficult to hear your own thoughts.

Eventually, though, South Alabama secures the point it needs to deflate the balloon and send the fans home dissatisfied.

So out of the welfare-funded, state-of-the-art volleyball palace they stroll. Another battle awaits the next afternoon.

David Eckert covers Southern Miss for The Hattiesburg American. Contact him at deckert@gannett.com or on Twitter @davideckert98.

This article originally appeared on Hattiesburg American: What $5 million in welfare dollars bought Southern Miss volleyball