Timeline: How an NFL star, state officials and a university funded the USM volleyball stadium
As more documents and text messages come to light surrounding the Brett Favre volleyball project, Mississippi Today has compiled a timeline that gives a greater glimpse into how officials funneled $5 million in welfare funds to build a new stadium at University of Southern Mississippi.
The timeline shows that Favre discussed the volleyball stadium for months before reaching out to then-Gov. Phil Bryant for help raising donations. When the private funds didn’t immediately roll in, university officials discussed bringing on Nancy New’s nonprofit as a lease partner on the project. The nonprofit had already signed a similar lease to provide upgrades to another building on campus following a hunting trip Nancy New’s sons attended with USM officials. A flurry of activity happened in late July and early August, including conversations between welfare officials, Favre and Bryant.
USM officials expressed apprehension about using grant funds for the project, but eventually, after the deal was modified to include an additional $1 million for improvements to the basketball stadium and the university’s maintenance fund, per Favre’s texts, university attorneys greenlit the project. It was then approved by the Attorney General’s Office and IHL.
Below is a timeline of events compiled by Mississippi Today based on documents and communication gathered in the court process or retrieved through records requests:
Dec. 20, 2016: Conversations began sometime before then between University of Southern Mississippi and Brett Favre about building a volleyball stadium
“I had the impression Brett wanted to keep his involvement quiet,” Senior Associate Director of Athletics Daniel Feig wrote in an email to his colleague on Dec. 20, 2016.
April 11, 2017: Brett Favre met with USM Athletics about the volleyball facility
“FYI-Chris and I are meeting with Brett and Deanna Tuesday at 11 am to discuss the layout of the facility,” Athletic Director Jon Gilbert wrote in an email on April 7, 2017, the same day Favre started soliciting donations to corporations in exchange for their name on the facility. “Can discuss naming opportunities further if the group has a direction we should look at exploring.”
April 20, 2017: Brett Favre texted Gov. Phil Bryant for help with volleyball project
“Deanna and I are building a volleyball facility on campus and I need your influence somehow to get donations and or sponsorships. Obviously Southern has no money so I’m hustling to get it raised. We want to start this summer and finish in a year or less,” Favre texted the governor.
Bryant said in his filing that this was the first time he discussed the volleyball project with Favre.
“…We will have that thing built before you know it. One thing I know how to do is raise money,” Bryant responded.
April 20, 2017 – July 21, 2017: Bryant’s communication with Favre and welfare officials unknown
Bryant did not produce any of his text messages with Favre or then-MDHS Director John Davis, Bryant’s appointee to run the welfare programs, in the several months after Favre first asked the governor for help with the volleyball project. The messages produced and redacted suggest there could be more communication between the two during this time period.
May 16, 2017: USM Athletics compiled updated donor list
At this point, the USM Athletic Foundation had raised $425,500, including $150,000 from Favre.
May 30, 2017: Nancy New’s sons went hunting with USM athletics staff
On May 23, 2017, USM associate athletic director Brian Morrison invited Nancy New’s sons Zach and Jess New to attend a private hunting event and dinner at Providence Hill Farm with USM President Rodney Bennett and Director of Athletics Jon Gilbert on May 30. They both agreed by email to attend. At this point, MDHS and the News’ nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center were already engaged in grant activities at USM.
May 31, 2017: MDHS wrote letter approving a non-volleyball related lease between USM and MCEC
MDHS writes a letter to Feig that said MDHS is aware that MCEC is leasing space with the university “because we believe it is important to help MCEC accomplish the purpose of their subgrant which is to provide services designed to stimulate employment, support family financial stability, promote literacy, and increase graduation rates while continuing to support positive youth development, impacting teen pregnancy rates, promotion positive father involvement and supporting MDHS county offices through parenting education and parenting/life skills development.”
While John Davis’ name appears at the end of the letter, it is actually signed by MDHS attorney Garrig Shields. This is the first reference to a lease agreement in emails between MCEC and USM Athletic Foundation.
June 1, 2017: AG reviewed USM’s lease with athletic foundation to build volleyball stadium
Special Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Ganucheau emailed Institutions of Higher Learning officials a copy of a lease between USM and USM Athletic Foundation “so that the Foundation can build a volleyball facility, which would then be transferred back to the university.”
Later that day, IHL’s David Buford emailed an insurance professional for advice on insurance terms. He explained the concept of the project: “USM leases the grounds (which is a vacant space and a parking lot next to a USM-insured building) and the Foundation gets financing, builds a new building, and gives the new building back to USM.”
Based on the emails, it appears IHL was unaware where the Athletic Foundation’s funding may be coming from.
June 7, 2017: AG recommended USM lease with athletic foundation for board approval
At this point, the lease does not involve Mississippi Community Education Center, MDHS block grant funds or any mention of serving the needy.
June 15, 2017: IHL Board approved USM leases with USM Athletic Foundation
During its board meeting, the Institutes of Higher Learning board approved two $1 leases with the Athletic Foundation, one for the volleyball project and one for the purpose of renovating M-Club.
June 15, 2017: Nancy New signed a $192,840 sublease with USM Athletic Foundation
Nancy New and Grant Dyess, then-president of the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, signed a sublease for a building within the Jim and Thomas Duff Athletic Center known as the M-Club Room, a space used for USM Athletics meetings and activities. The agreement said the money will be used for renovations and upgrades to the space. The sublease said plainly that MCEC will use the space “for business purposes, educational purposes and for meetings and conferences.”
The M-Club charged membership dues of $50 a year, according to the university’s website.
July 1, 2017: USM signed two leases with Athletic Foundation
USM signed two leases with USM Athletic Foundation, one for M-Club and one for the volleyball project. At this point, MCEC was already engaged on a sublease for M-Club, but not for the volleyball project.
July 16, 2017: USM Athletics reached out to Nancy New about volleyball facility
Gilbert emailed Nancy New, indicating they had met the prior week. He attached a copy of the current volleyball facility design.
“We have not formally announced this project but expect to do so in the next week to ten days. We have hired Weir Boerner Allin out of Jackson as the architect. The facility will be plus/minus 25,000 square feet with an approximate cost of $4 million. Brett and Deanna have agreed to help with fundraising for the facility. We currently have $1.2 million in hand from a variety of people that have committed to the project … Based on our discussion last week, we are interested in presenting this project as once that will benefit women student athletes. We would be interested in presenting to anyone that you would thing have interest in Southern and women’s athletics. I will find out what Brett’s schedule is Tuesday and coordinate a time he can stop by that works for everyone.”
“I am glad to help and look forward to seeing this project to fruition,” Nancy New responded. “I believe it can be done. I, too, was glad to visit with Brian and you. As soon as we get everything put back together after all the renovations, I want you to come back for lunch and a tour of New Summit and our Family Resource Center. The Center offers a good example of the one that we will be organization on Southern’s campus, hopefully in the near future.”
July 18, 2017: Brett Favre met with Nancy New about funding the volleyball project
Favre met with Nancy New, according to Mississippi Community Education Center’s Sept. 30 filing.
July 19, 2017: John Davis met with Phil Bryant about DHS projects
Davis texted Nancy New, “Been with Gov for last two days. He’s loving what we are doing.”
July 21, 2017: Brett Favre and Phil Bryant texted about volleyball project
Screenshots of texts entered into court show Favre texted Bryant on the evening of July 21, 2017, but Favre’s initial message and Bryant’s lengthier response are redacted.
Favre responded to Bryant’s redacted message: “Not sure how we you can help get this facility built for Vball. But you are the governor and on our side and that’s a good thing. Actually a great thing.”
“We can do that,” Bryant responded. “Just get me some numbers and I’ll find a way. Maybe USM or the Coach can call me and we’ll get on it.”
July 22, 2017: Favre sent Bryant construction proposal
Favre texted Bryant a document containing the construction proposal and building renderings. “Latest plans. I’m trying to get sponsors,donations etc…. if we can find a contractor that would say hey rater that give you money I’ll build for free!! Maybe you know of someone,” Favre texted.
“I all over it,” Bryant texted, followed by a bicep emoji.
“Thanks that would help a ton!!” Favre said.
Bryant’s next text, as well as its date and time, are redacted.
July 22, 2017 – May 8, 2018: Bryant’s communication with Favre and welfare officials unknown
Bryant did not produce any of his messages with Favre or Davis for a ten month period, including the time period in which Davis committed to funding the project and Nancy New paid $5 million to the volleyball project and $500,000 million to Favre.
July 24, 2017: Favre, welfare officials and USM athletic staff met
Two days after texting Bryant the construction proposal, Favre met with Bryant’s appointed welfare director John Davis, Nancy New, USM athletics officials and others at the university. During the meeting, Davis verbally committed $4 million to the project.
“Nancy thank you again!!! John mentioned 4 million and not sure if I heard him right. Very big deal and can’t thank you enough,” Favre texted Nancy New after the meeting.
July 25, 2017: Zach New, MDHS attorney and USM Athletics officials discussed volleyball project
“Are you available for a conference call with Garrig and I tomorrow morning?” Zach New emailed Feig the evening of July 24, after the meeting at USM. “I am open to anytime in the morning that will fit your schedule. We would like to discuss options for the new project. I have also copied Garrig in so you will have his contact information as well.”
July 26, 2017: Brett Favre told Nancy New that USM is uneasy about accepting grant
“Nancy I spoke with Jon Gilbert this evening and between you and I he is very Leary of accepting such a large grant. Got me very uneasy,” Favre texted Nancy New. “He did mention trying to find a way for John (Davis) to allocate money to an entity that could then give to us that would pay for brick and mortar. I passed same info to John and of course he sent back we will find a way to make it work.”
At some point after USM expressed hesitations, discussions changed so that the lease would include not only money for the volleyball stadium, but $500,000 for renovations to Reed Green Coliseum, the basketball stadium, and $500,000 for maintenance, potentially causing a $1 million shortfall for the volleyball project, which was already under budgeted.
July 29, 2017: Favre reiterated USM’s fears about taking grant money, suggested including the governor
“Nancy do I need to involve the governor and or Dr.B if need be. Jon made the comment about using money you allocated to athletic dept thus far and although signed off on by all could raise negative concerns etc… with this project and others,” Favre texted Nancy New. “My fear is he doesn’t except all that you and John can allocate even if it is legally signed off on. It’s obvious that you and John are tremendous assets for USM and in order for us to get ahead in the game we have to utilize you guys in every way.”
July 29, 2017: Favre suggested to Nancy New that she pay him for radio spots “and whatever compensation could go to USM.”
“Ok. I could record a few radio spots here initially I’m sure right here,” Favre texted Nancy New. “See how it is received and whatever compensation could go to USM.”
“4 million dollars,” Nancy New responded, followed by three emojis of a face wearing a mask. “Just kidding. The first phase could be $500,000 and after Sept. we can renew. This is a good approach. What do you think?”
“Was just thinking that here is the way to do it!!” Favre responded.
Aug. 2, 2017: Favre texted Nancy New that “the facility is gonna be more than we thought.”
“John said you guys have a big meeting Monday with university. Hope we hit a homerun. Looks as though the facility is gonna be more than we thought which is always the case,” Favre texted Nancy New.
Favre also texted New, “They are scared to death it seems,” and while this text is entered without context, New’s attorney said it referred to university officials’ fears about taking the grant money.
Aug. 3, 2017: Favre asked Nancy New if the media can find out where the money came from and how much
“If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?” Favre texted Nancy New.
“No, we never have had that information publicized. I understand you being uneasy about that though. Let’s see what happens on Monday with the conversation with some of the folks at Southern. Maybe it will click with them. Hopefully.”
Aug. 4, 2017: Nancy New informed Favre of Bryant’s support
“Wow, just got off the phone with Phil Bryant! He is on board with us! We will get this done!” Nancy New texted Favre.
Nancy New alleged in a court filing that around this time, Phil Bryant directed her to make this deal with Favre.
Aug. 10, 2017: Nancy New texted Favre sharing message from USM counsel
Nancy New texted Favre a copied message from USM general counsel Gordon Cannon that says “we are moving ahead to get this done.”
“Wow wow wow!! Great news,” Favre responded.
Aug. 14, 2017: Nancy New met with USM Department of Research about volleyball funding
Aug. 19, 2017: Nancy New texted Favre an update about approval
“Morning. I got a call yesterday from Gordon Cannon that their meetings went well on accepting the money, etc. Next Wed. there is another meeting with MDHS attorney and USM to make sure all the wording is good before it goes to IHL. Still keeping my fingers crossed. I still think it will happen,” Nancy New texted.
“Thanks Nancy. Jon Gilbert said the same thing yesterday,” Favre responded.
Aug. 23, 2017: Nancy New texted Favre USM counsel said “everything is a go.”
“Brett, I just received this info from Dr. Cannon,” Nancy New texted, followed by the copied message: “Nancy, just finished the meeting with Garrig and Jacob everything is a go. Daniel Feig will be in touch with you or Zack to ask for a draft lease. Our target date for having everything complete for board approval is Sept22. I know this a a short time line but that would get us approval 1. October which would not delay bidding the project as currently scheduled.”
Sept. 8, 2017: Zach New sent USM athletics and general counsel the nonprofit’s plans for the lease
Zach New sends an email to Feig and USM counsel Truett Roberts outlining several events MCEC claimed it would host at the university as a result of its $5 million lease. The events include Yellow Ribbon Events – meant to assist members of the National Guard and Army Reserves – MEMA Reservist Trainings, M-Club events, Healthy Teens Rallies, youth leadership camps by Heart of David, the Christian ministry started by former WWE wrestler Ted DiBiase, and other Families First programming.
When Mississippi Today requested records from the university in 2020 that described any programming the nonprofit conducted on campus, they provided records for exactly one event: The Healthy Teens Rally of 2018 hosted at Reed Green Coliseum.
Sept. 22, 2017: USM President Rodney Bennett sent a letter to IHL requesting board approval for the university’s amended lease with USM Athletic Foundation
Oct. 9 2017: AG approved the amended USM lease with the athletic foundation
Oct. 19, 2017: IHL board approved amended lease between USM and USM Athletic Foundation
On the agenda, the item reads: “The IHL Board approved the original Lease Agreement between the USM and Foundation at the June, 2017 Board meeting. Since that time, this project has been expanded in size and scope and the term has also been extended in accordance with the Amended and Restated Lease.”
The approved meeting minutes state: “This lease and subsequent sublease are being funded through the lease of athletic department facilities by the Mississippi Community Education Center (MCEC), a SO1(3)3 organization designed to provide schools, communities and families with educational services and training programs in South Mississippi. MCEC will use the subject facilities to support their programming efforts for South Mississippi. MCEC’s funding for the project is via a Block Grant from the Mississippi Department of Human Services. The funding from MCEC shall be prepaid rent to the Foundation in the amount of Five Million Dollars ($5,000,000) for the leasing of certain USM athletic facilities including but not limited to the to be constructed Wellness Center, Reed Green Coliseum and additional athletic space as agreed upon by USM and the Foundation.”
Oct. 19, 2017: Nancy New texted Favre about approval; Favre said USM is using part of the money for other projects
“It’s a go. All approved by IHL!” Nancy New wrote.
“Finally and thanks Nancy. I hope it’s enough now. Jon said 500k has to go to renovations for reed green and another 500 to maintenances fund,” Favre responded.
“We will still fundraiser, etc. we will get the rest,” Nancy New texted.
Nov. 2, 2017: Nancy New told Favre she saw the governor
“I saw the Gov last night. We will still plan the fundraiser as well when we can get another date from him that works with your time, too. Surely, Southern folks won’t say to postpone it again. At any rate it’s all going to work out,” Nancy New texted Favre.
Nov. 6, 2017: Nancy New made first payment of $2.5 million to USM Athletic Foundation
Nov. 14, 2017: Athletic Foundation received update from USM athletics about volleyball project
“Wellness and Volleyball Facility has received significant gift and also gift in kinds. A partnership with MCEC will make the facility useful to make groups once it is completed,” the meeting minutes read.
Dec. 5, 2017: Nancy New made second payment of $2.5 million to USM Athletic Foundation
Dec. 27, 2017: Favre thanked Nancy New for $600,000 payment
“Nancy Santa came today and dropped some money off,” Favre texted Nancy New, “thank you my goodness thank you. We need to set up the promo for you soon. Your way to kind.”
Mar. 28, 2018: Favre texted Nancy New, telling her the construction bids came in larger than expected
“Nancy I wanted to update you on facility. The bids all are in and shockingly the lowest is 6.9. The architects were confident it would come it lower than what we have saved. Really frustrating. Jon said he wanted to go back to lowest bed and talk to them about getting it down to 5.9. I’ll keep you updated,” Favre texted Nancy New.
“…We can still have the fundraiser at the Governor’s mansion, too. We can use Phil’s business list that he offered earlier. I will be thinking and hopefully there will be something in the new budget for Families First to offer.”
April 19, 2018: USM Athletics shared an updated list of volleyball facility donors
USM Athletics staffers shared by email an updated list of 23 volleyball donors for a total of $6,045,325. There is an entry for a $4.4 million donation labeled from the donor “CMEC”—presumably a typo for MCEC. The line item for MCEC does not contain any more identifying information, such as the date of donation, the donor’s address or contact information, as it includes for all other donors.
The email also said Favre’s original gift of $500,000 was reduced to $250,000 after he instructed the university to transfer $250,000 to the beach volleyball project.
April 25, 2018: Architect sent updated cost sheet for volleyball facility to USM
In the spreadsheet, the total projected construction cost is $6.3 million, the amount needed to begin construction is $500,000 and the amount needed to finish construction is $1.4 million.
Gilbert sent the document to Favre.
April 30, 2018: USM Athletics sends Favre a donor agreement totaling $1.4 million
“Thank you very much for your generous support of this project and your commitment and loyalty to Southern Miss,” Gilbert wrote to Favre.
Mississippi Today did not find a signed copy of the agreement.
May 9, 2018: Favre reaches out to Bryant for help building lockers at the volleyball facility
“Governor this Brett. I’m still trying to save money on Vball facility,” Favre texted Bryant. “We have visitor and Home lockers yet to build and Warren Hood is donating any lumber. If someone would build them on there spare time. Poncho mentioned the prison industry as a builder. The architects can provide all specs.”
“Let me get on it. Turkey hunting in Nebraska. Will be back this P.M.,” Bryant responded, attaching a picture of his kill.
May 18, 2018: Favre and Bryant texted about lockers
“Hey Governor [redacted]…. Any luck with lockers?” Favre texted, followed by a long block of redacted text.
“I think I have some guys in the lockers. Will know more today. They are in Summeral a,” Bryant wrote.
“And do this type of work,” Bryant texted, followed by a long block of redacted text.
Favre’s response is also redacted.
Bryant responded with a thumbs up and “where can I sent a donation for the Volleyball Complex?”
Favre sent Bryant the USM Foundation’s P.O. Box. Bryant then told Favre that he had found a cabinet maker to construct the lockers. “I am also going to reach out to Poncho and see if we can’t get a fundraiser in Hattiesburg put together,” he added.
May 18, 2018 – July 15, 2019: Bryant’s communication with Favre unknown
For this 11-month period, Bryant did not produce any of his texts with Favre, with the exception of one Jan. 12, 2019 text Bryant sent Favre asking him to retweet a post about the HGTV star who helped connect Bryant with the cabinetmaker.
June, 2018: Nancy New paid Favre an additional $500,000 under advertising contract
June 21, 2019: Bryant received and relayed a tip about suspected fraud to auditor
In communication after this point, which includes Bryant advising Favre on how to reword the proposal to get accepted by the welfare department and has been heavily reported, Bryant is aware of the auditor’s investigation into spending at the welfare department.
July 16, 2019: Bryant said he learned for the first time that MDHS was involved in funding the volleyball project
Favre texted Bryant with concerns that Nancy New wouldn’t be able to “fund her part” of the volleyball project. Favre told Bryant that he paid for three-fourths of the construction. Bryant said in his recent court filing that July 16 was the first time he learned about MDHS’s involvement in funding the stadium. Bryant promised to help, and consulted Favre and Nancy New on how to rewrite the proposal to get MDHS approval, but with the ongoing auditor’s investigation, the welfare department ultimately turned them down.
Editor’s note: Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau’s mother signed off on the language of a lease agreement to construct a University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium. Read more about that here.