A rising star in Mississippi banking is leaving the helm of one of the state's largest banks for a position considered second only to the state governor in prestige -- athletic director at the University of Mississippi.

The 44-year-old James T. "Pete" Boone, for the past three years the president and chief executive officer of Grenada Sunburst System Corp. in Grenada, Miss., officially will begin his new career Jan. 1.

The decision ends Mr. Boone's 20-year career at the bank but will bring him back to his alma mater, where he played center on the football team from 1968 to 1972.

"I've always had a great love for the university," Mr. Boone said. "And for many years I've thought about returning there in some capacity. An opportunity like this doesn't come around that often. I don't think I would have left except for this opportunity."

The opening at "Ole Miss" became available just two weeks after Grenada Sunburst announced on July 1 that it will be acquired by the $6.7 billion-asset Union Planters Corp., Memphis.

Upon completion of the deal, expected at the end of the month, Mr. Boone's new job at the 11,000-student university in northern Mississippi officially will begin. He will stay on as a board member of Union Planters.

"I'm not sure if that [the acquisition] had an impact on my decision or not," he said. "I'm not sure how I would've felt if that had not been going on."

Don W. Ayers, who has been an executive vice president at Grenada Sunburst for the past three years, has been named Mr. Boone's successor at the bank.

While the position at the university brings Mr. Boone to a much smaller operation -- 80 employees and a $12 million budget, compared with 1,700 employees and $2.5 billion in assets at Grenada -- the career move is considered a big step up in the state.

"In Mississippi there's the governor and then there's the athletic director at Ole Miss, and that's it," said Peter Tuz, first vice president at Morgan Keegan Co. in Memphis. "He will be much more prominent and visible as the athletic director than as the president of Grenada Sunburst, particularly now that it is a subsidiary."

His decision caught Grenada Sunburst officials and competing bankers by surprise, but those who know him well said the new position is a natural fit for Mr. Boone.

"It was initially a shock to us," said William H. Andrews, senior vice president at Grenada Sunburst. "But it makes sense. He's always had a love for Ole Miss. He told us this was the only job in the world he would've left for."

Aubrey B. Patterson Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Bank of Mississippi in Tupelo and an another Ole Miss alumnus, said he was aware Mr. Boone was considering a career after banking.

"This came at a good time for him," Mr. Patterson said. "His role would've been changing there. Given his personality and interests, he was an excellent choice."

Grenada Sunburst, with 127 offices in Louisiana and Mississippi, became the third-largest financial institution in the state during Mr. Boone's tenure there. In the third quarter, net income was $7.74 million, a 15% increase from the same quarter last year, and loans increased by 11% from last year at this time. Returns on assets and equity were a solid 1.23% and 16.43%, respectively.

The university will need Mr. Boone's management skills.

Ole Miss has been under a cloud of scandal for the past year as the National Collegiate Athletic Association investigated the athletic department for recruiting violations, including offering clothing, cash, and entertainment to prospective athletes.

Three weeks ago Mr. Boone traveled to Houston with other university officials to hear the NCAA's verdict: no postseason bowl games for two years and no nationally televised games for one year. The former athletic director of 17 years, Warner Alford, resigned in July, and the football coach, Billy Brewer, was fired.

Mr. Boone, who served on the search committee to find a new football coach, sees the problems in a positive light.

"I think, strangely enough, it's an excellent opportunity for Ole Miss," Mr. Boone said. "The school's been trying to establish its identity for a number of years, and this could be a catalyst to pull our group together. I'm very optimistic about it."

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