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A new day in athletics

Austin McAfee/The Daily Mississippian


Lightning in a bottle twice. That’s how search committee co-chair and FedEx executive Mike Glenn described the hires of football coach Hugh Freeze and the recently introduced Athletics Director Ross Bjork, who previously served in the same capacity at Western Kentucky. The committee, which included Glenn, co-chair Archie Manning and Chancellor Dan Jones, agreed Bjork’s vision, qualifications, integrity and character set him apart from “a strong pool of candidates for the position.” In his introduction, Jones stressed the importance of athletics for Ole Miss, as well as excellence in the overall university.

“Today is a real step for us as a university and as an athletics department towards achieving that goal,” Jones said in yesterday’s introductory press conference. 

“When we began this search, we wanted to find a new leader for Ole Miss athletics who had integrity and who had character that fit with Ole Miss. We wanted to find somebody who was doing all the right things that you would want to find in an athletics director – clean compliance record, a strong focus on academics and an understanding of the role in the overall university. We wanted somebody who wanted to be at Ole Miss. We wanted someone who believes that Ole Miss can win at every level. We wanted someone who could unify the Ole Miss family.” 

Bjork, 39, has a “depth of experience” at successful athletics programs, including Missouri, Miami (Fla.), UCLA and, most recently, Western Kentucky. According to Jones, Bjork will earn a base salary of $400,000/year with two possible $50,000/year incentive bonuses. During the four-month search, a lot was made about potential candidates with strong Ole Miss ties.

“If you’re one of those people who were hoping that this committee would go outside the Ole Miss family and find someone who would come in with a fresh perspective for Ole Miss athletics, here’s your guy,” Jones said. “If you were somebody who wanted somebody from the Ole Miss family to lead Ole Miss athletics, here’s your guy. Right here. And he is going to be as much a part of the Ole Miss family as the Ole Miss family makes him a part of the Ole Miss family. 

“This is a new day in athletics for us. Ross Bjork is our leader. He needs the support of every person in the Ole Miss family, and that’s the way he will be successful and that’s the way we will all be successful.”

As the youngest athletics director for a BCS school in the country, Bjork said there was never a personal timeline to assuming that role and responsibility.

“My goal all along was to give back to this profession,” Bjork said. “I was a student-athlete at a much lower level, Division II. The purity of that was so much fun. I wanted to give back in some way. To be an athletic director, that was the goal. To me the BCS/AQ program, I just wanted to be at a place that cared about athletics. Western Kentucky cares about athletics; Ole Miss cares about athletics. Those are the programs you want to work at.”

As evidenced by his previous experience, Bjork is a gifted fundraiser. He said developing relationships is the number one ingredient to successful fundraising. He also talked about the momentum of Ole Miss’ Forward Together campaign but knows it has a ways to go to reach its lofty goals.

“The campaign is off to a great start,” Bjork said of Forward Together. “I love where we are at. Now we’ve got to close it. We’ve got to finish it. Can we accelerate it? Can we do some things in a hurry? That’s what I’m going to look into with Danny and his staff. I like the momentum that’s created. Now we’ve got to start working with people.”

Jones said Bjork will assume full responsibilities as athletics director in two to four weeks, but in the meantime, Bjork is going to participate in all the major decisions going forward. Bjork said he wants to be in Oxford by the Ole Miss Grove Bowl on April 21, which he described as an “important moment for our program.” Among those major decisions are the searches for a new track and field coach, women’s basketball coach and the status of men’s basketball coach Andy Kennedy amid the UAB rumors.

“Those decisions are always made with the best interests of the program in mind,” Bjork said. “We went through a tough situation in men’s basketball, but it turned out to be a great situation. Women’s basketball same type of deal, very similar to here; energy, recruiting in the program and competing for championships. So luckily, I just went through a women’s search at Western Kentucky.

“I understand the dynamics of the finalists who are in the mix here for the women’s job. I am heavily involved in understanding that and learning that and, to me, we are going to hire the best coach for this job. The dynamics of that are always what is best for the program, and we have to hire the best and brightest. 

“This is a great job. This program has won a lot of basketball games. People want this job. So, I am going to be heavily involved in that. And, obviously, we’ve got to address coach Kennedy and the chancellor and I have spoken about that as well.”

However, for Bjork, it’s more than fundraising or making the right coaching decisions to be an athletics director.

“I think you are defined by everything you do,” he said. “I think coaches, fundraising and facilities. To me, you’ve got to be involved in everything. You’ve got to be able to hire the right people. You’ve got to be able to fundraise. You’ve got to be able to look at drawings on an architect page and say that room needs to go here and not there. You’ve got to be able to do all things. So, I think we are defined by every decision we make, and I think the filter, once again, is what is best for the program.”

Bjork described Oxford and Ole Miss as “the opportunity to live and work in the best collegiate environment in all of higher education.” He shared his vision and mission for the athletics department in the overall Ole Miss setting.

“We are here to educate our students and athletics will be no different in that vision,” Bjork said. “Here at the University of Mississippi our mission is to provide the opportunity to change lives. Simply put, we engage minds, we transform lives and we serve others. What does that mean for athletics as we integrate ourselves into the institution? We are going to challenge our students athletes academically, we are going to provide them life changing opportunities through sports, and we are going to serve others by providing entertainment, service and competing for championships.”

Bjork went on to say that attitude and effort will determine success through his philosophy and core values based on academic excellence, student-athlete welfare, integrity, integration with the university, community engagement, social responsibility and competitiveness. In the close of his opening statement, he made a final plea to the Ole Miss family.

“Anybody who cares about this institution, I ask one thing of you; pull the rope in the same direction because you love our kids and you love this institution,” he said.