Ole Miss chancellor reflects on Rebels' programs

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

Dan Jones became chancellor at Ole Miss on July 1, 2009.
He’s seen good times and bad times in Ole Miss athletics and approaches a very high-profile department at the university in a manner different than his predecessor, Robert Khayat.
Through the ups and downs he remains a fan at heart, a fan of the smaller programs as well as the better known ones.
And he believes that athletics at Ole Miss, after a difficult sports year, is trending upward.
Q: How do you see the role of athletics within the framework of the university?
A: Athletics is an important part of this university and an important part of many universities. Certainly it plays a larger role here than in a lot of other universities. We have a proud athletic tradition, and many people who have affection for Ole Miss have affection for our athletic programs. They’re a great asset for Ole Miss, and we’re very proud of our programs.
Q: Your predecessor was very visible and outspoken regarding athletics. What is your personality as chancellor with regard to athletics?
A: I certainly have a different profile than Chancellor Khayat. I was not a successful athlete. I’ve been a fan for a long time. I’ve been an Ole Miss fan for a long time. I love athletics. I love Ole Miss athletics, but I don’t have the personal history that Chancellor Khayat did. My situation is more typical for a university leader than his. I think every university leader finds his own kind of approach in dealing with athletics. Some take a more public part in the conversation, some a less public part. I had the luxury of joining the university with a very experienced athletic director, one who had made lots of hard decisions, one who had made lots of good decisions.
I had the luxury of coming to the university at a time that we were having a good bit of athletic success, when we had a strong group of head coaches in our major sports, and so I’ve not been compelled to play a large role in major decisions in things like coaching changes and so forth. Some of that is still ahead of us to see how that will pan out. I’m grateful to have a strong and experienced athletic director to lean on for those kinds of decisions.
Q: How does it affect how the university feels about itself when the football team is 4-8?
A: In American culture sports plays a large role. College football for many people is kind of the ultimate sport, and who would have figured when college football first began that it would get to the place that it is now in terms of prominence in people’s minds, the attention that it gets. In many universities including this one, people’s moods are driven by results on the athletic fields, primarily the football field. It’s just a reality of life. I can tell you from my two years’ experience as being chancellor, my first year with winning football season, a Cotton Bowl victory, then last season not as successful, it’s more fun to win than it is to lose.
Q: How do you interact with coaches?
A: Outside of my role as chancellor, I’m a big sports fan. Sometimes you’ll see me at sporting events, and some people will presume I’m there out of obligation with my position. Like most people who are there, I’m there because I love watching sports. I love competition. I love going to all of our events including some that are less attended. I love going to our volleyball games, our softball games. I’ve seen several rifle matches since I’ve been here. I love competition. I love athletics, and fortunately my wife does too, so we both enjoy going to sporting events. I’m there because I’m a big fan.
In my role as chancellor I have to sometimes separate that. Any sports fan who is engaged in the game might occasionally have an opinion about a decision a coach makes. Let’s just say I’m more careful about expressing those than some people are, because some people might feel those decisions have weight.
I can assure you I tell our coaches all the time, ‘My opinions about how you coach have no weight at all, because I know nothing more than the usual fan does about how to make those decisions.’ I am pleased to have happy and healthy relationships on a personal level with our coaches. I spend time with them. They know I enjoying coming to watch their teams play. I enjoy those relationships with them, but they all know, clearly, that in terms of evaluation and management, that’s done by Pete and not by the chancellor.
About Pete Boone
Q: Regarding Pete Boone, your athletics director, what has been your reaction to the groundswell of concern for his performance?
A: There was discontent expressed in two categories. One was the discontent related to a very disappointing athletic season. They 2009-2010 athletic season was one of the most successful we’ve had in years. Fans have been hoping for and expecting to see Ole Miss return to performing at the championship level. I think all of us who love Ole Miss sports were encouraged by back-to-back Cotton Bowl wins in football, more success than we’ve had in basketball for a long time, continued strong success in baseball, continued success in some of our other sports like tennis.
We were having increasing expectations about what Ole Miss athletics was supposed to be like. The 2010-2011 seasons were the most disappointing we’ve had in a long time. I understand people’s frustrations. I was disappointed, Pete was disappointed, our coaches were disappointed. There was some frustration around that, raised expectations and then dashed expectations.
That led to a lot of people, just as you have done, to step back and take a longer view of things about the status of our athletic programs. Several people took the time to point out that we’ve not won championships in our major sports for a long time, that there’s not been the level of excellence in our athletic programs that people who love Ole Miss want and expect. That’s been expressed over the last few months. Some of that has been expressed by people who think that a change in athletic leadership would change the trajectory of that and would make things better. I understand the passion that people have in their desire to see us do better.
I have responded to some of that communication in a number of ways. One of the things that I’ve said to several people is that if I felt that changing leadership in athletics would help us achieve championships faster I would be happy to make that decision. It’s my responsibility to make that decision. I do select the athletic administration, but at this time I remain convinced that this last year was an anomaly. The trajectory of athletics in terms of the type people we have as head coaches, the progress in facilities, the progress in creating financial infrastructure to lead to success, the progress in private support, the progress in attendance, all of these, the long-term trajectory is in the right direction.
I still have strong confidence in Pete, and the team that he has in athletics. I’m confident with the continued strong and full support of loyal Ole Miss fans that we will achieve what we all want and that is winning championships.
Q: What are some success stories within the last year of athletics that you’ve seen?
A: Even though results on the field have been disappointing, we’ve had extraordinarily strong fan support. I can’t tell you how grateful I am, and people involved in athletics here are for the support of our alumni and our fans.
As an example, we finished No. 3 in baseball attendance this year. We had a good baseball season by most school standards, but with the program that Mike has developed, it was a disappointing year for baseball. Yet, in that phenomenal facility we have and in one of the smallest towns and population densities for college baseball all over the country, to be among the leaders in attendance for baseball … it’s remarkable to achieve that.
We had strong attendance in football and in basketball. We had again a good year in tennis, but relative to what’s expected here, not nearly as good but strong attendance in tennis again. Even though people certainly, there are some who are concerned and speak about things in negative terms about our athletic programs, when you look at important metrics like private giving, ticket sales, seats in the stands, we have had such strong support. That is going to be an important element in our pathway to more success in the future.
Q: Are you concerned that feelings toward Pete Boone will negatively impact the fund-raising campaign?
A: I am confident that when a strong plan is brought forward for the next steps in growing our facilities in athletics that just as loyal Ole Miss supporters in the past have responded positively and have helped us achieve progress that people will respond positively again. Will there be some who could give, who are unhappy with Pete who won’t give because of that? I’m sure, but does that mean we won’t be successful in achieving our goals under Pete’s leadership? Absolutely not.
Q: How do you think the mascot will be received?
A: When I became chancellor I had no interest in mascots. I have a strong interest in students and a strong interest in allowing our students to lead school spirit. I’m proud of the way our students have managed the issues around the mascot. I will continue to support our elected student leadership in every way I know. I think we all recognize that in most schools that have gone through mascot changes, and there have been dozens in recent years, in almost every instance there has been a transition period of continued affection for the old mascot, resistance to the new mascot and a gradual acceptance of the change.
I suspect our situation will be no different than many other schools that have gone through mascot changes … some controversy, some irritation and inflammation, but I expect the vast majority of those people who love Ole Miss will continue to love Ole Miss even if on a given day their favorite mascot is not the mascot. I’ll continue to support our students through this effort and continue to support out athletic department as they continue to introduce our fan base to our new mascot. I am optimistic that in the long term, the Ole Miss faithful will do what’s best for Ole Miss.
Q: How do you assess the rivalry with Mississippi State?
A: We have great sports rivalries with Mississippi State. It’s a rivalry that is long and storied and sometimes becomes heated, but it’s a great rivalry. Some people who enjoy rivalries like to enjoy them in a kind of mean-spirited way. Some of us like to enjoy rivalries in a lighter way and see the fun side of a rivalry.
Our rivalry with Mississippi State is important to the state of Mississippi, and it’s important to Ole Miss and Mississippi State. We should never get away from the fun of that rivalry. We have so much more in common than we have not in common. I always want to win, but the reality is we both are important assets for the state of Mississippi, and Mississippi has lots of needs. There are things our universities can do. Some of those things we can do collaboratively to make this a stronger and better state. Dr. Keenum and I are both committed to making Mississippi all that it can be and have our universities play their proper role in seeing that happen.
I think it is good and healthy for us to have a strong and collaborative, competitive relationship. I am grateful that Mark and I have a friendship outside of our professional relationship and believe that can be effective for both of our schools and not get in the way of the great competitive rivalry we have on the courts and on the fields. It works out better for us to leave each other alone when we need to leave each other alone, to battle fiercely and competitively when we need to and to work collaboratively when that’s necessary as well.