By Hayden Sowers/Special to the NEMS Daily Journal
New Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork spoke with Hayden Sowers for the Daily Journal after speaking to the Kiwanis Club in Tupelo earlier Friday.
Q: Can you talk about how your time at Ole Miss has gone so far? I know you said you counted and you have been on the job for 88 days now.
A: “It’s been going great. A lot of energy around the state. The thing we have going for us right now is the fact that we are undefeated. Coach (Hugh) Freeze and myself and a lot of our new staff have done a lot for our program and getting them excited for what we are trying to build. We know we can get there and we know we will get there it is just a matter of time, but ultimately we have to produce. In the meantime let’s get people confident and excited about the program. I think it has gone great and people are excited about the vision and excitement of the program and we just have to keep the momentum going and capture that excitement.”
Q: Restructuring of the athletic department has been one of your main things that you talked about wanting to fix. How is that going?
A: “It is early with that, but we have restructured our external relations a bit. We have marketing, UMAA foundation, ticket sales, and game operations under one umbrella now. We hired Steven Ponder from Arizona State to come in and what that does is put everything under a consistent package so how we sell a ticket and how we greet somebody when they come in the gate we need all that looking and sounding the same way so that is one piece of it. We have done some reorganization in our health and sports performance. There will be some other places we touch later, but that just takes more time to analyze and restructure. We will eventually get where we have a nice streamline program department. The first step was that external side and we hit the ground running.”
Q: You talked during the luncheon about improvements to the Indoor Practice Facility. What plans are in the works for that facility?
A: “Rehabbing and refurbishing the IPF is our main goal with that right now. It has a great structure and great bones, but we are missing the wow factor. We need to upgrade the dining facility to a full-scale kitchen for our student athlete nutrition and we also need a front door lobby. We need a new team meeting room and a locker room that has a player lounge connected to it. We can expand the weight room. Also the wow factor with the graphics, and that plays back into the lobby area. That is an exciting project for us giving us an edge in football recruiting and we can sell that to our recruits as we are recruiting for 2013 because a lot of the stuff will be done by 2013 season’s beginning. The main message there is if you maintain you fall behind so we have to grow and keep pushing it. This is the first step facility wise for that.”
Q: Switching gears a little bit here, you talked about the fundraising project and how you are at X amount of dollars and need to be at X amount by September 1. Talk about those specific numbers and when ground will be broken on the new basketball arena.
A: “We feel confident that if we reach 80 million dollars in pledges by the fall, September 1 or a little bit after, that we can start the design process for the arena and accelerate that to break ground by the summer of 2013. Right now we are at 66 million and we have a lot of proposals out there right now to get us over that 80 million dollar hurdle between now and September 1. We hope to get there, and if we don’t get there we will be close and then we figure out financially some plans with design packages and all those things to get shovels in the ground next summer.”
Q: Outside of Ole Miss athletics here, what is your opinion on the recently approval of a 4-team college football playoff?
A: “My belief is that it is great for college football that we are in the conversation in society meaning that people are always going to be interested in what we are doing with our postseason. The BCS has had its controversy, but people have been talking about it and now we have the new format. I think it’s healthy to keep it at a 4 team playoff. If we get to big then you are looking at elongating the season, but keeping it at 4 and giving everyone access to those 4 slots and putting it on a big stage is what I think is great for college football and I am excited about it.”
Q: During the luncheon you also talked about the Penn State controversy, what do you think the impact that has on each individual athletic department moving forward?
A: “What it tells you is that you always have to be mindful of the unknown out there. We have to have safeguards in place, background checks with our employees and our camp instructors for our camps that we do now. I think it is a vigilance process and we have to have the mentality that when we do have young people on our campus that we safeguard those young people, because that is what it’s all about with this situation, and then we just do things the right way and have the right people working for us and representing us in the right way. I think it is a vigilance, security, legal side that we have to make sure that we are all buttoned up.”
Q: Last question, has it hit you yet that you are at the head of an athletic department in the best conference for college athletics in that nation?
A: “You always have to stay humble, and my wife keeps me humble for sure but there is moments when you are driving around campus and you say wow what a great place and we are on the biggest stage in college athletics. There are times where you do have to take a step back and say this is a great opportunity and I am very fortunate and blessed to be here. It has probably gone in cycles, some days it hits me and then some days I say okay we are working on this, this, and this. The fundamentals are the same no matter what program you are at it is all about scale. At Ole Miss obviously the scale is very high being that we are on the highest stage in America.”