New leaders aiming to change Ole Miss culture

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – A year after a newspaper ad campaign called for the ouster of former athletics director Pete Boone, things had settled down in the Ole Miss athletics department before Saturday.
Hired in April, new athletics director Ross Bjork has made three major administrative hires with a fourth pending, a chief financial officer to replace John Hartwell, who was named athletics director at Troy last month.
Bjork has hired department heads in academics and facilities and has hired a right-hand man in Stephen Ponder, the athletics director for external operations.
Even as an NCAA investigation into women’s basketball became public on Saturday, Bjork pledges integrity in moving the department forward in all of its endeavors.
Thinking different
Having staff members who believe as he does is crucial to that mission, he says.
“Changing the culture and the mindset is what I’ve talked about from Day 1, that we’re all in this thing together, and that we have to think at a higher level in how we operate the program,” Bjork said. “Bringing people on board that see things the way we see things, that I can trust in daily management … that is very important for any leader that assumes a role like this in business or athletics in whatever it might be.”
Ponder’s job is to oversee any and all interaction with the public.
Attention to detail is evident, including video board messaging during games that encourages fans to note the badge numbers of stadium employees and respond to the athletics department if the experience is poor – and if it’s positive.
“In the Rebel Club on the east side, we have a young lady that works right when you come out of the elevator, and she’s phenomenal,” Ponder said. “You feel like you’ve just met your best friend, and she’s never met you before. It’s that type of welcoming attitude that we want.”
Ponder and Bjork first met when Bjork was an administrator at Missouri, Ponder at his alma mater, North Carolina State.
They spent time at out west at rival schools, Bjork at UCLA, Ponder at Arizona State, where he remained until Bjork hired him in June.
Ponder says he and Bjork are on the same page with regard to how to move Ole Miss athletics forward, and that begins with customer service.
the right mix
Doing the little things right will strengthen relationships leading to the big things such as a successful completion of the $150 million capital campaign with a new basketball arena and bowling in the north end zone of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Reaching those goals requires unity, and unity requires the proper mix of personalities.
“Everyone who has ever worked at Ole Miss has done their best to help Ole Miss,” he said. “There are people in the department who have been here a long time. We have healthy discussions about why decisions are made. Having all new people would not be good. Having people who have all been here 35 years, that’s not the best recipe. It’s blending the talent that’s here with the new, and we’ve got a really good mix.”
parrish.alford@journalinc.com