By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
Ole Miss beat writer Parrish Alford sat down with new athletics director Ross Bjork on Wednesday. Here’s what they talked about:
Daily Journal: How do you feel about the “youngest AD in FBS” designation?
Ross Bjork: “The way I feel about that is age is a number, it’s about your experiences. I told the chancellor, ‘As long as you’re OK with it …’ I am who I am. To me it’s all about doing things the right way and working your tail off every single day to make things happen whether you’re 39 or 59. It doesn’t matter. Our job is to work extremely hard for these student-athletes.
“That doesn’t matter to me. I’ve got the experiences to match anybody, and now it’s just being here at an SEC school like Ole Miss.”
Daily Journal: How long were you involved in discussions with Ole Miss?
Ross Bjork: “It really heated up the conference tournament week for me when we were in Hot Springs, but it was all through the search firm. I really kind of held them off as long as possible, because I didn’t want to disrupt what we were doing at Western Kentucky, because I love that place. That place has meant the world to me and my family, so I didn’t really want to engage in a conversation until I felt that the time was right. That was really at the end of our basketball season, so once our season was over against UK, on that Thursday night, that’s when it accelerated to here we were last Thursday at the press conference.”
Daily Journal: What did you know about Ole Miss before those discussions?
Ross Bjork: “I knew of the passion. It’s an SEC program. I knew of Oxford; I knew of the Grove. I knew of all the things that really the public knows about in our world of college athletics. I knew some of the staff that are here, but until I dove into it, I didn’t really understand the passion that it has, that the alumni feel about the program, the history and all those things. You just go about your business and put your head down and do your job at your institution, but when you really start studying it, wow, it’s a great place that has an aura that is unmatched on many levels.”
Daily Journal: How do you handle this in-between time? Who gets the biggest part of Ross Bjork right now?
Ross Bjork: “I’ve been trying to have my family get the biggest part of me, but that’s been difficult. The biggest thing is I cannot work two jobs. There is no way to do that, so the focus points for Ole Miss during the transition were hiring a women’s basketball coach and talking to Andy Kennedy. Beyond that, I really need to give my time to Western Kentucky. That’s the right thing to do. That’s the fair thing to do. I’m still employed there until April 11. I don’t officially start here until April 7. Now that this is done with Adrian Wiggins and coach Kennedy and I have spoken, I will really turn my attention back to Western Kentucky.”
Daily Journal: What is your strategy in terms for marketing for athletics?
Ross Bjork: “Marketing is really the face of the program in terms of how we’re messaging, how we’re seen, whether it’s a branding issue, whether it’s logos, whatever it is. Marketing is the front porch of the athletics program. It’s very important. It’s a priority for us. How we speak to the community is so important. A lot of times it’s the only voice that people hear, because everything is so fast.”
Daily Journal: Are you active on Twitter?
Ross Bjork: “I’ve been off the grid, because I needed to stay silent during the search and hiring. I love Twitter. I think it’s a great way to interact with fans. I’ve picked up over 2,000 followers since I was named last week. I think people want that platform to hear from Ole Miss athletics and to hear from me, so I’m going to use it a lot. There may be some days that I don’t have time, but other than that, I’m going to be on there promoting our student-athletes, our teams, our programs and really speaking and interacting with fans as much as possible.”
Daily Journal: What will be the biggest differences in leading the department at Western Kentucky and leading at Ole Miss?
Ross Bjork: The scale is much different. You’re dealing with a bigger budget, bigger stadiums, bigger fan bases, the media attention that Ole Miss receives. Western Kentucky has a great platform, and it’s a great athletic department, but there is a difference. We’re in the Southeastern Conference, and so I think it’s the scale of the program, if you will. It’s just a bigger footprint. My job is to capitalize on that footprint. That’s really the biggest difference. I’ve been at large programs at UCLA, Missouri, Miami, so that part doesn’t bother me whatsoever. Now you’re just dealing with a little bit different numbers from this chair.”
Daily Journal: How did you share your decision to leave with your Western Kentucky coaches?
Ross Bjork: “It was tough, because of the timing of it. We had a full staff meeting last Tuesday, and I couldn’t say anything because of the timing of it, because nothing was finished on the Ole Miss side until really that Tuesday afternoon. What I tried to do was give the key head coaches who report to me a heads-up before everything was official and try to communicate with my key staff, but it was a little bit of an awkward moment. The agreement wasn’t done with Ole Miss, but I had to still do my job at Western Kentucky. If it didn’t happen, I had to come to work the next day. I tried to be as forthright as possible and tell people before it was official.
Daily Journal: You changed basketball coaches twice in about a month’s time this spring. What goes into a decision like that?
Ross Bjork: “To me, it’s about what’s best for the program. So the change we made on Jan. 6 was best for the program to give those student-athletes a chance to be successful, a chance to compete. Who knew that we would go on this great run and make the tournament and beat Mississippi Valley State and go toe-to-toe with Kentucky for a little while? Who knew that? Our deal was, ‘We’ve got to give these student-athletes a chance.’ Same thing on the women’s side. We had to give them a chance to have great crowds, to win more games, do things the right way in the community. That’s why you make those decisions. What is best for the program, and what is best for the student-athletes?
Daily Journal: Your football coach, Willie Taggart, went through a very difficult season his first season two years ago. How did you manage that situation?
Ross Bjork: “It’s very similar to what I’m walking into here. Coach (Hugh) Freeze was hired in December. I was hired in March. Willie Taggart, at Western Kentucky, was hired in December. I was hired in March. To me, they’re both great hires. I think it’s a great situation. What I’m going to do, and what I did with Willie Taggart was I just locked arms with him and said, ‘What do you need to be successful?’ Stay the course. It was a rough season (2-10 overall, 2-6 in Sun Belt). I mean there were some losses where we walked into that locker room, and we’re going ‘Oh my God, is this ever going to turn around?’ Stay the course. You have a plan, and it’s going to work. It takes time. It takes time to build the culture, time to build a winning mentality, to develop the fans and get them to understand what’s happening. So, at that moment it was stay the course, and be consistent, because the system works. We know coach Freeze has a system that works. We knew Willie Taggart was part of a system that works, and so to me, that’s the message I had with Willie Taggart after the 2010 season, and guess what, we went 7-5, should have gone to a bowl game, but we didn’t, and now they’ve got a great foundation at Western Kentucky.
Daily Journal: Can you give some examples of learning experiences and your growth as an AD?
Ross Bjork: “That first football season really, that was a teachable moment, because we knew we had the right guy in Willie Taggart. That was something that we grew from. I’ve dealt with men’s basketball really since the day I got to Western Kentucky. There were a lot of challenges, a lot of issues with the program. To me, I learned a ton from the day I started at Western Kentucky until we hired Ray Harper as our coach. Those are probably the two biggest moments in terms of learning how to deal with coaches as an athletics director. Now, before I could have opinions, but as the AD, I have to make the decision. You grow with each decision. Some are good, some are bad, and some you just have to live with and correct the next time around.”
Daily Journal: What were some things you dealt with in previous stops that have prepared you for this moment?
Ross Bjork: “Just being around great leaders. It’s being around great leadership but also understanding that our job is all about the student-athletes. A lot of times in the jobs I head, I didn’t really understand that, because I was deal with fund-raising, I was dealing with donors. Everything we have to do is all to benefit the student-athletes. We wouldn’t have jobs. I had to learn that part of it, but also, this is a serious business. People take athletics serious, and that’s not necessarily the right thing, but we have a responsibility because of that.”
Daily Journal: What was your involvement in the hiring of Adrian Wiggins as women’s basketball coach at Ole Miss?
Ross Bjork: “I was obviously brought in very late in the process. I knew they had finalists on the table, and I wanted to understand who those finalists were last Wednesday when I got in town. I had a great briefing with Lynnette (Johnson, senior women’s administrator), and there were three who were lined up, so I was able to meet with the three finalists we brought to campus, Adrian Wiggins being the last. I actually met with him in Bowling Green, Ky., on Saturday morning. He was flown up there to meet with me, just because of the logistics to get us face to face. I was involved really from Wednesday afternoon to today in meeting the three finalists, then calling Lynnette on Saturday and saying, ‘We have our guy in Adrian Wiggins and let’s go, let’s get the deal done.’”
Daily Journal: How quickly did you get involved in discussions about Andy Kennedy and his contract, and is there a timetable for a resolution?
Ross Bjork: I got involved in the interview process, asking questions, and they were asking questions of me and how I may handle that situation. Really, it was early on in the discussion. Andy and I spoke last week, we spoke over the weekend, we spoke today. We believe that hopefully very soon, exactly when, we have to iron out a few details, but I hope within the next couple of weeks we can have specifics. Andy is our coach. We believe in him. I’ve studied him the last week and a half in terms of what he’s done in college basketball, what he stands for as a person. We’ve got to get over the hump and get to the tournament, and he knows that. No one wants it more than him. No one understands how to get there more than him. We just have to work out the details and be supportive of this program. We’re sitting in a great (practice) facility that we have to sell. We’ve got one that’s going to break ground. There’s a lot of exciting things that can happen around basketball, and now we just need to put the resources behind it and give Andy a chance.
Daily Journal: South Carolina just hired a coach who’s going to make $2 million in his second year. Does something like that impact those discussions?
Ross Bjork: We all understand the dynamics and the landscape. Of course that is out there, that number is out there, $2 million a year, six-year deal. It doesn’t impact the base salary discussion. There might be some creative ways we look at a few things because of that, but otherwise, Andy’s our coach, we’ve got salary numbers we’re talking about, and we’re talking about what his contract looks like moving forward.
Daily Journal: What do you think should be your first priority when you get over here full-time?
Ross Bjork: “The first priority is meeting as many people as possible from our staff, to the community, to the state of Mississippi and really understanding the culture of Ole Miss and the culture of our athletic program. It’s hard to really pin that into a specific moment other than I’ve just got to meet people, I’ve got to shake people’s hands, I’ve got to look them in the eye and tell them what we’re all about. So that’s going to be the first priority. Of course, there are some detail things we need to work on. We’ve got to help coach Freeze get through some academic challenges. We’ve got to get out on the road and do the tour stops the week after the spring game. We’ve got to get Adrian Wiggins transitioned, we’ve got to get coach Kennedy’s contract finalized. There are some details like that, but the biggest thing is meeting people and being accessible, telling people all the great things that are happening here at Ole Miss and that, ‘We need your help.’”
Daily Journal: How do you go about promoting unity in the fan base?
Ross Bjork: “To me, we’ve just got to talk about Ole Miss and the athletic program here, our student-athletes. To me, that’s how we unify. We unify around the program, around our student-athletes. Whatever the issues are, whatever those challenges have been, to talk about those specifically may not be the best use of our time right now. We need to focus on going into next season, focus on what we have as resources, focus on our student-athletes and really just tell people, ‘Look, we have a great product to sell, a great university to talk about. Let’s all get behind that.’ There will be some specific things we talk about along the way, but my message is going to be, ‘Let’s all get behind our kids, our student-athletes. Let’s all get behind the program, because we love it, and we all want the same things. We all have the best interest of Ole Miss in mind. We all want the same thing, so why not rally behind that?”