More than half in a core group of roughly 20 people are believed to be extremely wealthy. Beginning last September the group bankrolled a campaign of full-page ads in a number of daily newspapers calling for change in Ole Miss athletics including the replacement of former athletics director Pete Boone.
In November on the day the firing of former football coach Houston Nutt was announced -- 48 hours after the team’s 12th consecutive SEC loss – it was announced that Boone would step down at an unspecified time. A window of up to a year was left open for his continued employment.
He remained on the job but became less visible, and in April the school announced it had hired Western Kentucky AD Ross Bjork to fill its vacancy.
Forward Rebels had remained largely silent since the Boone decision was first announced.
“Forward Rebels’ goals have been accomplished. We simply provided a vehicle for fans to assert the most basic truths, that Ole Miss deserved better leadership and that we should avail ourselves of a nationwide pool of candidates rather than only hiring from within,” group spokesman Lee Habeeb said in a prepared statement.
“The old way of doing things may have been good for a few, but it was not good for Ole Miss. Ole Miss needed to find the best possible talent anywhere, with the help of an outside search firm and with a process that was open and transparent.
“Our work is done. Now it’s time to cheer on our new leaders and support our athletes.”
The group has communicated this message to Bjork and intends to lock its social media accounts.
“When you take the job you hear a lot of different perspectives on everything. I knew about that group once I got into the (hiring) process. My experience has been that since I’ve been hired they’ve been very positive about my selection,” Bjork said. “As far as them disbanding, that’s their prerogative. I’m happy they are excited about the future of the program.”
Bjork says he has not seen money come into the program that he associated with Forward Rebels.
“Not directly, to be honest. Our task has been to meet as many people as possible and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve not met everyone, but I’ve not seen a direct correlation. I do know that people are hungry to have this program back and successful and are willing to commit resources.”
Bjork is optimistic about the philanthropic side of fund-raising for athletics.
“There are new gifts, gifts that were in the pipeline before I got here, and a lot of others we will meet along the way,” he said.
Forward Rebels publicly claimed $7 million was being withheld as long as Pete Boone remained on the job.
Because the group’s ad campaign claimed that Boone was costing the school millions, many assumed the transition to new leadership would result in an immediate influx of huge sums of money.
The assumption was unfounded, and trust must be rebuilt, a source said.
In roughly three months on the job Bjork has made several moves in restructuring the department.
Following the departure of Danny White, the head of the UMAA Foundation, the chief fund-raising arm of athletics, Bjork moved the department back under the control of athletics and created a new position of athletics director for external operations, which he filled with the hiring of Steven Ponder, who worked at Arizona State prior to Ole Miss.
Ponder’s duties will include a wide array of responsibilities including the Foundation, ticket operations and sales, marketing and communications and more.
Bjork has also restructured the sports medicine department and has hired a new trainer, Pat Jernigan, who spent 10 years in the NFL on staff with Tampa Bay.