Talking More Sports

There's a little bit of time and a few athletic events remaining in calendar year 2012. But for Ole Miss, looking toward 2013 continues to be one of great anticipation for all involved. In part II of the interview with Athletics Director Ross Bjork, we'll hit on some of those topics.

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Football, as was mentioned in part I, is getting some improvements to its complex with upgrades and an expansion to the indoor practice facility. But the entire Forward Together campaign will come into much clearer focus in the new year.

"The arena is still on track to break ground in 2013 and to be finished in 2015, to start the 2015-16 (basketball) season," Bjork said. "We're still on track with that and we're still planning towards that. That's really focused on design. It's focused on construction process, financing, and fund-raising. We've got to continue to raise money. So that's still on track to be opened by 2015, which is part of the original campaign."

Where will the new arena be built? That is still a bit up in the air. Originally planned for behind the Turner Center basically on top of the long-standing tennis courts there, it could be located in another area. But close to that area, and it could affect another major aspect of the campaign.

"Depending on the location of that arena will really dictate how the north end zone comes together," Bjork said. "If we put the arena right next to the football stadium, how do those connect? How does the north end zone connect to the arena? How does the north end zone connect to the rest of campus? What happens to the athletic building? What happens to the parking lot between (the athletic building) and the Fed Ex (Academic) Center, which will come down at some point in time? Where do we build the (new) academic center? Where do we build another weight room? Those components are still fluid right now, because we've got to make sure that we do it right. If we tear something down, we've got to have that building replaced. All those things are being studied right now to maximize our timelines and to maximize our budget to make sure we can pay for it."

Further translated, it means 2013 will be exciting to reveal many of the plans Ole Miss people have been hearing about for some time now.

"The arena is on schedule. The north end zone could be dictated by the arena location. Then we have to say, where do we put everything back?" Bjork said.

He visualizes a plan to have all this come together in an almost breathtaking sports complex for Ole Miss, with the impressive baseball stadium already built located not far away.

"Where do we put the academic center, the weight room that will be torn down in the Starnes Center (used by most sports other than football, basketball, and track), the M-Club room? I believe we need a front door for our athletic department," Bjork said. "Where does the team store (currently the Rebel Shop) go, along with the ticket office and the development offices?

"We do not have a centralized Hall of Fame," he continued. "We have a great M-Club room, but no one sees it. It's not open. So we need a Hall of Fame so if somebody wants to come in at noon on a Monday on Dec. 17, they know where to go. Here's the front door to athletics. Those are the things we're looking at for the north end zone."

Hugh Freeze
Bruce Newman

And he shares his vision, his ideas, with those around him.

"Every time I drive by here, I pull somebody aside and say ‘Can't you see it? Can't you see the vision behind all this?' It makes sense and we love the planning going into it. We just have to make sure we can stage it from a timing standpoint, and then obviously to pay for it and continue to generate excitement around our campaign."

Some definite decisions on some aspects of the new and improved facilities are upcoming quickly. As the calendar turns, look for more progress being made as to the exact locations and timelines on several important projects. The first three to six months of 2013 appear to be very important to almost the entire project of Forward Together.

"We do have to make some solid decisions, and we're really close to (deciding on) the arena location," Bjork said. "We're really close on the north end zone and what that might look like. Then we've got the funding piece.

"Our plan in the first quarter of 2013 is to go out and raise more money in really a quiet manner, so that way when we go public, we can show more momentum in our campaign. And then we can really announce some timelines. Once we know process, we can dictate a timeline. And once we know money and financing and fund-raising, we can dictate a timeline. It is fluid but we have to make some firm decisions pretty soon."

Winning football games and the Rebels being in a bowl game have helped with all things Ole Miss sports, including the campaign.

"Around the bowl game, we can create some excitement," Bjork said. "We'll have some of these (campaign) conversations. There will be a lot of people in Birmingham, a lot happening around the bowl game, and really explaining the vision of the arena and the front door of the athletic department and the campus connection and to get people excited about making contributions.

"So (some fund-raising) will happen in a quiet manner, and I think that's the best way to capitalize. Then when you announce things publicly, you show more momentum in the fund-raising."

Bjork knows that all Rebel fans and supporters, and Ole Miss alumni, cannot give huge contributions and donations to the campaign. But he believes there are some things that everyone can do in their support of Ole Miss.

"They can buy season tickets to basketball, baseball, football, whatever it might be. They can contribute to our UMAA Foundation and join our Five-Star Fund. They can make a gift to the (Forward Together) campaign. So everything adds up."

And, as stated earlier, winning helps like nothing else.

"I've received so many emails since our last game from people saying they're joining, and asking for membership information," Bjork said. "Our development staff has never been as busy as since that (Mississippi State) game ended."

Bjork said more moments, like the 41-24 victory over the Bulldogs and all that surrounded the Battle for the Golden Egg that day, are in the Rebels' future.

"It provides a boost," he said. "You beat a rival in the manner that we did, that creates excitement. The atmosphere was electric. The bowl game is feeding off of that, where we've sold 21,000 tickets (out of the Ole Miss ticket office, later announced at more than 23,000). There's a lot of energy, and our staff is busy. We'll take that."

Bjork said, however, there will likely be many more Ole Miss fans than that at Legion Field on Jan. 5, 2013, when the Rebels face the Pittsburgh Panthers. When Birmingham was finalized as the destination on Dec. 2, Ole Miss fans responded and have ever since.

"I think this game worked out to be the perfect destination for us," he said. "It's a Saturday game. It's the only game on TV. The time of year that it is, it gives people a chance to have their holidays. They've got Christmas at home. Then they can come to Birmingham on Friday night if they want to, the game is at noon (on Saturday), and they can be back (home) Saturday night.

Bo Wallace
Bruce Newman

"I think it worked out to be a perfect storm where we're going to have 40-45,000 people in Birmingham cheering on our team," he said. "That gives us a momentum boost with what's happening on our campus and with our football program. And it also tells the college football world that Ole Miss can travel, and they can travel at a high, high number. This could be the largest number of (one school's fans) that attend a bowl game this year in college football."

So what does that tell Bjork?

"This just makes a statement that if things are happening in the right direction here at Ole Miss, we can have a special program on many, many levels. I think this is just another example of the great assets we do have at Ole Miss to build upon."

More important information from Bjork:

On more than just "sports" being a part of the equation: "The thing I'm really excited about and proud of so far are the relationships we've built on this campus with our students and with our faculty and with our deans and with our administrators. And also our academic success. We're not where we want to be. Our goal is to have a 3.0 cumulative grade point average, all 400 of our student-athletes. The fall (semester) was 2.84. Last fall football was a 2.10. This fall it was a 2.35. While that's not a 3.0, it's improvement. The attitudes are changing. Our department grade point average went from a 2.65 last spring to 2.84 (this fall). The academic piece, I'm really excited about."

On the 2013 football schedule being road heavy, then home heavy: "We tried to make some movement with two non-conference games, and it just didn't work out. But I think our players are going to love it. I think our crowds are going to respond. I think based on what's happening this year, our season tickets are going to be up. So we have to look at it as a one-year, unique schedule that has six home games in a row (with an open date after the third one). Then in 2014 we get back in a regular cycle with non-conference at the beginning and the conference games to close out the year."

On future non-conference football schedules: "There are some things we're working on. We want to have the best non-conference schedule for our program. That means a chance for success. But also that means we're not afraid of anybody, but we also want to be smart. We do play in the SEC, and (there has to be) a balance. And that's how it's best defined." (Editor's note: More games like the Boise State contest in 2014 in Atlanta are being explored. The cities of Dallas and Houston are mentioned as possible locales for a game of such magnitude against some foe in perhaps 2016.)

On his own professional situation at Ole Miss as far as his contract and employment: "The Chancellor's my boss, and that's who I report to. I've got a great relationship with Chancellor (Dan) Jones, and he's committed to having a great athletics program moving forward. We're all in it together."

On what will determine the number of seats in the expansion of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium: "I think it's dictated by everything – fund-raising, season ticket demand, single game demand, and design. I think it's predicated on all those factors. The most pressing factor would be demand, and that would come from our fans. They can dictate that."

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