Moving Ahead

Ross Bjork has a busy schedule, but he keeps up with the number of days he's been on the job at Ole Miss. That might change as days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months and years. Right now he knows exactly how long it's been.

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Monday of this week was day No. 21 in his tenure as the Athletics Director at The University of Mississippi.

"It's been great," he said of these first official three weeks. "People have been hospitable and really welcoming to myself, because I'm solo right now until the family arrives. I can't get over the passion and energy this place has. People are hungry to just be supportive but also to have a product that they can be proud of. And that's our job, to deliver that each and every day."

He'll be joined in Oxford soon by his wife, Sonya, and sons Payton and Paxton. For now, his "immediate" Oxford family has been the ones he's worked with the past few weeks as his task of restoring Ole Miss athletics to a place of greater prominence is underway.

There was the Rebel Road Trip two weeks ago, and now there is the opportunity of getting to know the people he will work with daily. He and head football coach Hugh Freeze certainly got to know each other much better during the road trip.

"Coach Freeze on the football side is passionate about this place, and I think people see that we're together in that front," Bjork said. "Now it's our job to work with all of our coaches to have the same kind of energy and passion around this program."

Bjork believes Ole Miss alumni and supporters saw that from them at every stop. That's the way he wants it to continue to be into the future.

"I think the common theme was ‘Thank you for being here in our community' as we went around the road trip," he said. "I think that's important that we go out and see people. Kind of my tag line is we can't operate Ole Miss athletics from behind our desks. We've got to be out in front of people. So I think one is ‘Thanks for being here.' I think two is ‘Thanks for the energy and excitement you and Coach Freeze are bringing to the table.' They like the passion and energy of what we're talking about. We know we have to deliver on that."

Bjork said the challenges of the Southeastern Conference are always evident.

"We know where we compete. We compete in the SEC," he said. "So it's tough every day. But if you have the right attitude and you work hard, I think good things can happen. I think people are seeing that in the first 21 days. I'm just excited to come to work every single day, Saturdays and Sundays as we have baseball games, and really just chart the course for what we have to do here in the program."

Bjork said fans are eager to ask what they can do to help Ole Miss athletics.

"Just ‘How can we help? How can we help the program?' because we want to see it get back to where we all believe it can go, where our fans believe it can go," he said. "So ‘How can we help?' and ‘What can we do in our community to do that?'

"Our request back to them is ‘Do what you can.' If that means giving at the highest level, or if that means coming to one football game a year. Whatever you can give, give what you can. So I think people are responding to that."

Bjork said a real key now is to continue to pick up momentum heading toward football season and the opening game against Central Arkansas on Sept. 1 in Oxford.

"We're seeing some excitement on the renewal side for our football season tickets," he said. "Now we have to get new people involved and get people that were involved back involved. So the theme I heard was ‘How can we help because we're proud of Ole Miss athletics and we love our institution.' That's the key thing, to capture that and get this thing going where it should go."

Bjork said Ole Miss people can rest assured, and should have already seen, that he and his staff will be visible and available. And they will make contact with Ole Miss supporters as often as they can.

"I think communication is the whole key to everything that we're doing," he said. "You hear a lot of stories about so and so wants to be involved, but they've never been asked to be involved. Or there's a group of alumni in this community, and all you have to do is call on them. We can't be everywhere at all times, so we've got to be strategic about that. But one of things we're going to start here in the next couple of weeks is a phone bank where we're going to do outbound calling to people to ask them to buy season tickets. We have to ask people to be involved. It does sound simple, but we've got to employ the resources and really get our message out there.

"We're going to start some TV, some online, and some newspaper advertising and try to be more aggressive, especially in some key markets like Memphis and Jackson and around Oxford as well. But we've got to ask people to help us. We can't just expect them to call us. We've got to ask people to help."

Ross Bjork, Archie Manning
Bruce Newman

Bjork said Ole Miss will reach out from Oxford. But he also feels Ole Miss people in every community and every area also must see needs in their locales and help him and his staff address those situations.

"The folks that are farther away, maybe we need to be in those communities more often, or have more of a presence, in whatever form or shape that might be in, whether that's in person or more advertising or billboards, or whatever that might be," he said. "Or having key volunteers in those areas that can help us.

"Down on the Coast, you find some fans like LSU fans and others bleed into those areas. That's the thing about some of our locales, they're melting pots. Memphis is a melting pot. Nashville is a melting pot. The Coast is a melting pot. So how do we have a presence that's stronger? We have to look at that."

Again, they will do what they can to make sure Ole Miss is prominent in the areas that are most important to the Rebels and their mission.

"Maybe the outlying areas don't hear from us as much. So maybe we have to be there," he said mentioning a club meeting in Pascagoula Tuesday night attended by himself, head baseball coach Mike Bianco, and assistant football coach Dan Werner. "Coach (Andy) Kennedy was in Natchez last week for a crawfish boil. (We're) constantly doing those things to remind people that we're here and we need them to be involved. But we have to go see them as well."

Ole Miss must also reach more fans in communities near to Oxford, those half an hour to two hours away. They are filled with Ole Miss fans and potential Rebel fans. Bjork addresses those as well.

"Especially for the non-football events, basketball on a Tuesday night, baseball on a Tuesday night," he said. "Our core is always going to be around the Oxford area, and then reach out and invest seven Saturdays a year, if you live two hours away, there hours away. Hopefully you can carve out the finances and the time to do that. And it's our job to educate and ask. As you are closer to Oxford, that's your core, and then you branch out from there."

Bjork loves the passion and enthusiasm he's seen from Ole Miss people. And he respects and appreciates their comments and feedback.

"The way I look at it is, if they're not talking to you, then they don't care," he said. "So the people that are giving advice and giving opinions, we want all those opinions, because I think that means people care. They care about being successful. You have to filter those things and assess and make your own decisions. But if people stop giving their opinion, then I think we're through. We're done, because that means they don't care."

He said it's the same thing he has done as he has continued on his chosen path in athletics administration.

"As I assessed my career along the way, I've always wanted to go places where they care about athletics," Bjork said. "Because if they don't care, you don't have any chance. Taking the job at Western Kentucky, I know that people care. I know they care extremely passionately about this place. That's why you want to work at Ole Miss."

(Part II of this interview will appear on Thursday.)

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