The Big Picture

Ross Bjork has a multitude of opportunities in his new position as athletics director at Ole Miss. The $150 million Forward Together campaign is but one.

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"We're at right around $64 million raised and pledged in commitments," Bjork said Monday of the effort which began last August, some eight months before he officially arrived in Oxford. "I think the fundamentals of the campaign are great. Obviously we need a new basketball arena. The coliseum has seen its better days. The excitement around a basketball venue where people enjoy coming to I think can create a great platform for our program. So I like the piece about the basketball arena.

"I've been involved in building a new basketball arena at Missouri and renovating Pauley Pavilion (at UCLA)," he continued. "So I've got great experience seeing from the ground up how we can build a basketball arena. I think that piece is great."

Football improvements are also a part of the overall Forward Together plan.

"We really need to enhance our football experience," Bjork said. "The north end zone speaking to the rest of campus, really making that the front door, if you will, especially as people come over from the Grove. But also just getting the brick more involved and the facades and the fencing. Just making it more of an inviting place, the concourses, the concessions, the restrooms, all those things. That piece is critical.

"But we also want to accelerate some football specific pieces, really that will help the rest of our student athletes as well, around the indoor practice facility. We need a full-scale dining facility that benefits the entire community – students, the community, and our student-athletes. We need the team lounge to be in the locker room space, so we need to move that. That means we can expand our weight room. We need a front door to that facility and a wow factor when people walk in. We have so much history – ‘Wow, this is Ole Miss football,' when a recruit walks in, when a donor walks in, when a visitor walks in, they get excited about it. And a team meeting room that's more of a theater style. And then we just need some graphics around it."

Bjork said it's full speed ahead now, and this summer is important to the future of Ole Miss athletics.

"We want to accelerate that (football) piece as fast as we can," he said. "We really have a target that we need to be in a really good place with our campaign right around September 1st, right around that first football game. We need to raise an additional $10 million to $15 million in commitments to really be able to accelerate the football components around the indoor practice facility and then to break ground on the arena in 2013."

Bjork was recently on the move with the Rebel Road Trip and its 16 stops. He was in Pascagoula earlier this week for an alumni meeting. He said he will be out often among the Ole Miss faithful.

"My assessment is I've got to get out on the road, I've got to go see donors, and our staff is setting me up to do that. That will happen in the next 21 days and beyond. So I think June, July, August we've got to really accelerate some proposals and really get people excited about our campaign. And talk about being great, about being the No. 1 academic and athletic program. That's our vision, and we need help to do that.

"So I really love the campaign," he said of Forward Together. "Now we've got to accelerate and try to get some things done. That's a long answer because there's a lot to it. But that really sets the stage to how we grow over the next five to ten years."

Bjork talked about some of the issues concerning college athletics, of which there are many.

"The landscape in college athletics is there's a lot of instability with the conference realignment," he said. "Fortunately for the SEC, we don't have to worry about anyone leaving. No one's going to leave, I don't believe. Missouri and Texas A&M coming in provides a bigger geographic footprint. It provides competitiveness on many levels. And I think it provides a rival that we can maybe capture with Texas A&M being in our division and Missouri being close. I worked (at Missouri) for six and a half years, so I know it well.

"The key issues for the league are what happens to the television packages. The commissioner and the staff are working on that. What happens beyond the network packages where the SEC can create a platform similar to the Big Ten and the Pac-12 and what happens there. So there's a lot of dialogue happening with what that might look like. That's revenue, that's exposure, that's more access for our fans to have content. So (those are) exciting projects along those lines."

Jason Jones, Ross Bjork
Joey Brent

The bigger picture of college football is also being discussed prominently.

"What happens to college football?" Bjork said. "The postseason. The BCS. That's all being discussed right now. That will really be settled with a package this summer, because they have to start negotiating with ESPN in that exclusive window. The model has to be decided by this summer. So we're hearing a lot about what those models look like from our commissioner. He's obviously highly involved in those discussions, and we're confident we're going to have the right model for college football.

"They have used the word playoff, so you're looking at what that looks like and how many teams are involved. So we were briefed on that last week. Because those conversations are highly sensitive, we're just leaving it with the commissioner to handle from here. I think it's going to be great for college football."

Bjork said significant changes are likely on the way, and he sees them as positives for the sport.

"It's really going to transform financially," he said. "It's going to transform what postseason looks like and how we play college football postseason starting after 2014 and what that looks like. So scheduling is a big piece by adding Missouri and Texas A&M for all the sports. What the BCS looks like? What the television packages look like?

"I think we're in a great position nationally. We're still waiting on a lot of reform items. What happens to the $2,000 stipend? What happens to initial eligibility? They're looking at some staff restrictions on football and basketball, so we're waiting on those. We're monitoring all those pieces as they come to fruition. There's a lot going on nationally."

Bjork said there's no place better to be involved in the changing landscape than in the SEC, of which Ole Miss is a charter member.

"The great thing is we're a leader in the industry with several other conferences that really talk about how reform happens in college athletics," Bjork said. "We're at the table in a big way with our commissioner and our leaders in our conference. It's great to be at this level to be able to really help our future in college athletics get better."

But for Ole Miss people, it all comes back to the more local picture of what Rebel fans and supporters can do. Bjork said there is plenty, and the time to act is now.

"What we ask people to do is unite together because we all love Ole Miss," he said. "I made the comment to one of our staff on the RV about when the road trip's over, we're moving ahead. That has to be our message. We're moving ahead. We just ask people to be on board."

Season ticket sales are not what they need to be, and Bjork is sending a message that Ole Miss has to do better. And he believes that will happen.

"The biggest challenge we have right now is we've sold about 29,000 season tickets, which is down a little bit from last year," he said. "We challenge ourselves and Rebel Nation and the Ole Miss family, let's sell out the stadium. Forty-five thousand season tickets to the public sells out our season ticket base. Then we add 8,000 students and 7,000 visiting team.

"Why not sell out the stadium? Why not sell another 16,000 season tickets between May 7 and September 1 and really use that as our rallying cry to sell out our season ticket base? That will do wonders for the program if we can do that."

Bjork and his staff will press on, and they believe the numbers will move toward selling out Vaught-Hemingway Stadium by Sept. 1 when Central Arkansas comes to Oxford.

"And if we don't (sell out the stadium), then we'll keep educating and we'll keep asking and we'll keep trying," he said. "So I think that's the biggest message over the next four months is help us sell out the stadium. That way we can say we did the same thing everyone else did in the conference. We sold out our allotment and our stadium's packed. It helps our players play better, play at a higher level, be inspired when they walk in that stadium and run out of the tunnel.

"I think that's the best thing that we can do, and that's what we ask our fans – to get on board and help us out. Make that investment at whatever level they can make. That will be our rallying cry for the next four months."

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