Catching Up

The summer isn't time off for collegiate athletics. There is no down time anymore. Those days are over and have been for a while.

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During last weekend's NCAA Regional in College Station, Texas, the media caught up with Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork. It was just after the spring Southeastern Conference meetings in Destin, Fla. As the month of June began, Bjork said the Rebels are busy.

"People typically think we kind of shut down in the summer in higher education. But I think that world changed 20-plus years ago," Bjork said. "We never take a day off. Our focus has to be on selling tickets. We're still down year to date in our season ticket numbers. To me, once June 1st hit, we had three months – June, July and August – to sell tickets."

There is a gameplan in place for that. The first part of it was set before Bjork came on board, and that was the hiring of a new head football coach and staff. Hugh Freeze and his assistants have been on board for six months. Bjork has been at Ole Miss for less than two months. But he understands what has to be done immediately. One major priority is to get more people to come to the games.

"We're going to start a phone bank, a call center, here in the next couple of weeks to be proactive in calling alumni, calling friends, calling fans who maybe bought tickets before but have dropped out for whatever reason," Bjork said. "So we're going to gear that up. Our advertising will continue. We'll try to be as aggressive as possible these next three months and really push."

Bjork isn't hesitant to state his goals, not longterm but immediate.

"Why not sell out the stadium?" he asked, along with a comparison of other SEC institutions of all size enrollments and fan bases. "A&M sold out their season ticket allotments, and they have a lot more tickets. Mississippi State has. A lot of the programs in the SEC have. I think all but us and Vandy are sold out of their season ticket allotment. So to me that's the focus. Fundraising. Selling season tickets. And continuing to analyze the structure of the program."

Bjork said his first official SEC meetings were interesting and filled with pertinent topics of importance.

"There was great dialogue across the board with all the different discussions," he said "Every issue matters. Some get more attention than others. Anytime you're in a room like that where you're deciding policy or procedure for a league or that affects your institution, I think it's big. Obviously the scheduling, the football scheduling format, caught the biggest attention. And then the football postseason, and what's going to define that. I think those are the two issues that caught the most attention."

Bjork said football scheduling was time consuming and also important to athletic directors and football coaches alike.

"The scheduling deal is big," he said. "That affects the competitive nature of our league for years to come. So to me that was probably the biggest topic and took the most time. We spent a lot of time with the football coaches talking about that issue.

Ross Bjork
File Photo

"We really kind of left it open-ended right now. The ideal model is to at least go through one cycle, and that would be a six-year window where you're playing the other division through a rotation at least once. I think we just locked it in and it would start in 2013. This year is already locked in. The new cycle would start in 2013. Then we decide how long that would be, and we left that open-ended for now. The league will come back to us in the next couple of weeks and give us more of a model of how long they want to lock it in. We'll see what happens after that."

Bjork said the league was in agreement with eight SEC games in football for now. He also said it was pretty apparent the Ole Miss-Vanderbilt football marriage as the permanent from the other division for each was best for both programs.

"I think from a competitive balance standpoint staying at eight was the best for us and for the league. Other league members expressed that as well, for bowl eligibility purposes and that sort of thing.

"Vandy's a great rival. It's close for our fans. We've got a lot of alumni in Nashville. Competitively I think it makes sense. Coach (Hugh) Freeze likes it. I know Vandy likes it as well. The one rotating more often makes sense. Our fans will see the other division more frequently. The West is tough, but it can go in cycles. The East can be every bit as tough in couple of years."

Bjork said drug testing policies of student-athletes came up in Destin, and he was the one who brought it up.

"I asked the question among the athletic directors if we were going to discuss it, and the answer was not at this point," he said. "Really it's left to our own volition to develop a policy. So we've got some different models we're examining right now. By the time our athletes report in August for soccer and volleyball and cross country and football, we'll have a policy in place."

Since the visit with him was taking place in the press box at Blue Bell Park, home of Texas A&M baseball, it was only appropriate to get his views on one of the league's newest members – the Aggies. Ironically much of what Bjork knows of A&M comes from his time working at the other newcomer to the league, Missouri.

"I've been here several times when I was at Mizzou," he said. "I've always been impressed with the fans, the alumni support, the passion. When they were announced, those that know College Station and Texas A&M said this is a perfect fit just because of their passion. I think It's a great venue, and I think it's great for Ole Miss, too. We have a lot of alums in Texas. We get a lot of students from Texas. So I think having more of a presence in the state of Texas is good for recruiting. I think having them in the SEC is great for Ole Miss and for the league."

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