Right At Home

Stephen Ponder's move, along with his family, to Oxford and Ole Miss has been close to a homecoming. At least as far as parts of the country are concerned, that is.

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Ponder is the Senior Executive Associate A.D./External Relations at Ole Miss. He's a North Carolina native and North Carolina State graduate with a business administration degree. He worked at his alma mater for 16 years mainly as a fundraiser before heading west to Arizona State for six years. There he was the Senior Associate A.D. for External Relations/Executive Director of the Sun Devil Club and supervised all external areas and their 40 staff members.

Ponder also has a master's degree in sports management from Georgia Southern in Statesboro, Ga. Moving back to the southeast has come quite naturally, according to Ponder.

"Everybody here has been very hospitable, very welcoming," he said as he continues his first month at The University of Mississippi. "Coming from Phoenix where there are a lot of people, you kind of get lost. Here, it feels like home, where I grew up in western North Carolina."

Ponder's wife, Sloane, and their two sons, Stetson, 11, and Stratton 9, are settling into the Oxford community. His hometown is Marshall, N.C. That's in Madison County, north of Asheville, bordering Tennessee.

He understands the value of making people feel welcome and feel like they belong. That's really what his job is all about.

"It basically involves anything that touches our fans, from gameday with customer service, how we answer the phones, fundraising, marketing, ticket sales, sponsorships, our facilities, how they look, everything that touches our fans," Ponder said. "We're just trying to get all those units to talk to each other and be on the same page so that we can be effective in meeting our fans' expectations."

Making It Work

Fan expectations. There are thousands of Ole Miss fans. Meeting their expectations can be challenging, even if most are on the same page. But Ponder loves trying to make it all work.

"I enjoy it. I've been doing this for a long time and really every day look forward to coming to work," he said. "The common theme among the fans I have met and the people that work in the department is they love Ole Miss. So we always keep that at the forefront and try to do the best for Ole Miss."

Certainly he has a track record of success in an area Ole Miss needs a lift. The Rebels are in the midst of a $150 million capital campaign for athletics in addition to the daily efforts to raise money for an athletics budget that is currently in the $62 million range.

During his time at N.C. State, annual giving rose from $3 million in 1991 to $9.5 million in 2005, and over his final eight years, Ponder was part of a team that secured $120 million in pledges and contributions in capital campaigns, including $55 million towards the football stadium.

While with the Sun Devils, ASU's athletics fundraising increased from $7.5 million to $18.5 million, and new practice facilities were constructed for both football and basketball.

On The Same Page

Ponder's ideals and beliefs are the same as those of Ole Miss Athletics Director Ross Bjork. Otherwise he likely wouldn't be in Oxford.

"Ross has talked about core values and guiding principles, and for us from an external standpoint, we want to be easy to do business with," Ponder said. "Come to a ballgame, buy a ticket, anything, we want to be easy to do business with, be transparent, be accountable. And we want to be following the theme that exists here at Ole Miss that's so prevalent, and that's we want to be hospitable. That is the calling card of Ole Miss. We want to make sure when people interact with our staff and us, they feel that."

He believes Bjork's message is one that is easy to understand.

"As I've heard Ross speak, he has been very consistent with a very simple message," Ponder said. "It's not hard in terms of concept. Now, carrying it out and us being consistent with it, that's why we talk to the staff about holding each other accountable. It's not just me holding someone accountable. It's vice versa. Again, I mentioned our fans' expectations. They want us to want the same things they want. That's why I do think it's simple in concept. But as long as we always make the decisions to say are we being easy to do business with, are we being transparent, are we being accountable, and are we doing it the right way, being hospitable. If we do that, I think the rest will take care of itself."

Cross-Country Experience

Ponder's time in North Carolina and Arizona allow him to bring quite a complete background to Mississippi. Each state has its unique set of challenges.

"North Carolina has 16 public universities," he said, mentioning that number does not include prominent in-state private universities such as Duke and Wake Forest. "There is a lot of fighting for space in the newspaper type things. N.C. State as I grew up and also worked there was really trying to catch up to some of the success North Carolina and Duke had had most recently. N.C. State had success prior, but then in the ‘80s had some issues. So it became a situation where N.C. State just needed to focus on itself and not worry about anybody else.

"Arizona State, really their competition isn't the University of Arizona. Their competition is pro sports," he continued. "Phoenix is saturated. Arizona State in terms of competition is a completely different market."

Ponder believes Ole Miss has things in place to move forward and become more successful. Now it's a matter of moving in that direction together.

"For Ole Miss, we are the Flagship school of the state. A lot of proud tradition and heritage and rightfully so," he said. "The supporters of Ole Miss and the fans of Ole Miss have been fantastic in terms of what's been built here already. Everybody getting on the same page and going in the same direction is vital."

Growing The Fanbase

Focusing on the current fanbase but also growing the donor and fanbase are "vital" to the future of Ole Miss athletics.

"For us, we've asked some people who've been involved for a long time to continue giving," Ponder said. "And we'll probably still talk to them for sure. But we really want to grow our donor base and our fanbase to get wider so we can share the load on what it's going to take for us to be successful in this conference and in this country."

Ponder said those experiences he and Bjork have from locales across the country will be beneficial. They understand what fans and supporters want, and it is the same thing the athletics leaders want.

"Great experiences at N.C. State and at Arizona State really give me a much broader understanding of the role here at Ole Miss," he said. "Ole Miss is Ole Miss, and Ole Miss is a special place. Any experiences we've had at other places, if it can help make Ole Miss better, that's what we're after. But we're not after trying to change Ole Miss. And so it is a special place in a special conference. For us, we're looking at things and saying maybe we ought to tweak this or tweak that. It's going to be a lot of fun throughout the process.

"As Ross has mentioned many times, it's buying a t-shirt, getting your neighbor involved – we want you to go to a game – make a donation of 100 dollars a year, 10 dollars a month, whatever it might be that you can do to be involved. Just respond and be an active participant with us as we grow the program."

Bjork has mentioned he is ready for his first football gameday experience at Ole Miss Saturday. Ponder feels the same way.

"I'm looking forward to just experiencing how much love there is for Ole Miss, the pageantry and everything else," he said. "My boys are definitely looking forward to it and seeing it. Gameday for me is going to be really special."

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