The Journey Continues

It's homecoming weekend, the fifth home game of the current season, and for Ross Bjork some things have become clear already.

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"What I've noticed, and I've been to a lot of football stadiums, a lot of venues like a lot of people have, is that this gameday atmosphere is the best in the country," said the Ole Miss athletics director, who has been on board since spring. "What people do to prepare, really all week, in saving their spot in the Grove or in the Circle or on campus, this by far is the best."

He said others, mainly guests, have noticed that this season as well.

"Other people have come in, I've had visitors this year, and they say the same thing. ‘Where has this place been in our lives? How come we haven't been here before, because this is the best place to come and soak in college football.'"

But Bjork said now Ole Miss must take things a step further. And he believes it will happen.

"Now we've got to bring that atmosphere in our stadium, and that's what we're talking about every day," he said. "But we have the assets, we have the ingredients to build upon and make this a great program."

There's another opportunity at 11:21 a.m. Saturday. Auburn is here for a Southeastern Conference game.

"We obviously want to pack our stadium every game," said Bjork, with one sellout at home so far this season – Texas on Sept. 15. "We set a goal that we want to break the attendance record for the season – 401,000. So that's challenging ourselves and also challenging our fans to help make that difference."

Bjork looks for reasons to give Ole Miss fans reasons to make things happen in a positive way.

"The message is why not? Why not break the record? Why not pack our stadium? Why not enjoy gameday in the best place to do that in the country? And then ultimately that helps the team perform at a higher level," he said. "Hopefully people walk out of there and say ‘Hey, I'm bringing friends next time, and I'm coming to pack that stadium.'"

Certainly a competitive Ole Miss team this season has helped. At 3-3 heading into the game against the Tigers, the Rebels are much improved and more competitive than the past couple of years. Bjork said he's pleased the students have been so supportive.

"The students have been great," he said. "They've been arriving early. We sold 8,000 (student) season tickets, so that's an energy level we can continue. That's what we have to continue to do. We've got to continue to educate and give people reasons to come back. That's putting on an atmosphere on the field and around the game environment as well."

Whether it's a late-night kickoff or a late-morning kickoff, Bjork said the Rebels need their fans.

"That's what makes college football great. Doesn't matter what time it is. Come support your team," he said. "I spoke to a group of students in a leadership class (this week). I asked them how many were going to get out of bed and come to the (Auburn) game. They all raised their hands that they'd be there. That's what we've got to continue to talk about. It doesn't matter what time the game is. Just be there to support the team."

Getting Closer

Bjork likes what he's seen from the competitive nature of first-year head coach Hugh Freeze's team. They know, even with a tough to take setback like the 30-27 loss to Texas A&M last weekend, they're moving forward.

"What Coach (Freeze) and I talked about after the game is that we're so close, we battled, we competed. That was his message to the team, that we have to remember that intensity level, that we can play at the highest level," Bjork said. "We have to remember that. We're going to have those moments where you go through the highs and lows. Sometimes that wilderness journey Coach (Freeze) has talked about, you're going to have these moments where you have to go almost a little bit deeper before you climb out of the hole.

"The attitude has to be at the highest level. We're going to have those moments, and we'll continue to have those moments no matter what. That's athletics. The good thing about athletics is we have a redemption moment. The cruelty of athletics is it can be over like that. And there's a scoreboard."

Bjork said the Ole Miss journey for him and his family has been a rapid one already.

"It goes by fast," he said. "It's hard to believe that it was the middle of March I was announced and I started in the middle of April. It's been great. People have been awesome. You always move ahead as we continue this journey."

The Campaign

One of the main aspects of those warm-weather months was not only getting ready for this school year but focusing on the Forward Together campaign.

"From a fundraising perspective, I think we have a lot of really good momentum," Bjork said. "There's a lot of positive energy around the program in building that confidence level. There are a lot of discussions ongoing on the philanthropic side at a pretty major level. We hope to solidify a lot of those gifts by the end of the calendar year."

The campaign hit the $75 million mark recently and that would signify the halfway point as it was originally presented last year. Since many in the athletics administration are relatively new to the scene, it has given them, especially Bjork, the opportunity to study the proposals and examine what's best for Ole Miss and its future. Like the new arena. Where it will go. What it will entail. And more. It might not be built where it was originally planned, and that is east of Tad Smith Coliseum and south of the Turner Center.

"Once we determine the exact location of the arena, we'll announce that, we'll publicize that, we'll tweak what that design looks like because of that location. Then I think we create more momentum around our basketball arena, because it becomes more of a reality," Bjork said. "We either validate that the location picked out now is the right location, or we look at another spot. That's what we're studying right now. It's important that we make the right decision for the next 50 to 75 years. You don't tear down arenas hopefully for a long period of time. So let's put it in the right spot."

Bjork wants it to be where it can best benefit the master plan for Ole Miss sports.

"I think we've got to look at a central location connected maybe to football. Or to a plaza that opens up to the rest of campus. I think it has to be a drawing factor, obviously for basketball game day but also on non-basketball game day. How do we tie it into football? I think those are the key ingredients of the final decision. Where exactly does it go to fit the rest of campus where it's a destination not only for a basketball game but also (the other) 350 days out of the year as well?"

But the timeline for the process remains the same.

"We still are on target to break ground in 2013 with the idea to open in 2015," Bjork said.

More Immediate Plans

Another project will happen sooner, and the plan for that is also being put in place.

"We're going to launch the indoor practice facility components right after the first of the year," Bjork said. "We hope to break ground on the team meeting room and the dining facility in early 2013. Then we have to figure out the staging of the weight room expansion, the locker room expansion, the player lounge and the lobby and entrance. A lot of that depends on usage. Obviously we can't shut down our locker room during the middle of football season.

"We'll start to see movement around the indoor practice facility in early 2013 and have it ready as soon as we can. We hope to have it ready by the fall of 2013. But if it's delayed, the end result will be worth it if we have to wait a little bit. But that's exciting."

There is also the aspect of the campaign in that first phase that included improvements to the current Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

"Graphics, restrooms, concessions," Bjork said. "Those are all the things we're studying from a magnitude of cost and phasing of those as well. Gut out restrooms. Gut out concessions. Those are all things that are coming into play."

And the north end zone project? It's coming as well, but that one will be a bit longer wait.

"We're looking at the big picture of the north end zone, and how that speaks to the rest of campus from a master plan perspective," Bjork said. "That's more of a longer term vision. I think by 2014 we can hopefully start moving some dirt around the north end zone and continue the momentum of these facilities."

There has been a lot of momentum in the campaign and in Ole Miss athletics the past several months. Bjork is looking forward to what's ahead.

"We've made a lot of progress both in fundraising, financing, and design," he said. "We hope to be in a good spot where we really can talk publicly about it by the end of the calendar year or early 2013."

Future Schedules

Bjork said football scheduling beyond 2012 is ongoing, and that includes both conference and non-conference opponents.

The Southeastern Conference is working on its football schedule for 2013. The schedule for next season will, like the 2012 schedule, be a one-year situation. Beyond that, starting in 2014, the goal is to have a long-term schedule in place.

In non-conference games, Ole Miss is scheduled to play at Texas and host Idaho, Troy, and Southeast Missouri in 2013.

"We'll sit tight past 2013 from a non-conference perspective to see where the football playoff takes us, from a strength of schedule standpoint, and how they balance the rankings and those sort of things," Bjork said. "We'll monitor the landscape of college football and do what's best for our program."

Here are a few other football scheduling notes. Beyond 2013, the game against Boise State in Atlanta to open the 2014 season is still scheduled to be played.

A four-game deal with Memphis in football is set, and men's basketball will also be a part of that equation.

A request has been made to the SEC office to move the Ole Miss-LSU football game back to a date near Halloween, as had been tradition until recent years.

Ole Miss also would like to have Alabama and LSU not remain home games in the same season as has been the case for several years. There is also the possibility that scenario will change, allowing one to be a home game each season while the other is a road game that same season. Time will tell on that as with other aspects of future scheduling.

Basketball tips off the 2012-13 season with a doubleheader. The date is Friday, Nov. 9, the night before Ole Miss hosts Vanderbilt in football. The women host Southeastern Louisiana at 5:30 p.m., and the men host Mississippi Valley State at 8 p.m.

Bjork is looking forward to that weekend and believes Ole Miss fans are as well.

"It gives people a reason to come to Oxford to see our athletic teams in full display," he said. "We love the fact that it's a football weekend, and the doubleheader will work well for both (basketball) programs."

As for his own time here so far, Bjork said the journey continues. He said it does for the loyal Ole Miss fanbase as well.

"I appreciate all the positive comments that have come our way about how we're doing things, why we're doing things," he said. "The journey for us is never-ending. We've got to always move ahead, be proactive, and respond when necessary. I would just tell our fans to continue that united effort. We have to think half full and not half empty. We need to think like winners and always have that mentality.

"Then pack our stadiums, pack our venues, and support our athletes because people love Ole Miss. That's the bottom line."

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