Talking Sports

As basketball season is in full swing and the 34th bowl game for Ole Miss football is upcoming, Athletics Director Ross Bjork continues to tackle some important issues. One of those was announced last week, the contract of first-year head football coach Hugh Freeze. We take a closer look at that and more in Part I of an interview with Bjork.

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"It's an annual situation where you've got to look at your personnel," said Bjork, also in his first year at Ole Miss. "You've got to evaluate your contracts on an annual basis, because in our business, as competitive as it is and as great a relationship as Coach Freeze and I have developed and as much as he loves Ole Miss, we're in a competitive environment. So you cannot take anything for granted."

Bjork said he's confident Freeze is where he wants to be. Bjork's actions show he wants Freeze to be at Ole Miss.

"Did I believe that Coach Freeze was going to leave Ole Miss after one year? No," Bjork said. "But do I want to take that for granted? No. I think the process you have to go through is that you have to identify the challenges, identify the needs of the program, sit down and have a good dialogue with your coach. He's obviously got a representative that you deal with as well. But I think the important thing for us is that we believe in what's happening by changing the culture. We could have won less games this year and we still would have believed in changing that culture for what he's doing and what the staff is doing and how we're recruiting and just really how we're developing young men.

"So we believe in what he's doing, first and foremost. We believe he's a great fit. And we're in a competitive environment. So you can't take anything for granted. You have to go through the process every year where you try to stay out of the coaching carousel. We did that this year. We've got to make sure every year we're analyzing our status and really analyzing the future and what makes the program move ahead. And I thought this was important to make the program move ahead and show confidence that we believe in what's happened. That helps on many levels, from our fans to recruits to our current players to our administration on campus. And as we grow the program, we'll grow with Coach. I think that's the commitment we all have."

Bjork likes the fact that Freeze and his family are basically "at home" at Ole Miss and in Oxford, a place they are familiar with and love, since they are native north Mississippians.

"He grew up around this program, and so he loves it here," Bjork said. "His family loves it. They are pouring their hearts and souls into this program on many, many levels. But at the same time, he has to know that we're committed as a program and as an administration to have the best football program possible. Because if there's any doubt in his mind, then will he put forth the full effort? We can't let that happen. And that's not going to happen. But we can't let any doubt slip into his mind that we're not totally committed. That's why you make the investment and the steps that we're talking about."

IPF new team meeting room

Bjork said the contract for Freeze is uniquely for him, but it also has many of the details all college football head coach's contracts have in this day and age. He does, however, remind us that the salary for Freeze is still at the bottom among Southeastern Conference head football coaches, obviously with incentives as a result of accomplishments.

"I think it goes back to what I said earlier about growing together," Bjork said. "The salary is still the lowest in the SEC; I think it ties with Kentucky at $2 million. But it also provides incentives. Should we have success on the field like we anticipate, then it will grow. And there's an annual escalator in there for his salary as well, so his salary will grow. What I like about it is we grow together. We incentivize if we have great success, he gets rewarded, his staff gets rewarded. To me that's the best contract for us at this time. Then, as I said, you sit down every year and say 'OK is this what's best for the program?' You analyze these things as you move along. I like the flexibility in it. I like the growth in it. I like the incentive-based package in it. And I think it's best for the program."

The Forward Together campaign continues. All components of that drive remain. However, the campaign was launched under a former athletics director, head football coach, and UMAA Foundation executive director. Most of the campaign targets remain the same. Some much-needed new ones have been added.

A general tweaking of such a project should be expected, given that the campaign was launched in August, 2011, and different people are now in charge of a lot of important areas of athletics.

"To me the IPF was an additive component of our campaign. The core principals of the campaign are still in place – the arena, the expansion of the (football) stadium, the expansion of Olympic sports venues and complexes for our Olympic sports. But we know football drives the engine that is college athletics, especially in the SEC," Bork said. "And so to me, the investment in football had to take place as soon as we could. The thing I love about the IPF is it's football heavy, it's football driven, but the dining facility will benefit all 400 of our student-athletes. That's a component that gives us an added recruiting advantage for rifle as well as it does for football, because we can train our athletes in nutrition that we're not getting right now. We don't have the full complement of a dining facility. So that's what I love about the IPF. It's going to have components that are going to benefit all our student-athletes, like the nutrition center. It's going to have a team meeting room that we can house our athletic department staff meetings in, but also our football team can benefit. Or if a class wants to meet and have an auditorium for 200 people that the campus wants to use. So I like the flexibility of that.

Ross Bjork
Bruce Newman

"Then we'll have the lobby, the recruiting area. We don't really have a recruiting room, if you will, so we'll have a destination point where recruits can walk in and they can say ‘Wow, this is Ole Miss football.' And over here is the dining facility, here's the lobby, here's the coaches offices, here's the team meeting room. Everything becomes synergized when we have visitors come to that building with a new front door and a lobby and the team room and the dining facility being really close by. Then from a function standpoint, Coach Freeze is (currently) up on the second floor. His personality is he interacts with people. He doesn't like being isolated. So we're going to use that space upstairs for some breakout rooms for our staff that they don't have right now, and we can bring (Freeze) downstairs so he can interact with more people and just be more efficient. And the locker room gets expanded with the player lounge."

Bjork knows it is for the current student-athletes to use, but just as importantly for potential future student-athletes to use, if they choose Ole Miss.

"I love the 'wow' factor additions we'll have for this building," he said. "I love the fact that it can serve all our athletes and not just football. But it gives football recruiting a boost and that winning edge I think that building was lacking.

"There's an article in Forbes magazine that came out over the weekend (that said) recruits make decisions with their eyes, and facilities are a big part of it."

Bjork said the IPF project, set to begin early in the new year, will make a showplace out of an already outstanding indoor practice facility and football complex.

"Once we (decided to) expand the dining facility, it became necessary to expand the weight room," he said. "Once we punch out the team meeting room on the north side of the building, we asked the question can we add a coach's office for Coach Freeze to be able to be on the bottom floor? Everything will get touched, really with the exception of the actual field. That will stay the same. Everything else will be upgraded in some manner."

Bjork reiterates the Forward Together campaign also remains the same, and that the new IPF additions and renovations are simply an improvement to the original plan of action.

"There might be some confusion that we took away from something by doing the IPF, and that's not the case at all," he said. "What happens with all these projects, these are all financed. So it becomes a cash flow situation. So based on our cash flow of the campaign and based on cash flow of the athletic department, we were able to add the IPF project maybe ahead of schedule, if you will."

(Part II of the Ross Bjork interview tomorrow afternoon.)

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