Moving Forward - Part I

The Spirit's Jeff Roberson talked to Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork this week about some of the things going on in and around Ole Miss athletics. Here is Part I.

Q: Let's start with something a lot of fans are always interested in - football scheduling. So there will continue to be eight Southeastern Conference games in football. And at least one of your non-conference games must be against a team from one of the other “major” conferences.

RB: “The model has been set. We’re at eight games in the SEC, and then we have a ninth game against a Big 5 conference or a high resource conference. We all approved that scheduling priority and philosophy moving forward as a conference. Each school will be required to schedule a non-conference game, at least one opponent per year starting in 2016, among the other five major conferences. You can classify that as a mandate or SEC policy or bylaw.”

Q: Was this done for strength of schedule, TV, etc.?

RB: “Everything. Strength of schedule will be one of the key components of the college football playoff. We believe playing within (the SEC) provides a great strength of schedule first and foremost. But in order to really protect each program, it was decided this was what’s best for the conference to make sure we do everything in our power to guard against somebody saying they played a weak schedule. Well, no we didn’t. We play in the SEC. And now this additional (power conference) game.”

Q: Some SEC teams already play annual out of conference games against power conferences. And some others, because of movement from one conference to another, are now playing them annually.

RB: “Kentucky plays Louisville, Florida plays Florida State, South Carolina plays Clemson, Georgia plays Georgia Tech. Those type games are already there.”

Q: Ole Miss and Georgia Tech have a home and home later this decade. Is that still on?

RB: “Right now it’s still contracted. But we’ve mutually both verbally agreed to get out of that contract. We’re just waiting on the paperwork to be signed and finalized.”

Q: So where is Ole Miss headed in adding this power conference game? Anything happened yet?

RB: “Where we are right now is we have a lot of things in the works. We hope to be able to announce a few opportunities in the coming weeks and months. We don’t have anything contracted. We have a few things that are close to being contracted. Once they’re signed we can announce them. They’ll be exciting. Some could be neutral site games. Our model (for the four non-conference games) will be three home games and one either neutral site or home and home.”

Q: So this starts in 2016?

RB: “Yes. This year is set, and 2015 is set. In 2016, all we’re waiting on is the addition of the Power 5 game. We have somebody selected, we have the date, we’ve got everything solidified. We just need to sign the contract.”

(Editor’s note: The 2014 non-conference games are Boise State in Atlanta and home games against Louisiana-Lafayette, Memphis, and Presbyterian. The 2015 non-conference games are Tennessee-Martin, Fresno State, and New Mexico State in Oxford, and a game against Memphis in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The three non-conference games already set for 2016 are homes games against Memphis, Wofford, and Georgia Southern.)

Q: Update us on the arena and the parking garage.

RB: “The arena is moving ahead. They’re in the foundation work right now. Obviously the site has been cleared and the hole has been dug. You don’t see a lot of upward movement right now, because they’re doing basically everything subterranean in terms of setting the foundation. They have to do test piles, which is boring in concrete and tests to make sure that the dirt and the soils all match, which is part of a normal process. They’re doing that right now. In the next four to six weeks we’ll start seeing some things vertical out of the ground. We have our groundbreaking on July 31 at 10:30 a.m. That’s the hard hats and the shovels and the ceremonial groundbreaking that takes place with a facility like that. We’re excited about opening that in December, 2015. The parking garage next to it is a fluid situation. Everyone is working extremely hard to get it done as soon as possible. We’ve basically prepared for the worst, meaning we wouldn’t have it for the football season. But we also are pushing and the contractor is working hard that maybe we can get in it. We’re just expecting the worst, because I believe that’s the best course of action.”

Q: So if you don’t get in by the first football game, is there a possibility that you could get in before the season is totally over? And is there the possibility of a fluid move into the parking garage?

RB: “Everyone who selected the parking garage, we’ve accommodated them somewhere else, basically for the entire season. If something frees up during the season, then we can move people around during the season. Yates (Construction) is working hard. Our campus facilities and planning are all working hard. The architects are all working together. We’re just trying to help the process as much as we can to get it done. We had the second rainiest month of June on record. We had rain delays last week. It’s been an above normal rainy season. So the weather has been an impact. Everything for that project had to go right to get it done (by the fall semester). It was an aggressive plan.”

Q: Is that the same thought process for the arena?

RB: “It’s typical with any project of a large scale. There are things that happen. We can’t control the weather. There’s the aftermath of that. You have mud. And when you’re below ground, you’re going to deal with even more moisture. So those things are part of a normal process. But everyone is pulling together and everyone is working hard. We plan for the worst, and hope for good news as we move along.”

Q: Explain the lay of the land, so to speak, for the garage and arena.

RB: "There are five levels of the parking garage. There is a street level, and there are four levels above that. Below street level at the arena floor level is a loading dock, parking for TV trucks for football and basketball. All the electronics and all the coordination that it takes to run a television production, that will all be on the arena floor level. The loading dock will feed into arena. I tweeted out a picture of the big opening that’s the loading dock. There is a lot of operational space, a lot of support space that will be at arena level in the loading dock area.”

Q: So when fans walk into the arena, they will be on concourse level. Then they will either walk down to their seats in the lower bowl, or up to their seats in the upper level.

RB: “Yes. When you walk in from the street, you’ll either go down to the seating bowl or to the upper deck. It will be a typical type arena. And all your operational space is on the arena floor level. The restrooms and concessions are all on the main concourse.”

Q: The arena facility will be utilized daily, correct?

RB: “There will be a food court that will be open Monday through Friday on the north side, basically the main plaza, really the main entrance. A food court, a gathering space, just like a student union type food court. There will be an announcement at some point later on the retail spaces. That’s all run by Aramark, our on-campus vendor.”

Q: Where do things stand as far as the football stadium major upgrades?

RB: “It’s really an unprecedented time as far as Ole Miss athletics in terms of facilities growth. If we go all the way out to 2016, we’ll really be under construction for about four and a half years, if you go back to the start of the football stadium improvements such as the brick work, the Manning Center improvements, the parking garage and the arena, and the football stadium. That’s a long time to be under construction, but the end result will be worth it. How we view the (football) stadium is we’re in the design development phase right now. We’re making critical decisions on scope and cost and timing when all those things will come together. We’re really kind of at the final point where we’re ready to make solid decisions with the (football stadium) project. The next step is we go to IHL for approval. That’s really financing approval and also architect approval and just process approval. Once we get that approval, then we can really move ahead with an official project and say here’s exactly what it will look like, here’s the exact timeline, and here’s the exact cost. Then we finish up the design process, and we go out to bid to a contractor. Our hope is we can do some components after the 2014 season. We play the Egg Bowl game on Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. We hope we’ll be ready to start some construction pieces right after that game is played. So we’re lined up to do that. We’re in a great place. We’ll make some critical decisions. I think people will be excited about where we are in terms of how the stadium is expanded, what the exterior looks like, how we’ll add premium seats but also add more general seating to the seating bowl All those things are coming together. Our goals are let’s do this the right way but also let’s build in flexibility. We believe we can take some really nice steps and keep the goals the same – expand the stadium, make the exterior more consistent with what’s been done over the last decade or so, add premium seats because that helps pay for the project. But let’s also add more restrooms and concessions for all our fans. All those things are coming together. It may look a little different than what was announced in 2011. But the goals are still the same. Expand the stadium. Make it look better. Add premium seats. And add fan amenities for everyone inside the seating bowl. I think we’ll be able to accomplish all those. As far as (seating) capacity, we’re still finalizing that.”

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