Moving Forward - Part II

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. Part I was presented here on Thursday, July 24. Here is Part II.

Q: So a little more on the expansion of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium’s seating capacity. What is the thought process?

RB: “We’re looking at that closely. To me we need to be at a number that makes sense, from what you spend on the expansion to get your money’s worth but also additional revenue annually through ticket sales. Also being smart about the marketplace that we sit in, and the TV competition that we do have. Guarding against the couch effect and the high-def effect. It’s easy to sit on your couch with a cold beverage and watch it on a 70-inch high-def TV where you can essentially be in the huddle. That’s why we have to be smart. That’s why we were smart about the basketball arena capacity (approximately 9,600). That’s why we have to be smart about our football stadium capacity. Let’s build it in increments. Let’s build a smart stadium, one that’s efficient, one that provides a great game-day experience but also leaves us room to grow. As we build leave in that flexibility to someday build an upper deck on the west, someday expand the north to look exactly like the south. Whatever is needed at that time. Build flexibility into the project now while also doing it in a smart and efficient way. Obviously it will be a bigger capacity than what we are now (listed currently at 60,580). We’re still determining what that final number looks like.”

Q: What about the Manning Center with all the things that have been improved there?

RB: “We feel good about the Manning Center. There are a couple of other small pieces. There’s some upstairs space where the head coach’s office used to be. One of the things that will be up there is the SEC Network bureau cam. That will plug right into the SEC Network studios. If they want a coach or an athlete and they want to hook them up on a show on the SEC Network, they plug and play. So that will be up there. And then some space up there for a war room for the coaches, offense, defense. That will be one of the last pieces. The parking lot is scheduled to be done by August 17. We’ve created that whole east side of the Manning Center as a front door to that building, with the Williams-Reed Football Foyer, The Grill at 1810, the new awning, that’s the front door to the Manning Center.”

Q: What about a Hall of Fame and Museum that’s been discussed for a while?

RB: “The next layer to the football stadium expansion is what do we do with the FedEx and Starnes Building? What do we to expand the Gillom Center? All those pieces tie in and they’re a domino effect. One of the pieces is a hall of fame. Our goal is to have a hall of fame that’s open Monday through Friday, so people can come in and view the history. We have a beautiful M-Club room (upstairs in the Starnes Center), but it’s not open to the public. Creating that type space is part of the planning, and those are the things we’re figuring out right now.”

Q: What’s the latest with the track and field facility and the ground problems there? The program had to cancel meets this year and move out of the facility.

RB: “That was a curve ball we didn’t expect. We looked at it from a health and safety standpoint. If we have a facility that’s unsafe, let’s shut it down, let’s get the answers. Luckily we have great partnerships with Lafayette and Oxford High Schools where we can go and utilize their facilities. They helped us a lot and we can’t thank both school districts enough. Now we’re getting final reports on what exactly does the sub-surface look like? Where are the holes? Do we have caverns? We want to make sure it’s safe. Worst case scenario is we have to rip out the entire track, re-dig that entire area, build it back up, and build a new track. The parking lot is OK, and the last report will tell us if the buildings and the grandstands are safe. So we’re waiting on that last report to come through. Then we’d only be dealing with the isolated components of the track. A couple of years ago we started noticing some ripples in the track and on the infield. So as it got worse, we discovered that what’s underneath is a drainage system. The drainage system failed because the soil failed. That caused cracks which then caused more soil to fail and to start leaking. It really was a compounding effect. One of the first things we have to do is fix that drainage system. There’s a new parking lot next to the track facility (to the southwest) that will help us with that. The road (in front of the track) is the main access point to the new arena. The drainage system goes underneath that road. We can’t really tear up the road, because that will affect the arena timeline. All these pieces affect each other. We’re working to get all those things done. We’re close to getting some final answers on the track.”

Q: You have several new head coaches heading into 2014-15 – Toby Hansson in men’s tennis, Chris Malloy in men’s golf, Mike Smith in women’s softball, and Steven McRoberts in women’s volleyball.

RB: “Super excited about those coaches, the energy level they all bring, the recruiting connections, the winning attitude and pedigree they bring to the table. All have won (as head coaches). Toby hasn’t been a head coach, but he’s been around one here for a long time as an assistant coach. And he’s seen the model Coach (Billy) Chadwick put together. The rest of them have built winning programs as head coaches. We looked for all that. And they’re great fits for Ole Miss. I’m super excited about seeing what those sports can do.”

Q: Lifting the overall Ole Miss sports program is one of your goals. Talk about that a little.

RB: “We want to finish higher in the SEC and overall nationally. We had our second best Director’s Cup finish in school history – 54th place – in 2013-14. That’s in the whole country and measures all athletic sports at each school. We need to move up. We have only finished in the top 60 three times since they started recording the Directors Cup standings. We were 49th in 2006-07, our highest finish ever. In 2011-12 we finished at 77. In 2012-13 we were at 61, and now we are at 54. We’re making progress but still a long way to go. We know if you’re in the top two-thirds of the SEC, you’re probably a top 25 program (nationally). And you’re probably making NCAA postseason. So we want to improve overall.”

Q: Baseball finally got its long-awaited trip to the College World Series again. Your thoughts on that, and where do things stand with an extension for Mike Bianco?

RB: “Obviously with baseball we’re super proud of the run and what our team did, and how Mike really took a step back and said ‘How can we do a better job?’ Obviously we had the recruits and we had recruited at a high level for many years. We were excited about the roster going into last summer. We added Ben Fleming (strength & conditioning coach). Mike’s talked about a staff retreat he did that he’s never done before. He evaluated everything from academics to strength training to nutrition to the psychological part of it to obviously what we do on the field. I think that helped set the deck for this year’s success. Super proud of him. We’ve reached agreement on a new contract. We’re buttoning up a few things, and we hope to announce that in the next few days or a week or so. We’re excited about the future of baseball. When you start out with (Christian) Trent and (Sam) Smith on the mound, that’s a pretty good foundation to build upon. And obviously the young guys that played well last year that can now blossom and have their role. So the baseball future is bright. They broke the seal on Omaha. Finishing in the top four was terrific. We have a championship-caliber program that can compete for a national title. We’re excited about what that brings to not only baseball but to the whole athletic department. It shows that everybody can do it.”

Q: Talk about men’s basketball for a moment and Andy Kennedy’s program as he heads into his ninth season.

RB: “We just mentioned that if you finish in the top two-thirds of our league, you’re going to make the NCAA Tournament. In SEC (men’s) basketball, I think we’ve kind of talked ourselves out of good basketball. I think we have great basketball in the SEC. We finished in sixth place. I think we were one or two non-conference wins away from making the NCAA Tournament. Normally in the SEC if you’re in the top two-thirds, you’re going to make postseason. Well we didn’t do that. I think with the roster we have and a lot of experience, and with the transfer signees we have. With Stefan Moody and the energy he brings. If anyone has watched any film on him, they know how dynamic he can be. We have Jarvis (Summers), Snoop (White), Aaron Jones. We’ve got a really great nucleus of veteran guys but also young guys that have a lot of talent. So I think basketball is going to be exciting. Andy knows his program better than anybody. He’s our all-time winningest coach. All the things he’s done with limited resources, until we got the basketball practice facility and now the reality of the arena we can point to and recruit to. To me the sky’s the limit for basketball. What we’re asking people now is to get on board. We’re seeing a spike on the recruiting trail in terms of our style of play, in terms of the arena, in terms of our resources. Both men’s basketball and women’s basketball are seeing a spike in terms of the interest level of kids at a much higher level. We’re in on a higher level of recruit. Winning helps recruiting and helps our fans understand that we’re doing something different around basketball, the commitment level is there around basketball. That’s where we are.”

Q: Football. Two bowl wins. Is it corner-turning time, or have they already turned a big one in two years with that program, given the 6-18 record the prior two years?

RB: “The corner is still rounded, and there’s still a curve that we’re taking with our football program. Obviously you’re never satisfied in athletics. You’re always trying to do better. With football for how far we had to go when our coaches arrived, I think we’re still rounding that curve. When you’re in the SEC, that curve is probably never sharp. You’re always probably on that rounded curve because it’s so competitive. So I don’t know if you ever feel like you turn the corner in the SEC (in football). You look at Alabama, even last year. They had a pretty darn good team but they had some slip ups. The excitement level, the preseason accolades, having the returning quarterback with the most starts in the SEC with his experience, the weapons we have on offense. I think our defense is super hungry with a lot of young guys mixed in with guys who have experience. I think we’ll see them play at a super high level. And there are some unknowns. The offensive line is a little unknown with the exception of a few pieces like Laremy Tunsil, who is really good. The kicking game is going to be unknown, but there is talent there. I think our guys are really hungry to prove this program can be at a much higher level, be viewed at a higher level, be more consistent. And really set a legacy that hasn’t been done since the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Be consistent. Be a winner. Set a foundation that can really set the course for a lot of things that really impact the entire university. That’s what a football program can do. Super excited about our coaching staff. We didn’t lose anybody, so that’s key. Continuity. Chemistry. And that starts with Coach (Hugh) Freeze and the job he’s doing.”

Q: How big can the game against Boise State in Atlanta be for the football program and Ole Miss athletics as it opens the 2014 season?

RB: “It’s huge. You’re in Atlanta, which is also where you wanted to finish. You’re on ESPN. Boise has a name in college football. To start the season in primetime in that ESPN timeslot is huge for the program, to set branding, set the tone for the season. Then the next weekend it’s on the road at an SEC opponent. Opening up in two NFL stadiums in Atlanta and Nashville helps our crowds, the program, everything.”

Q: Other than the obvious - that being financial - how does the SEC Network benefit Ole Miss?

RB: “We obviously benefit by being in the SEC. Anytime your logo is next to ESPN...obviously the SEC Network is becoming a brand itself. Anytime you’re linked with the most powerful brand in sports, being ESPN, to me that changes the game. We’re seeing that all come together in the distribution agreements that have come together already. Others are in the works. I think we’re in a great place with the network. We’ll have one of the first documentaries with the Chucky Mullins story and the Brad Gaines story. So Ole Miss will be highlighted. The Book of Manning will obviously be shown on that platform. It means exposure, branding, more games on TV. We’ll have the Louisiana-Lafayette football game on the network. The first live athletic event on the SEC Network is our home soccer game against Georgia on August 22. The SEC Network will be focused on Ole Miss early and a lot. And then there’s the financial side, and we don’t know what that will look like until the distribution is finalized and how many homes we’re in and what that looks like. So a lot of upside. Unprecedented. It means a great deal.”

Q: After more than two years in Oxford and at Ole Miss, how are things for the Bjorks?

RB: “The family’s great. We love it here in Oxford. This is home. Our kids (sons Payton and Paxton) are ingrained in the city and camps and teams and schools. (Wife) Sonya as well. We love it here. Somebody asked me the other day what’s my favorite part. To me it’s an easy answer. It’s people. The people are my favorite part. Obviously we’re growing and we’ve got a lot of things happening right now. But my favorite part is the people. And it starts at the top with our Chancellor (Dan Jones). Our Chancellor could not be more supportive of athletics. He believes in the vision that we have. He lets us do our jobs effectively and provides support when needed and when asked. We couldn’t have a better leader. I love getting out and meeting the people. We have our challenges (at Ole Miss). We’re going to have challenging moments, because that’s life, that’s athletics, that’s business. But we have great people, great fans, great students, great student-athletes, great coaches. The people are what make all this work, and so that’s been my favorite part. Now we just have to continue the momentum, to grow this program, to obviously compete and get the projects finished. Get the fund-raising to the next level. And then figure out what’s next. The football stadium will happen. The basketball arena is under construction. These things are becoming a reality as we move ahead. And that’s exciting for everyone.”

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