The Message

Ross Bjork was the athletics director at Western Kentucky when he accepted the challenge to lift Ole Miss athletics from where it was to where it is now and beyond.

He’d been on athletics staffs at a number of high profile places in major conferences. Places like Miami, UCLA, and Missouri when the Tigers were still in the Big 12.

He was running his own department at WKU, and things were going well. But he wanted to take the next step to a place in what is now regularly called a Power Five Conference.

Enter Ole Miss.

Bjork could see the numbers, such as a 2-10 football season the fall prior to his job interview, and the fact that a fairly new chancellor was in place and a new head football coach had only been hired a few months earlier.

He saw all that. He knew all that. He chose to be a part of it after the job was offered by Ole Miss.

Only a short time after his initial press conference in the club area of the south end zone, the native Kansan went to work.

There have been major accomplishments on and off the playing fields and courts. Academic accomplishments have increased, and GPAs for student-athletes have improved overall and within many individual sports.

Facilities continue to improve, such as the ongoing new arena construction, the growth of the Manning Center, and the recently announced expansion and upgrades to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

The men’s basketball team won a Southeastern Conference Tournament in 2013 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament, beating Wisconsin in the first round. The baseball team made a trip to Omaha for the College World Series in 2014 and finished third. Men’s track and field and cross country have made national news with a rise to prominence.

But the most visible and publicized moments of the Bjork tenure thus far have been this football season and all that has surrounded it. ESPN’s Game Day came to Oxford for the Alabama game on Oct. 4 after many years of apparent “close calls” on setting up shop in the Grove for the highly-popular show. And the win over the Crimson Tide later that day vaulted Ole Miss to national prominence this season.

The Rebels were ranked as high as third nationally during the first season of the current College Football Playoffs format. That was the highest ranking for an Ole Miss football team in 50 years, since the Rebels of 1964 were preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press and other polls.

Bjork and company went to work as soon as they arrived back in the spring of 2012. That Ole Miss would play in three straight bowl games since then, including one of this year’s Big Six bowls, was perhaps even more than anyone could have projected. Including Bjork.

“I look back at really the first two weeks on the job. I was here a week, we had the spring football game on Saturday, and the next week we left on the Rebel Road Trip,” said Bjork last week as the Rebel football team broke for a brief holiday period before reuniting in Atlanta Thursday to continue preparations for the Dec. 31 Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl in the Georgia Dome.

“I remember the themes of the talks both from myself and from Coach (Hugh) Freeze. His was, hey the expectation is you should expect us to play hard for 60 minutes. That’s all we know right now. We don’t know how good we are. We don’t know anything else except play hard for 60 minutes. And my message was that we’ve got to capitalize on the assets we have in place because I think we have a great history. I think we need to turn all those things on and utilize those assets.

“So I think if you look back at that foundation, I think those things have played out. We play hard and we capitalize on assets. Now we’ve had some success to back that confidence in our leadership.”

Even though he was learning all things “Ole Miss” on the job quickly, Bjork said a belief in not only the institution and its people but also in the leadership in place was highly important.

“We believe in ourselves, and that’s a great starting point,” he said. “To envision that we would be a part of the first college football playoff, be ranked as high as No. 3, and be in the conversation all year.....we had a theme, as I said in my (first) press conference (in the spring of 2012), that we want to compete for and win championships. So we competed for a championship this year (in football). We didn’t win it, and we’re not going to be in a playoff game. But we were right there, but for a few plays (during the season).”

That first Rebel Road trip began on a Monday morning in April, 2012, in Meridian for a breakfast meeting. There were Rebel fans there who arrived early at a hotel banquet room, eager to meet the new athletics director and head football coach as well as Chancellor Dan Jones, not yet through his third year as the leader of the University of Mississippi.

On day one of that trip these men, as well as alumni association leaders and other university personnel, would make their way to Waynesboro for a lunch meeting in a Baptist church fellowship hall filled with excited Ole Miss fans ready to meet the new leadership team for their school. And after that, a nighttime meeting in Gulfport in an outdoor/open air setting with a bayou view. And the next morning a breakfast meeting in the Mississippi Delta at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola.

On and on it went as they made their way through Mississippi and Mid-South stops, meeting and greeting Ole Miss fans, not only with hellos, handshakes, and well-wishes but with their message of moving forward as “one” from that moment, and finally winding up before a massive crowd in the square area of downtown Oxford on Double Decker Festival Saturday.

Bjork says, as Freeze has said, perhaps the Rebels, especially in football, are a little ahead of where anyone could have projected and predicted back then.

“I would say exactly what Coach Freeze is saying, and that is I don’t think anyone could have envisioned this,” he said. “I don’t think anyone had this as a plan, if you will. It was more like if we do all the little things, play hard for 60 minutes, capitalize on our assets, utilize the resources that we have, then let’s go play and see what happens.

“We can only control so much, but we can control how hard we work. We can control our attitude. We can control how we approach the list of projects.”

Bjork said there was always a major plan with a few distinct points. But how those would fall into place would be a result of hard work, planning, action, and ultimately success to continue to move everyone and everything forward.

“I think the big picture is pretty fundamental,” he said. “Let’s graduate our kids. Let’s make sure they’re on the right path socially and within life. Let’s compete and win championships. Let’s build buildings that are needed. There are needs and wants, but we have to look at needs to get our programs to where we want to go. I think the fundamentals are always going to be the same. The strategies to get there may have to be adjusted given the circumstances beyond our control.”

Like the track surface. This past spring it became apparent there was a problem at the Ole Miss track and field facility. There was a shifting of the earth underground, the possibility of sinkholes, and that meant track meets and practices had to be cancelled.

The Rebels worked out at local high schools and in other facilities on campus. After the parking lot and actual track office, locker room building, and stands were all cleared as OK to be used again, then it was the actual track itself, as well as the other aspects used for meets, that would have to be redone. Those plans continue to be a work in progress.

No matter what has come up in the past two-plus years, Bjork said it all started with an attitude of getting things done in a positive manner and moving on.

“Our message was attitude. We had to have a shift in attitude,” he said. “We have great things to offer, and it’s not just us saying we have great things to offer, it’s the outside world saying that. So let’s capitalize. Then we started the “We Are Ole Miss” mentality. If we’re saying “We Are Ole Miss” in a negative way, how does that affect the next recruit? How does that affect the next student? How does that affect the next great coach that we’d like to hire? How does that affect the next faculty member? How does that affect a research project at the medical center?

“If we don’t believe in ourselves, who will? I’ve seen that attitude shift one person at a time."

Bjork said he’s seen a shift indeed, along with some major moments that have helped the movement continue to build and even flourish.

“Whenever I’ve had a chance to speak, I’ve brought that up. We Are Ole Miss,” he said. “How do we say it? What’s our attitude? What’s our focus on believing in this institution, knowing we’re not going to be perfect. But when we have a bad day, let’s figure out a way to get out of it. Let’s figure out a way to fix it. So I have seen a shift.

“Then you look at the investment people are making. You look at the Birmingham bowl game (in 2012). You look at Nashville (in 2013). Then we sold out of season tickets (in 2014). Set a record for season-long (football) attendance of 415,000, the most in our program’s history. We have more donors than ever before – 9,300. We’ve hit $125 million in our capital campaign. So you look at all the data. Baseball season tickets, we had a record there (in 2014). We had seven straight sellouts during the (men’s basketball) run in 2012-13. There’ve been a lot of things that you can point to that say the fans are getting it, they’re buying in, they’re investing, they’re doing their part.”

And it all started back in the spring of 2012 as Bjork and the Ole Miss team of leaders took to the road to spread the good news of the Rebels. There was a great need for that as Ole Miss people were generally down. Football had been 6-18 the previous two seasons with back to back losses to instate rival Mississippi State, and the fan base and alumni were starving for a better direction.

Now, with a record of 24-14 in football over three seasons, winning two of three games against the Bulldogs, and playing in three straight bowl games, all things Ole Miss athletics are moving forward.

”I think it goes back to another theme we had on that Rebel Road trip (in 2012), and that was give what you can,” Bjork said. “If that’s a t-shirt or $40 million - that was the example I used – give what you can.

“Now we say $50 million. We want to bump that up. Whatever it is in between. If that ends up being a $50 donation, a $5,000 donation, a $50,000 donation, do something so everyone can be a part of it. So everyone can touch it. That was and still is our message.”

(More from Ross Bjork Tuesday as Christmas week continues.)

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