Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork provides an update on the NCAA, facilities and more

The Ole Miss Spirit caught up with athletics director Ross Bjork Friday morning to discuss the NCAA investigation, facilities and more.

Is there an update you can provide on the NCAA investigation? As in, has the status of the investigation changed in any way? Timeline, findings, etc. 

“Obviously it’s been a well-versed topic of conversation around here, really, I guess, since late January of this year. I think for something that we’re not allowed to talk about, if you will, I think (Ole Miss head football) coach (Hugh) Freeze has been front and center on this, and I think he’s done a great job representing our football program, representing our university and really being diligent about this matter. We’re ready for it to be over. We wish we had the final chapter written in this case. It is still ongoing. We’re still looking into the matters around the (NFL) draft night situation with Laremy Tunsil. It’s still a pending matter; we’re trying to get through it as fast as we can. Beyond that, it is a process that we’re just not allowed to speak about, so there’s nothing new I can report other than it’s ongoing, we’re still looking into the same things that we were looking into before and we’re hoping we can reach a conclusion, obviously, as soon as possible.”

The NCAA recently accepted Missouri’s self-imposed penalties in a separate case, while North Carolina took a somewhat defiant approach in its NCAA response. Ole Miss has taken a position that it’s not speaking publicly at all about the investigation and that it’s cooperating fully. Do you believe that that’s been an effective approach, and do you think such an approach will ultimately benefit Ole Miss once a final decision is made?

“I think our mindset has been control the controllable. The judgment of all of this — the media speculation, the fan speculation — there’s fans that want us to come out and attack. The hardest part of being a leader is being disciplined, right? And also, when your integrity is under attack, you want to lash out. Again, I think we’ve done a good job of being in control and being measured. The NCAA tells you you’re not supposed to talk about it. There’s a cooperative principle that applies. I want to do everything within our power to adhere to the process, but also defend our program. I think if you look at our written response that we put out there at the end of May, however you look at that tone, I think we were steadfast in believing in our program. I think we were steadfast in defending the things that we needed to defend, and then we owned up to mistakes that were made. I believe in our approach. I think it will stand the test of time, and obviously we’ll see when the final judgments come out. But I can’t control what other people think. I can’t control how the media reacts or doesn’t react. All we can do is continue to do the right thing and continue to believe in our program and how and why we do things.”

If an Ole Miss fan were to ask you, today, ‘Ross, how should I feel about the NCAA investigation and what ultimately comes of it?’ What would you say?

“What I would say, and we have our Quarterback Club kickoff event tonight, is look at how far we’ve come over the last four years. Look at the foundation that has been built. We’re not going anywhere. We don't know what the final outcome will be. But whatever it is, we’re going to deal with it. We’re going to handle it. We have a great foundation. We have more resources that we’ve ever had to work with. We have more people invested in our program. There’s strength. So weathering a storm, weathering a challenge, we’re going to get through it because we have all this strength now. Our infrastructure, our foundation — whatever you want to call it — is stronger that it’s ever been. We have a $105 million dollar budget this year. Five years ago it was $57 million. We’re able to compete with resources with people like we never have before. What I would tell people is, ‘Look, this is not good. This is not fun. We don’t like going through this. But I know in the end we’re going to be a stronger program because we have this foundation that has been built over the last four or five years that’ll get us through it.’ We’re not going anywhere; we’re building a program to last. We believe in our coaches and all that they do. We’re not going to stop recruiting, we’re not going to stop being fearless in competing. Let’s get to the finish line of this challenge. We can’t wait for that. In the meantime, we’re still going to do our day job, and that’s to build a great athletics program.”

Moving on to facilities, the renovation of the north end zone of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, as well as other additions such as a new sound system, anchored video boards and LED lights, are nearing completion. What type of difference do you think the improvements will make on game-day experience?

“I’m not sure who’s more addicted to our construction cameras, me or our fans. I was in Jackson (Thursday) and I had two guys come up to me, and they’re like, ‘Man, we hit refresh on the website every five minutes. We want to see the updates.’ And I’m like, ‘Man, you’re more addicted than me.’ People are so fired up about these improvements. They’re interested in how it’s going to affect the game-day experience, and so are we. We can’t wait to turn the lights on here. We hope we can turn the lights on for a night scrimmage on August 15 for the football team. The video boards will be fired up sometime the week of August 15, and have those testing and ready to go. The stadium itself will be substantially complete August 22, which is that Monday. That gives us three weeks to clean, move stuff in, get concessions ready, number the seats and just do all the things to prep for that opening game. If you haven’t been in our stadium, really, since the last game of last year, or if you haven’t been in our stadium, let’s say, since 2012, you’re going to walk in and be like, ‘Where am I?’ You’re going to have crystal-clear sound with a surround-sound audio system; you’re going to have three brand new, the brightest, most high-definition video boards on the market in the stadium; you’re going to have the north end zone enclosed; you’re going to have 2,000 more students in the seats; you’re going to have a grass field. It’s just a brand new experience and a brand new environment. And I forgot about the lights. Once we have a night game — our first two games are in the afternoon, so we won’t be able to use them — but once we have a night game, it’s going to be an atmosphere we haven’t had before. What the right word is? It’s probably just transformational — a transformational experience for our fans. And then you have the outside. Obviously the aesthetics of the north end zone and kind of tying in the north end zone to the south end zone, we’re still going to have a little bit under construction with our plaza and our bell tower area. That area wont’ be ready until the spring of 2017. It’s still a little bit of a transition period for this year. But it’s a game-changer. Transformational. More seats than we’ve ever had, and the largest capacity of any stadium in the state. If every game is sold out this year, those seven home games will be in the Top 10 and break a record of all-time attendance. Just historic on many levels, and I could go on and on. But I think people get the picture that it’s going to be exciting.”

Will the LED lights have the capability for a strobe-like effect?

“You know, it’ll have the capability to turn off and on with a switch. Before it took 20 minutes or whatever to warm up. Just like the Pavilion, those lights are state of the art, so it’ll have that capability. How we utilize that, I think we’re still trying to figure some of those things out. Just to have a bright atmosphere that when you watch it on TV it looks like 2016 instead of 1971 or whatever like it looked before, it’s going to be exciting. Many, many levels of excitement that I can’t wait to see the look on folks’ faces when they walk in there.”

Has there been any more thought on what to do next to the football stadium?

“You get that question a lot and it’s like, ‘Let us open this thing up first. I like the fact that we are sold out. I like the fact that we were able to add more seats for our students. I think we need to really settle in to this capacity, really kind of manage this capacity. What does it look like in 2017? What does it look like in 2020? How do we continue to grow the program? Honestly, in the world of college athletics today, you’re fighting the couch. You’re fighting the 80-inch, high-def TV. I was at a guy’s office yesterday. He’s got a 75-inch, high-def, 4K TV. Man, that’s pretty nice to sit there and watch that in air conditioning. I think we have to be smart about how big do we get? But what I would like to do, what I’d like to see long term, and whether I’m here or not whenever this happens, is let’s try to get the east and west (sides of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium) to eventually match. What does that mean? That means you’re tearing down the structures that are there now. You’re probably building a super structure at the top of the seating bowl and then you’re building some sort of upper deck that would go on the east and west. And that way you’ve got a matching stadium. I think what we’ll do is, going into 2017, we’ll do a preliminary study of what the next 10 years look like, what does the next 20 years look like, what are the possibilities and just sort of have that as a placeholder concept and continue to build the program, grow the program, sell it out, make it a tough ticket and see what the future holds.”  

Where does everything stand with the expansion of Swayze Field? How long will it take, and what should fans expect when it’s done?

“We’ve had to sort of pivot a little bit. We had hoped to get some seating in for the 2017 season. We did an initial bid; it came in a little higher than we expected. So we’re going to do the entire project at once. So beginning in November, early December, we’ll break ground on the performance center, which will be along the right field line of the stadium. You really won’t see it. It’ll kind of be tucked away behind the coaches’ offices there. That construction will start, and it will start outside of the stadium. It will not impact the 2017 season. Then the entire project would be done by January of 2018. The locker room, the seating bowl, the club seats, the seating deck along right field above the weight room — all that will be done of January of 2018. It’s a great project. It’s much-needed. Our training room is the size of a broom closet right now. Our locker room has low ceilings; it really needs to be modernized. So this will give us, really, again, back to that word transformational, for our baseball team. New batting cages, new pitching tunnels, new locker room, new training room, a new player lounge that we’ve never had. Just a modern player performance center. We’re excited about it, and then we’ll add some seats to it as well that will give our fans something to buy into. A great project. Won’t impact 2017, but will be ready for 2018 season.”

Ole Miss has been without a track field for over two years. What’s the latest on its construction? When should it be done?

“It’s very close. The thing with the track was it didn’t really matter how long it took, but we had to get it right. Getting it right meant we had to scrape down about 30 feet and go all the way down to the subsurface and clean out all the old dirt, clean out the drainage pipe that caused this issue from the beginning. They’ve done all that. It took them a little longer than we expected; we were hoping to be done back in June. When our athletes come back the week of August 22, the track will be completed. They’re finalizing the finishing coat. They’re getting the navy correct. It came out a little royal blue; we want it to be navy. So they’re getting that correct. We’ll be done in a couple of weeks with a brand-new track surface, and obviously the Olympics are upon us, and we’ve got a number of athletes competing, and our coach, Connie Price-Smith, coaching the women’s team. When they get back, there will be a lot of excitement around our track and field program with the new facility. We hope to dedicate it on September 9th, on that Friday before the Wofford game, and then have a cross country meet out at FNC Park after that. A lot of excitement around track, and that facility, boy, for what they’ve gone through and the performance of our track team, really yeoman’s work by training in different locations, like you said, over the last two years.”

Construction of the indoor tennis facility is set to begin, but it will be located on campus, which goes against the original plan of the facility being located in town. What changed?

“Same kind of thing. We had to do a little pivot on that one. We had been working with the city, and right now if you drive down Molly Barr Road, you see them doing some site work there. They’re moving the road, they’re moving Price Street. We were hoping to put the tennis facility in that spot. Really our needs and their needs just didn’t quite match up in terms of how that building would function on a daily basis. We decided, hey, let’s go back and look at a spot on campus. We’re actually still finalizing that. Hasn’t quite been settled on exactly where it will go. It’ll go somewhere within the athletic footprint — maybe by the Tuohy Center, maybe by the Manning Center, maybe there’s some trees in a parking lot that we could look to put it on. So we’re still kind of finalizing exactly where it will go. But you’re looking at a $7-8 million dollar building. It’ll be six tennis courts, it’ll be fully operational for hosting a tennis tournament, which we’ve never been able to do at our place with only three courts in the Gillom Center. We want to compete at the highest level. This is another example of that for our tennis program. Ready to start that project. We hope to break ground on that project sometime in December of 2016 and be ready by the fall of 2017 for indoor tennis.”

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