It’s an exciting time in Ole Miss athletics. In 10 months time, athletics director Ross Bjork has changed the culture and mindset of Ole Miss athletics, and the results have begun to show on the scoreboard, as well as in other areas.
The football program recently capped a five-win turnaround with a 38-17 win against Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl and appears on the verge of landing a top-10 recruiting class, while the basketball program is off to its best start in Southeastern Conference play since the 1936-37 season.
“I really felt and feel that we were on the right track, regardless of what happened this season,” Bjork said of the football season. “I think what it does is it gives us that boost — gives us an early boost — in what we’re trying to do to build the program. It builds confidence that we are on the right track. It also sends the message that we can do it as a program.
“We played at a high level, we’re recruiting at a high level, we’re coaching at a high level, we’ve got facility plans at a high level, so everything that we’re doing — that victory and winning our rival game to end the season — just shows that our trajectory is upward, and that we’re doing everything the right way.”
Bjork described the 59,135 attendance at the BBVA Compass Bowl, the largest in bowl history and ninth-largest among all bowl games this season, as a perfect storm with a Saturday noon game, a drivable distance, 115,000 alumni within a three-hour radius of Birmingham and a hungry fan base believing in the team and confident in the program.
Ole Miss also made a commitment to the football program with its announcement on Dec. 13 of increased salaries for its coaching staff, highlighted by a $500,000 raise for head coach Hugh Freeze, increasing his base salary to $2 million, and a one-year contract extension, and a $12.5 million renovation and expansion of the Indoor Practice Facility, as part of the $150 million Forward Together campaign, which has raised nearly $77 million to date.
“He’s a perfect fit for our program,” he said of Freeze. “I think everyone sees that. I think they see the system coming into play — recruiting, on the field, off the field, accountability, he talks about that a lot — so I think he’s a perfect fit for our program. And I know he wants to be here long term, and we’re committed to him. We can never take that for granted, and so that’s where the business side of this comes into play, so we felt we had to be proactive and make a statement to our program that we’re going to evolve and grow together on that side of it with his contract and his personal arrangements here. I think that’s what we accomplished.
“It was important to make a commitment to the program. That’s what we have to do. We’re in a competitive business and landscape, and showing that commitment was the right thing to do — to show confidence that we believe in him and his staff.”
Among the upgrades to the Indoor Practice Facility is the construction of a full kitchen and dining hall, a new team meeting room, a new head coach’s office and a new front door and recruiting room, as well as the new basketball arena and expansion of the north end zone and renovations at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Bjork anticipates the next wave of giving early this year and said the new arena remains on track for completion before the start of the 2015-16 basketball season.
“The IPF project will give a boost to our football program and, really, the entire athletics department because it will benefit all our athletes and our entire program,” he said. “That project, we may see some shovels in the ground to kick that project off. We’re working on all the details behind the scenes. But we’ve got to get some shovels in the ground.
“And then later this year, we hope to be able to put some shovels in the ground for the arena. We’re on track for that, but we’ve got some work to do. We’ve got some fundraising to do and some process to define and get ironed out, but I think we’re on the right track with everything. We want it open by 2015, and that only happens if we’re able to break ground in this calendar year, so we’ve got a lot of work to do to get there, but I think we’re on the right track.”
On the hardwood, men’s basketball is ranked for the first time since 2010 and finds itself in the Field of 68 in most NCAA Tournament projections with a 15-2 record, 4-0 in league play. The Rebels also sold out their first two SEC home games against Missouri and Arkansas.
“It’s been great,” he said. “It’s been a fun ride so far, but there’s still a lot of basketball to be played. I’m really proud that our guys fought through a couple games where they didn’t play their best, but they played hard every single play. That’s what it takes to win games when you’re not on your ‘A’ game every single time, and that’s going to happen.
“Our fans have responded. Students have responded by being there in full force for the Missouri game before school started, and then the Arkansas game. It makes you feel good that there’s a buzz and energy around our program, and the crowd and atmosphere can help our team play better and fight through when you do have those tough moments on the court. It’s a great story, and it’s becoming a national story, as we’re ranked and Marshall (Henderson) is catching some buzz out there, but it’s our entire team that is playing well.”
Bjork also talked about the state of the program and head coach Andy Kennedy’s future in Oxford.
“I think that’s the key — let’s finish out the year, then assess where the program sits,” he said. “I think the good thing is we’re building a really good foundation in basketball with this team this year with that energy on the court, and then we have some facility projects that are on the horizon that means a boost to the program.
“That’s what you do in athletics. You sit down and review the season and look at the future and provide the program with resources necessary to compete at this level. The next eight weeks will tell us how this season ended, how we finished and then you look at the finish.”
Bjork singled out the originally planned location for the new basketball arena, behind the Turner Center, and the parking lot next to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium as two key areas in the overall vision of the Ole Miss sports complex. Bjork said it’s important that the arena fits in with the front door for Ole Miss athletics, while also reflecting the look and feel of the Ole Miss campus with the red brick, columns and buff stone.
“The current spot that was selected a year ago, I think, is a spot that we’re evaluating, but also the parking lot next to the football stadium is the focal point right now, in terms of the front door for Ole Miss athletics, where everything is aligned,” he said. “When I say front door, meaning, if you want to engage with Ole miss athletics, this is one-stop shopping, so to speak. Hall of Fame, team store, development offices, ticket office, football game day, basketball game day, athletic building, academic center — everything is centralized from a day-to-day function. That’s our vision. That parking lot is a focal point and we’re studying how that fits the rest of campus.”
Despite the on-field and off-field success the past 10 months, Bjork stressed that anything can happen, and that he and his staff have to be guarded every single day and not rest on what’s happened. He also talked about his working relationship with Chancellor Dan Jones and his future at Ole Miss.
“We love it here at Ole Miss,” he said. “It’s a great place. Our job is to maximize our potential here at Ole Miss. Chancellor Jones and I have a great relationship. I love working with him and for him. He loves athletics. He’s committed to success, and that’s what you look for in your boss. He’s been terrific in being supportive and accessible, but also letting us do our job in athletics.
“My future here, we’re just going to keep going. I can’t control that. All I can do is the best job I can, and I know Dr. Jones is committed to having successful athletics.”
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