Ross Bjork was announced on March 21, 2012 as the seventh full-time Director of Athletics at Ole Miss and at age 43, is the youngest AD among power five conference institutions. In just three years, Bjork’s tenure with the Rebels has produced energetic hires, structural progress, team success and a new spirit surrounding Ole Miss Athletics.
Bjork set the tone early by hiring one of the country’s top rising coaches in Matt Insell (women’s basketball) and has since brought Steven McRoberts (volleyball), Mike Smith (softball), Chris Malloy (men’s golf), Kory Henkes (women’s golf) and Connie Price-Smith (track & field/XC) on board, while promoting Toby Hansson, one of college tennis’ best assistant coaches, to head men’s coach. He also appointed three executive level administrators for external relations, academic support and facilities/game operations.
The external relations post was a new umbrella position at the center of Bjork’s reorganization of that area of Ole Miss Athletics, including the Foundation, ticket operations, marketing and communications and the relationship with Ole Miss Sports Properties. Progress has continued in that division with the rebranding of the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation and a partnership with new multi-media rightsholder, IMG Properties.
Bjork also created the unit for Health and Sports Performance, which combined sports medicine, strength and conditioning, nutrition and counseling services and added a local orthopedic sports medicine component that provides primary sports medicine care for all student-athletes.
Bjork’s vision in facilities resulted in a development plan for the Manning Center, which was renamed to honor Olivia and Archie Manning. The $12.5 million renovation included the Grill at 1810 (a full service dining facility), the Williams-Reed Football Foyer, Burns team meeting room, VanDevender Family locker room, weight room, player lounge and visuals throughout the complex.
Ole Miss has enjoyed unprecedented support under Bjork. The 2015 campaign marks the third straight to sell out of football season tickets, while season attendance records have been shattered each of the last two seasons. Baseball finished second in the nation in attendance in 2015, extending a streak of 10 straight seasons in the top five. The athletics budget has risen from $62 to $96 million, and donations received for 2014-15 reached a record high of $35 million. As of June 2015, the Forward Together capital campaign has risen from $62 to $137 million in cash and pledges toward its goal of $150 million. Campaign plans include the Pavilion at Ole Miss to open during the 2015-16 season, a north end zone expansion and suite renovations at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, renovation of the Gillom Center, FedEx Academic Support Center and Starnes Athletic Training Center, as well as other future projects.
Bjork’s leadership has also translated to immediate success in the competitive arena. In 2014-15, Ole Miss was one of only two schools in the nation to make a “New Year’s Six” bowl and the NCAA Tournament in men’s basketball and baseball. The football team’s bowl berth marked their third in Hugh Freeze’s first three seasons, which was preceded by a two-year postseason drought. The staff also assembled a top-five recruiting class in 2013, the highest ranked in school history.
Other highlights include the first College World Series appearance in 42 years, as the baseball team reached the final four in Omaha and captured the SEC Western Division title in 2014. After a 10-year absence, men’s basketball has advanced in the NCAA Tournament two of the last three seasons, including 2013 when it claimed the SEC Tournament Championship. Baseball and men’s hoops are among nine Rebel programs to earn postseason berths under Bjork’s watch, along with soccer, men’s tennis, women’s tennis, men’s golf, women’s golf, men’s track and women’s track.
Bjork’s reign has also featured a pair of national championships, as Sam Kendricks took home the pole vault title at both the 2013 and 2014 NCAA Outdoor Track a Field Championships. The 2013 SEC West champion men’s tennis team also vied for a national title, as the doubles team of Nic Scholtz and Jonas Lutjen advanced to the final four. Men’s outdoor track a field registered a program-best eighth-place finish at the 2013 NCAA Championships, while men’s tennis finished top-10 in the national polls that season.
Off the field, Bjork’s emphasis on academics resulted in a record 2.90 GPA among the student-athlete population in 2014-15, and he has established a goal of 3.0 moving forward. In the community, student-athletes participated in more than 30 service projects, and even bigger plans are on the horizon. Throughout his career, Bjork has placed a great importance on diversity, and in 2013, the athletics department partnered with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to establish a Racial Reconciliation Week which took place during the 2013 football season.
Bjork’s first full week at the post in 2012 was spent on the inaugural Rebel Road Trip, a six-day, 16-stop tour of the region that served to unite the Rebel fanbase. In the first three years of the tour, Bjork and Co., visited approximately 12,000 fans. He carried the momentum from the first RRT into the launch of a major sales campaign for football season tickets, which included television and radio advertising, billboards, internet marketing and a new outbound telemarketing call center.
Bjork arrived in Oxford after a stint as Director of Athletics at Western Kentucky University, where he quickly established an atmosphere of success. After Bjork made a midseason coaching change, the Hilltopper men’s basketball team went on to capture the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Tournament title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Women’s Volleyball won the conference regular season and tournament in 2011 and reached the NCAA tournament each of his last two years, while men’s and women’s cross country each won conference team titles in 2011. WKU’s football program posted the greatest one-season improvement in conference wins in the history of the Sun Belt in posting a 7-1 league mark and second-place conference finish. WKU football also signed the conference’s top recruiting class each of his last two seasons.
During his tenure, each of WKU’s men’s and women’s athletic teams exceeded the NCAA required 925 Academic Progress Report Rate (APR), and WKU had more individuals honored for their academic achievements by the Sun Belt Conference than any other institution in 2011-12. For the first time in program history, the overall cumulative average GPA was over 3.0 for all 391 student-athletes and 228 maintained a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher. Ten of the university’s 15 athletic programs posted a cumulative team GPA of 3.0 or better.
The youngest athletics director of the 120 NCAA FBS programs when hired at WKU, Bjork has an extensive career in intercollegiate athletics with two decades of experience as an administrator and student-athlete, having worked on the senior staffs at UCLA, the University of Miami and the University of Missouri. He began his administrative career at WKU as an Assistant Development Coordinator in 1996-97.
Bjork is a native of Dodge City, Kan., and received his bachelor’s degree in recreation administration from Emporia State University in 1995 where he was a two-year starter at fullback. He earned a master’s degree in athletic administration from Western Illinois University in December 1996. Bjork has quickly established a leadership role in the SEC by being appointed as Chair of the awards committee and selected to the NCAA basketball issues committee and the NCAA recruiting cabinet.
Bjork and his wife, Sonya, have two boys: Payton (9) and Paxton (5).
The Bjork File Age: 43 Hometown: Dodge City, Kan. High School: Dodge City Senior High School College: Emporia State University (B.S., Recreation Administration, 1995); Western Illinois University (M.S., Athletic Administration, 1996) Wife: Sonya Children: Sons, Payton Ross (9) and Paxton Ross (5)
Bjork's Career Timeline 2012-Present: Ole Miss, Director of Athletics 2010-12: Western Kentucky, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics 2005-10: UCLA, Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Relations 2003-05: University of Miami, Associate Athletic Director for External Operations 2001-03: University of Missouri, Assistant Athletic Director for Development 1997-2001: University of Missouri, Athletic Development Officer 1996-97: WKU, Assistant Development Coordinator 1995-96: Western Illinois University, Campus Recreation Grad. Asst./Ath. Dept. Volunteer 1995: University of Tulsa, Marketing Intern 1994: Albuquerque Dukes, Front Office Intern