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Ole Miss Athletics Department Helps Move Students In
Ross Bjork and his wife, Sonya, have two boys: Payton (10) and Paxton (6). Bjork was announced on March 21, 2012 as the seventh full-time Director of Athletics at Ole Miss and, at the time, was the youngest AD among power five conference institutions. His four-year tenure with the Rebels has produced a new spirit surrounding Ole Miss Athletics.
Bjork’s desire to provide student-athletes with the best opportunity to succeed has resulted in the retention and growth of head coaches Hugh Freeze (football), Andy Kennedy (men’s basketball), Mike Bianco (baseball), Mark Beyers (women’s tennis) and Matt Mott (soccer), and a roster of eight new head coaches including Matt Insell (women’s basketball), Steven McRoberts (volleyball), Mike Smith (softball), Chris Malloy (men’s golf), Kory Henkes (women’s golf), Connie Price-Smith (track and field/XC) and Marsha Beasley (rifle), 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.
Ole Miss has enjoyed unprecedented support under Bjork. The 2016 campaign marks the fourth straight to sell out of football season tickets, while season attendance records have been shattered each of the last three seasons. Baseball finished second in the nation in attendance in 2016, extending a streak of 11 straight seasons in the top five, while softball also experienced a record-breaking year for attendance in 2016. The athletics budget has risen from $57 to $105.8 million in just four years, and another record year for donations is anticipated for 2015-16 that could exceed $45 million. As of June 2016, the Forward Together capital campaign has risen from $62 to $167 million in cash and pledges toward its increased goal of $200 million. The centerpiece of the campaign is the $96.5 Pavilion at Ole Miss, which opened in January 2016 to sell out crowds and a jammed packed student section for each game. Other campaign plans include the north end zone expansion and suite renovations at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in store for the upcoming season, a new outdoor practice complex for football, a new indoor tennis facility, renovation of the Gillom Center, FedEx Academic Support Center and Starnes Athletic Training Center, as well as other future projects.
Bjork’s vision in facilities also led to a development plan for the Manning Center, which was renamed to honor Olivia and Archie Manning. The $12.5 million renovation and expansion 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.
Bjork’s leadership has translated to immediate success in the competitive arena. In 2015-16, Ole Miss was the nation’s only school to win nine regular-season football games, 20 regular-season men’s basketball games and 40 regular-season baseball games, while the 2014-15 campaign saw the Rebels as one of only two to make a “New Year’s Six” bowl and the NCAA Tournament in men’s hoops and baseball. Under Bjork’s watch, the football team is one of just five to make the “New Year’s Six” in each of the first two years of the playoff.
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 four seasons, including 2013 when it claimed the SEC Tournament Championship. Baseball and men’s hoops are among Rebel programs to earn postseason berths under Bjork’s watch, along with soccer (Sweet 16 in 2015), men’s tennis, women’s tennis, men’s golf, women’s golf, men’s track, women’s track and softball, which made its first trip to the Big Dance in its 20th year of existence in 2016.
Bjork’s reign has featured a trio of national championships, as Sam Kendricks took home the pole vault title at both the 2013 and 2014 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and Raven Saunders won the 2016 shotput crown. 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 and 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 established the goal of a cumulative 3.0 GPA among the student-athlete population when he arrived, and the Rebels achieved that for the first time in program history in 2015-16. In the community, student-athletes participated in more than 50 service projects, and baseball student-athlete Brady Bramlett served as Vice-Chair of the NCAA Division Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. 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 has taken place every year since 2013.
Bjork has taken a leadership role in the Oxford/University community since his arrival. He is a member of the chancellor’s leadership team and has served on numerous committees, including the search for a new chancellor and the naming of Chucky Mullins Drive. Bjork has traveled the region each spring speaking to alumni clubs on the Rebel Road Trip and visited more than 15,000 fans in the first four years of the caravan. His commitment to the fanbase has also shown through gameday surveys and annual improvements to help maintain Ole Miss as the premier “bucket list” experience in college sports.
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 more than 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, 44, 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 men's basketball oversight committee and the NCAA recruiting cabinet.
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