Ross Bjork has developed a reputation as an up-and-comer in college athletics who specializes in fund raising and isn’t afraid to make bold moves with his coaching staff.
That’s exactly what the University of Mississippi wanted.
The 39-year-old Bjork was named the Rebels’ athletic director on Wednesday afternoon and a formal news conference is scheduled for today on campus. Bjork has been the athletic director at Western Kentucky University since March 2010 and also worked in the athletic departments at UCLA, the University of Miami, and the University of Missouri.
“While I was not seeking to leave WKU, the opportunity to oversee and manage the athletics department at a historic and prestigious university in the Southeastern Conference was one that we had to examine and ultimately accept,” Bjork said in a statement released by Western Kentucky.
The Dodge City, Kan., native will take over for Pete Boone in mid-April. Boone announced his retirement in November after more than 13 years as Mississippi’s AD.
Ole Miss chancellor Dr. Dan Jones, along with a committee led by former Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning and FedEx chairman Mike Glenn, made the Bjork hire.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with him,” Jones said in a statement released by Ole Miss. “Integrity and character are important to me, and I’m very comfortable with his strengths on those attributes. I’m also very pleased with the professional track he’s taken in college athletics. He has trained for this job through his education and a steady, upward track in athletic administration, and he’s demonstrated a commitment to Ole Miss and to winning on and off the field.”
One of Bjork’s challenges will be helping rebuild Mississippi’s football program. The Rebels finished 2-10 last season, 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference. Fourth-year football coach Houston Nutt was fired after the season and Hugh Freeze replaced him in December.
“Ross will bring incredible energy to the Ole Miss family, and I’m looking forward to seeing that grow,” Manning said.
Bjork was the youngest athletics director in the Football Bowl Subdivision while at Western Kentucky.
“The future of WKU Athletics is bright and the foundation is in place for greatness to occur for years to come,” Bjork said. “WKU fans can always count on the Bjork family being proud members of Hilltopper Nation.”
Before going to WKU, he spent the previous five years at UCLA, where he directed all fund raising activities.
He previously worked at Miami and Missouri after getting his start at Western Kentucky as an athletic development coordinator in 1996-97.
Now he’ll be charged with helping the Rebels compete in the loaded SEC. Ole Miss has an annual athletic budget of about $50 million, which is dwarfed by several other SEC powerhouses. Ole Miss is also in the middle of a $150 million capital campaign that is expected to raise funds for a new basketball arena and renovations to football’s Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Bjork made decisive moves with coaches at Western Kentucky, despite his relatively short tenure.
After football coach Willie Taggart’s 7-5 season this year, Bjork renegotiated his deal and more than doubled the head coach’s base salary to $475,000.
He fired men’s basketball coach Ken McDonald midseason after a 5-11 start and replaced him with Ray Harper, who later became the permanent coach and one of the highest-paid coaches in the conference with a base salary of $375,000.
The Hilltoppers went on to make a run to the NCAA tournament, winning four games in four days to earn the automatic qualifier out of the Sun Belt.
“It’s been a great run,” Bjork said just before the start of the game that the Hilltoppers lost to Kentucky 81-66. “It’s great exposure for our university, really all of our teams.”
Bjork also fired women’s basketball coach Mary Taylor Cowles after this season and had been active in determining her replacement until this past week. That job is expected to start between $150,000 and $175,000.
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