Ole Miss Athletics Director Ross Bjork has been named vice chancellor for intercollegiate athletics at the University of Mississippi.
In announcing that Bjork had been given the new vice chancellor title, university officials also noted that an agreement was reached this summer to extend the athletics director’s contract to June 30, 2020.
UM’s request to give Bjork the title of vice chancellor for intercollegiate athletics was approved Thursday by the Board of Trustees of the State Institutions for Higher Learning.
The new title, as well as the extension of Bjork’s contract to reach the four-year maximum allowed by the state, reflects the university’s appreciation and support of the athletics director’s exemplary work since coming to Ole Miss, Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said.
“Athletics serves an important role at our university as our ‘front porch’ – capturing the hearts and minds of people and bringing them to campus so that they can experience the full richness of our great university,” Vitter said. “Athletics has played a big role in elevating the Ole Miss brand to its strongest point in school history.
“The success of our athletics program is unprecedented and is directly attributable to Ross’ leadership. Naming him as the vice chancellor for intercollegiate athletics will continue that momentum. I expect under Ross’ leadership that athletics will continue to be an integral part of our growth and increased visibility.”
Ole Miss is the fifth school in the SEC to give its athletics director the vice chancellor designation, which more accurately reflects the all-encompassing role of the position.
“The idea is that this puts the AD at the table with the provost and other academic leaders on campus on a regular basis,” said Ron Rychlak, UM professor of law and faculty athletics representative. “That facilitates communication between athletics and academics, which is good for all parts of the university.”
Bjork has led Ole Miss athletics programs to unprecedented success since his arrival in 2012. Under his guidance, support has increased with record private donations and record attendance numbers in football, basketball and baseball. The athletics budget has increased from $57 million upon his arrival to $105.5 million for the 2016-17 season.
“My family and I are very grateful for the support and confidence shown by Dr. Vitter and the entire university community with a renewed long-term commitment to continue leading Ole Miss athletics,” Bjork said. “Holding the title of vice chancellor for intercollegiate athletics is not only symbolic of the department’s core values, but also solidifies our role in the university’s overall mission of educating the next generation of America’s leaders.
“I am a big believer in being fully integrated with the university and will continue forward with a great sense of responsibility.”
As a result, Stephen Ponder, the senior executive associate athletics director for external relations, will be promoted to the title of deputy athletics director.
“Stephen has shown great leadership in so many areas since his arrival four years ago,” Bjork said. “His energy level and ‘can do’ attitude have allowed us to grow our entire athletics program physically, financially, competitively and emotionally.
“This promotion to deputy athletics director is well-deserved and fitting for Stephen as my right-hand person. I am grateful for Stephen’s leadership and blessed to work with the best coaches and athletics staff in the country.”
Bjork’s direction of the Forward Together campaign has garnered more than $170 million in donations, resulting in the construction of The Pavilion at Ole Miss, the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium expansion and the renovations of the Gillom Center, Track and Field complex and the Olivia and Archie Manning Athletics Performance Center.
Ole Miss student-athletes and fans have witnessed immediate success in competition under Bjork’s leadership. The Rebel football team appeared in post-season bowl games for the last four consecutive years, reaching the Allstate Sugar Bowl last season for the first time in 46 years. Ole Miss soccer reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in program history.
In 2014, the Ole Miss baseball team competed in the College World Series in Omaha for the first time in 42 years, and Ole Miss men’s basketball claimed the SEC Tournament Championship in 2013. Ole Miss softball reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
Men’s and women’s tennis, women’s golf and track and field have also reached post-season play, with pole vaulter Sam Kendricks claiming back-to-back NCAA championships in 2013 and 2014 and a bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Track and field athlete Raven Saunders brought an NCAA Championship to Ole Miss for shot put.
But Bjork’s commitment to success reaches well beyond the field of competition. His strong emphasis on academics has led student-athletes to a record average GPA of 3.0, and the graduation success rate has increased from 72 percent to 81 percent.
His active involvement in other university programs, including the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, led to his recognition by the NCAA as a Champion of Diversity in 2015. He and former UM Chancellor Dan Jones were the first individuals highlighted with this designation for their work to support the interests of ethnic minorities and underrepresented populations.
Bjork encourages community involvement among student-athletes as well. Under his leadership, athletics programs and their members have participated in more than 50 service projects. Additionally, he’s traveled the country over the last five years, speaking to more than 19,000 Ole Miss alumni and fans on the Rebel Road Trip.
“We are extremely proud of what our team has accomplished over the past four-and-a-half years, and I truly believe the best is yet to come for the entire university and our athletics program,” Bjork said. “We are Ole Miss!”
By Christina Steube and the Ole Miss News Desk