From the Egg Bowl win and the hiring of Matt Luke as head coach to the release of the NCAA’s findings and the possible defection of players to other teams, the University of Mississippi football program has endured an eventful – and sometimes stormy – few weeks. But HottyToddy.com’s Steve Vassallo sees light at the end of this long, dark stadium tunnel. With that in mind, he posed some questions to Athletic Director Ross Bjork, who responded by email. Here’s what Bjork had to say:
Vassallo: Ross, the additional penalties re: scholarship reductions did not materialize. Your thoughts?
Ross Bjork: We were very pleased that the Committee accepted all of our self-imposed penalties since we felt we took responsibility for the wrongdoing that happened in our program. However, the 2018 post-season ban and the additional limitations on unofficial visits for prospective student-athletes are excessive, and we plan to appeal those penalties.
Vassallo: What are our chances of getting the bowl ban overturned?
Bjork: We have always believed in our position in the case based on the actual facts. There is no telling how the appeal process will work out, but we must stand for what is right and defend our university. We have already started working on our appeal, and we will follow the process and push for the best result possible.
Vassallo: If my numbers are correct regarding scholarship players for the upcoming season, we’ll have 81 versus 85 for teams like Alabama. This doesn’t seem like the Titanic at all.
Bjork: Depth in college football is key to success, especially in the SEC. Anytime you have to play with less than the full scholarship amount, it can have an effect on your program. However, I know our coaches have a game plan for handling this challenge, and we are glad that 2018-19 is the last year of any scholarship reductions.
Vassallo: The main concern we’re hearing from Rebel Nation is the possibility of other schools invading our ranks and poaching our players. How much sleep should we lose over this issue?
Bjork: We are in constant, daily contact with all of our current players and their families. We are committed to their well-being and want them here at Ole Miss. If they choose to go somewhere else, we wish them the best.
Vassallo: Hindsight is always 20-20. Looking back, was there anything in this marathon epic with the NCAA that you would have done differently?
Bjork: Since the appeal process is starting, I am sure we will have time, after it is all said and done, to analyze the entire ordeal. I know we will have learned many lessons, but right now our focus is on the appeal process.
Vassallo: Looking back in the rearview mirror to July, naming Matt Luke as Interim Head Coach appears to be a stroke of genius.
Bjork: Coach Luke has a tremendous background as a college football player and coach. He has been around winning football teams or helped to rebuild programs during his coaching career. His total body of work indicates that he fit our criteria, and his style and approach to coaching and leadership are exactly what our program needs right now. His integrity is without question, and the work he did in a difficult situation indicates that he was more than ready to be our head coach. Players now and in the future want to play for Coach Luke.
Vassallo: In evaluating all 12 contests this season, at what point did you determine that “Cool Hand Luke” had passed his test?
Bjork: It was important for the program that Coach Luke focus all his attention on the 2017 season so our players had his full focus. I did not want the coaching search to be a distraction to him or our players. Therefore, our plan all along was to sit down and talk about his vision for the program at the end of the season. Once we heard his plan and continued to see his passion for this job, it was apparent he was the right and best coach for Ole Miss.
Vassallo: In reaching the decision to hire Luke permanently, how important was it that he had the undivided support of his team?
Bjork: I want coaches that players want to play for and will pour their heart and soul into a program because they believe in the leadership of the program. That is Matt Luke. It was more about what the players did than what they said. They played hard, passionate football all year long, and that is what we expect moving forward.
Vassallo: What Luke accomplished this year, considering the circumstances, would impress the most severe critic. You have to feel good about this decision.
Bjork: I have great confidence in Coach Luke and our football staff. With three coaches on our staff with previous head coaching experience, we have coaches who understand winning football and know how to build our program back to competing for championships. Coach Luke is ready for this task, and he knows what winning football is all about. The future is bright, and we are excited.
Vassallo: Donning my Pollyanna Panama for this question: Ole Miss’ greatest era for football was attributed primarily to Coach John Vaught’s longevity, spanning four decades. Can you envision Matt Luke accomplishing a similar result?
Ross Bjork: In the history of Ole Miss football, there have only been six head coaches who have coached for six seasons or more. Our long-term vision for the program is consistency, stability and winning the right way. We believe that college athletics has become a “what have you done for me lately?” mentality, and we will try to overcome that reality. By committing the proper resources and building for long-term success, we can and will have great success under Coach Luke.
Vassallo: For those of us who have been around here for decades, we always feel better at Christmas, sensing we have the upper hand for in-state recruiting. That feeling seems to permeate throughout Oxford currently.
Bjork: We have a great football coaching staff who love to recruit the next generation of Rebels. Recruiting is going very well for our program, and the strong finish in November provides momentum for our program.
Vassallo: In retrospect, how significant was the victory in Starkville?
Bjork: Winning the Egg Bowl gives our senior class a victory in their last game as an Ole Miss Rebel. That is a memory they will have forever! Winning that game is always special and provides momentum in recruiting and as we build for the future. As we know, our goals are national championships, so winning the Egg Bowl is one piece of the equation.
Vassallo: In my opinion, any season that we defeat State is a good one, especially when no one anticipated it.
Vassallo: Your tenure at Ole Miss has been anything but dull. In your wildest dreams, could you have ever envisioned this roller-coaster ride?
Bjork: Today’s world of college athletics has become a complicated wave of many leadership challenges … and opportunities. We have experienced so many great things for the program that the good stuff far outweighs the bad stuff. Plus, connecting with people and trying to make a difference for others is what leadership is all about. I am proud of our work and look forward to putting the challenges behind us so we can focus on the great things about college athletics and Ole Miss.
Vassallo: In the event we cannot get next year’s bowl ban eradicated, what needs to be conveyed to our fan base to get them excited about next year? I would think one reminder would be that we’re returning an exceptional scoring machine.
Bjork: We have to remember what makes Ole Miss a great place: the people, the Grove, the Square, the most beautiful campus in America, a “bucket list” game-day experience, Rowan Oak, the Chucky Mullins story, the Manning family, and our successful academic and athletics history. All of these assets are still in place as our foundation. Our team will be much improved next year, with an offense that is ready to explode in the second year of the plan. We know the defense will be much improved, with an aggressive strategy and tough-minded attitude.
Vassallo: Your expectations for the 2018 season?
Bjork: I want our players, coaches and fans to have a lot of fun because we are playing a hard-nosed, disciplined and exciting brand of football. We don’t know what the post-season future holds for us in 2018, but we can all enjoy a great season because we will play against the best and we will compete to our full potential. I can’t wait to start playing football again and putting the past behind us. The university has so much to offer, and we will get back on track very soon.