By now most Ole Miss football fans are aware of the fact former Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork has resigned to take the same position at Texas A&M.
Okay, I admit it. My ability to remain objective has been completely compromised. I am not able to maintain any semblance of impartiality. None whatsoever. My thoughts and opinions on the subject are overwhelmingly biased and I am emotionally invested to the extreme…I hate all the others. I love only the one.
I am a Ole Miss Rebel. Always have been, always will be.
Frank Everette described it best. It’s not tangible in any way, shape or form. There’s just something about this particular school that absolutely grabs hold of your heart and will never let go. Outsiders aren’t capable of understanding it. They hear us talk about our alma mater and wave us off as if we were just like any other fans at any other school. I’m here to tell you that it just ain’t like that. It’s different. The shame of it is that the only way to truly know what it feels like is to actually be a part of it. Other folks just don’t understand. We’re nothing like them and we’re perfectly okay with that.
A Leadership Void
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Jeffrey Vitter’s resignation in January marked what would be the shortest tenure of any Chancellor at Ole Miss in over a century. Though there were no particular reasons cited for his resignation, rumors swirled about his handling of several different situations that were constantly casting the school in a negative light to its own supporters.
Significantly more surprising was the recent exit of Athletics Director Ross Bjork. Though he oversaw many successes by our athletics teams and was an integral part of some significant fundraising campaigns, his tenure will be best remembered as one that dealt with a never-ending NCAA investigation into the football program.
The culmination of that investigation would leave Ole Miss with crippling sanctions and the loss of its head coach. Talk about Bjork’s handling of the case still circulate, with many questioning whether he was truly fighting the allegations put forth by the NCAA and why he maintained constant secrecy about what was going on.
These two resignations have left a significant leadership void at our University. I honestly can’t remember the last time, if ever, that we were without a Chancellor and an Athletic Director at the same time. Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks will certainly appoint an interim AD, but we all know that major decisions will be delayed until the new Chancellor can put his own people in place.
Change, Change and More Change
Knowing what I know about my beloved university, I can honestly say that the last 20 years have seen what are likely the most dramatic changes at the school since the time of integration. Unfortunately, many people are of the opinion that these changes have come at the expense of the school’s identity. Some of the very people who have loved, cherished and supported the school unconditionally over the years now turn a nose up at the very thought of more changes. While these changes certainly include the removal of many of the traditions and trademarks that have long been held dear at our alma mater, that’s not really the essence of what I mean by the school’s identity. I’m talking more about a core belief, or lack thereof, about who we are.
Have the mistakes of previous administrations culminated in what is going on at Ole Miss right now? Could the constant mishandling of issues have gradually accumulated the kind of momentum that would have ousted a Chancellor? To this writer, it seems a certainty. I have watched the administrations of the last two decades use the perception that outsiders have about our state and our school as the sole reason for driving changes that simply don’t make sense. Change is inevitable, we all know that. Ole Miss fans are not against change. We’re only against trying to be something that we’re not, and recent administrations just never seemed to get that. We don’t want to be like everyone else and THAT is a part of what makes our University so unique.
Look, we are all aware of the elephant in the room. Ole Miss is a school mired in a history of struggle and strife. There was a time long ago when we were at the center of the racism universe. It was a terrible time in our history. What happened at our school was wrong. We get that and we’ve moved on from it. Now it’s time for everyone else to move on. The only way to let that perception hang around is to do things that allow people to keep pointing it out, like trying to erase history. Those days are gone. That Ole Miss doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not who we are now.
Ole Miss is the South embodied. We are rich tradition and history. We are respect and manners. We are thoughtfulness and charity. We are faith and loyalty. We are love, dignity and empathy. We are diversity and inclusiveness, even though we once weren’t. We are strife, perseverance and triumph. We have been through tough times and come away stronger and with better character. We are family.
Now that we have seen the exit of the two most recognizable administrators on campus, an opportunity has revealed itself. The State of Mississippi and its flagship University can do something that it should have done a long time ago. We can reclaim our identity, both as a school and an athletics program.
A very large step in reclaiming this identity is to put someone in charge who is not only one of us but someone who knows who we are. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that we need a good ‘ol boy who will make backroom deals and put the interests of his buddies ahead of everyone else. We’ve all seen that before and it never works out well. No, nothing like that.
We simply need someone who is NOT what the others have been. We don’t need a yes-man (or yes-woman) or a person who tries to play the political spin game with every issue that comes up. When change is imminent, this person should be able to bring it in a manner that is acceptable to everyone involved. We need someone who can inspire our faculty to act in a way that is both professional and respectful, despite a conflicting view of the world. Someone who can say NO to something that is not in the best interests of the University and it’s people, despite pressure from others. Most importantly, we need someone who recognizes the uniqueness of what Ole Miss is and doesn’t want to turn us into something that we’re not.
As for an Athletics Director, I’d prefer someone who actively manages our programs without the need to be seen on television. Someone who can figure out how to use our strengths to build our brand rather than constantly trying to cover up our weaknesses. Someone who doesn’t require a committee or a commissioned study to pick a coach or make a decision. Someone who pushes his coaches to get better rather than watching from afar while one coach digs a hole that is too deep for us to get out of. Someone who will fight, tooth and nail, publicly and privately, for Ole Miss, even if it means putting themselves out on an island. Someone who views the job as a final stop in a successful career instead of a stepping stone toward another one. That’s the kind of AD I can get behind and the kind that would see unwavering loyalty from Ole Miss fans.
Time to Answer the Door
Our opportunity to reclaim this lost identity and to move both our University and athletic programs forward is here. We can redefine who we are and where we are headed. We can re-establish ourselves as THE most prestigious southern university. One that bright southern students are eager to attend. One that great southern athletes take pride in playing for. One that espouses all of the good that comes from longstanding traditions, a rich history and southern charm. One that encourages us to be who we really are, not who someone else thinks we should be.
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I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but I’m happy being us. This beloved place got her hooks into me a long time ago and has never let go. I am a Ole Miss Rebel, a hOMer, a black bear, colonel, shark or whatever the hell else they decide to make us next. Ole Miss is my alma mater and I love her dearly. I sincerely hope that the IHL Board of Trustees sees fit to give us the shot in the arm that we so desperately need. Opportunity is knocking.