Travis Smith sits down with athletic director Ross Bjork to talk about Texas A&M University and the importance of being knowledgeable about all facets of the institution and state legislature.
SMITH: Ross, thank you for joining me. If you can just maybe tell everyone that doesn’t know who you are, someone is listening to the education side, just where you’re at currently and how maybe some stops along the way.
BJORK: Well, thanks for having me, Travis. I really appreciate it. You know, I’m in transit right now between leaving the University of Mississippi and being the athletic director at Ole Miss to just being named the athletic director at Texas A&M.
But, you know, NACDA is always a place, I think the reason why I’m in my position today is because of NACDA. And so, working at Western Kentucky University in ’96-’97; University of Missouri; University of Miami; UCLA. Went back to be the AD at Western Kentucky for two years, the AD at Ole Miss for seven years, and now going to Texas A&M, I can relate all of this and all of my career path to being at NACDA. My first NACDA was 1997. I’ve gone every year since, 23 years in a row. And I remember that first one going, “I need to meet that person. I want to meet this athletic director. I want to meet this professional. I wanted to get involved in the whole organization and somehow volunteer.” So I started doing that, got on the NAADD Executive Committee.
And so, to me, I’m a product of NACDA, so I’m glad that you’re doing this and giving some exposure to the convention and… but that’s really been my path is I love college athletics. I’m a product of it. I played Division II football. I would not have gone to college but for athletics, you know, I’m one of those but-for student athletes that my parents, they just didn’t talk about higher ed, they were working all the time, and that’s all I knew. But I was like, “I’m okay at sports. I can play a little football.” It’s a lifestyle. It’s not a profession. And we’re able to impact young people. And it’s just great and very, very blessed.
SMITH: Emporia State University. I don’t know about then, but now it’s about 3,600 undergrads. What did that D-II experience, being on that campus and as a student athlete, instill in you until today?
BJORK: Yeah. I remember my sophomore year, I realized the athletic director position and I saw this guy had the corner office, you know, wore shirt and tie every day. His name was Bill Quayle. And I went to see Bill, Dr. Quayle, and I said, “Hey, what do you do? You know, like, I see you. Like, what does this position mean? Explain being an athletic director meant.” And then I was speaking at a student athlete, I was like on a panel one time, and it was like the quarterback club and he was in the audience and they asked me, “Okay, when you graduate, you know, what do you want to do when you grow up?” And I’m like, “I want his job? I want to be the AD.” So I knew early on that athletics was something I wanted to pursue.
And then I would take several things away from my D-II experience. One, I played for an unbelievably disciplined, tough-minded coach. He was very hard on us. It probably would not work in today’s world.
His coaching style, very, very, you know, just direct and language. And it was tough. We’d have three-hour practices and we would just knock the crap out of each other. And so, I was like, “Okay, if I can get through this, I can get through anything,” you know, like, bring it on. I played for this guy. It was rough. It was tough. We had a style of football that was a smashmouth. I played fullback, which meant it wasn’t glorified. There was not a lot of credit. You blocked. You kind of plowed the way. So I think the toughness, I think clearing the way aspect, and I think that’s what an athletic director has to do, those aspects. And then, what I did is I’ve always just been a guy that just got along with everyone. I could get along with whoever, you know, diverse environments. So I tried to just meet people on campus, you know, deans, professors, the president, the athletic director, people in the athletic staff. And so, I started volunteering in the sports information department, which lead to more work in the advertising and marketing and development office, which obviously was a very small shop.
I met a guy named Brian Pracht. Brian and I were… he was a year older than me. He now works in Notre Dame. He’s an associate AD at Notre Dame. He kind of explained to me, “Hey, this is what I’m doing. I’m going to work in…” and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that’s, that’s what I want to do. You know, want to work in college athletics.” So he kind of had figured it out.
And so, from a professional standpoint, I learned that, you know what, you have to… You have to deal with everyone. You can’t be too big for the job. You know, you need to understand the whole dynamic of a department. And at that time it was very small. And so, as I’ve been able to move around college athletics, I think I’ve prided myself on, “Hey, I need to get to know everybody.” It doesn’t matter if they’re the groundskeeper or the head football coach. Like, everyone matters. Because I saw that at Emporia State, again, a small staff. The AD had to sell game programs if the game program seller, you know, didn’t show up, you know.
So, I think I’ve learned that characteristic of you need to make sure everyone in the organization feels important and that everyone knows that they matter because they do, and not one person is more important. Now, does the football coach get more attention? Of course. I mean, that’s, that’s a no-brainer, you know, that’s part of it. But you need to make sure that everyone feels important. So I learned kind of the toughness mental, and then more the professional world of, you know, dealing with everyone.
SMITH: For leading Ole Miss and now on to Texas A&M, an athletic director at Western Kentucky, obviously, but, as well as in UCLA, University of Miami, Mizzou, your Western Illinois in Tulsa, that’s a little bit different size campus, or at least brand from an athletic standpoint. All those stops along the way with your Division II experience, what are some of the differences and similarities when you’re talking about athletics in the higher education environment, on campus, I mean, is it just different to the outsider, the work you do is pretty much just under a more of a microscope maybe?
BJORK: I think that’s a great question, and a lot of times, you know, the labeling and the branding of D-II versus Mid-Major, you know, a lot of times that’s unfair. You know, a lot of people can get stuck as a D-II person or a I-AA person or whatever. Maybe they’re trying to get to a Power Five. And here’s the bottom line, the bottom line is the end product is students. That’s it. So I don’t care if you’re Tulsa, Western Illinois, Texas A&M, Western Kentucky, we’re there because of students and we’re there because of student-athletes. And if we lose sight of that, then we’re… I think we’re doomed for failure.
And so, if we keep that as our core, then I think all the fundamentals should be the same. You know, you have to recruit. You have to coach. You have to have good people. You have to have academic integrity. They have to go to class and you want to win. I mean, all those things are the same applicable at every stop. The differences are, okay, maybe one place gets more attention. Texas A&M, we have 500,000 former students, alumni. Well, at Ole Miss, there’s 150,000. At Western Kentucky, I think that’s a little over 100,000, you know. So, the scale might be different. The attention might be different. The media market in Bowling Green, Kentucky is going to be different than what I’ll deal with in College Station, right?
The numbers are bigger. You know, there’s more revenue, more fans. So those elements are different. But we can’t forget the core of it. And so, that’s, that’s my belief. And if someone wants to argue that and say, “Well, you better pay attention to…” Sorry, that’s going to be a losing argument from my perspective because that’s why we’re there is because of students.
SMITH: What creates a positive and trustworthy relationship between an athletic director and a president or chancellor, depending on the system, what is that role like as far as if you’re on a cabinet, for example, what institutional things are you dealing with? What is something that outside of athletics people might not realize an athletic director does with the institution?
BJORK: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think that kind of gets lost, you know, people just think, you know, you go to games and you give speeches and stuff like that is an athletic director. But the relationship with the president is the number one relationship that you have as an athletic director. Chancellor, president, whatever you call it, like you said, depending on the institution, that’s the number one relationship. And then it’s all about communication. So you have to, like, to me, you need to have a regular one-on-one meeting with the president or chancellor. And you need to have him on speed-dial, so if something newsworthy pops, you don’t want that person to be surprised. And then… so there’s always a constant dialogue, you know.
Look, in the SEC, if the president or chancellor is not dialled into athletics, they’re probably not going to last long. I mean, just reality. Right or wrong, that’s just reality. So you… they have to be dialled in. At Western Kentucky, I was with a very, very engaged president into athletics, and he was detail oriented. And you had to be, you know, kind of on your game, which was great because I was a new AD and so that helped me really do it at a high-level communication wise. And then when you’re around the cabinet table, first of all, you should have a seat at the table. If you’re not on the cabinet, then you’re probably not, you know, in a good spot.
So, then I think when you’re around that table, you need to be able to think globally about, “Hey, what is the student affairs person going through in terms of campus life and are there issues on campus?” And maybe it’s, you know, mental health and counselling. And, you know, you need to understand all that. You need to understand the academic piece, you know, with the provost and like you said retention and what is the retention rate. You need to understand funding and capital projects and, you know, state legislature matters. You need to be able to talk educated-ly about those items and not just come in and say, “Well, we’re playing a football game on Saturday. I hope everyone shows up.”
Like you need to be able to provide value if there’s something major happening. So at Ole Miss, you know, unfortunately, the cross that we have to bear at Ole Miss is a lot of just deep south racial, and so, we’ve dealt with taking down a state flag on campus. We stopped playing Dixie as a song during football games. They’re dealing with the matter right now of moving a confederate statue to a different location on campus. Like, I’m around the table when those things happen… and I need to be able to provide input and say, “Hey, have we thought about this?” from a communications standpoint.
SMITH: Especially with being the brand, whether people like it or not, I mean, you Google “Ole Miss” or “University of Mississippi,” the athletics is going to be the first thing that comes up.
BJORK: Exactly right. It’s… I’m kind of… I’m kind of talking a long answer on this one but it’s important because if you’re the AD, you better think globally from a university perspective. And if you don’t, you’re going to be stuck in your own world. Then you’ll get blindsided. You’ll get blindsided by some political issue or social issue. And you’re like, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” Well, because you’re not engaged. You have to be engaged.
SMITH: Yeah, and if you’re listening to this and you’re in academic and you want to be a provost and a president one day you need to keep your athletic director in the loop and bring them in.
BJORK: And then from a from a professional development standpoint, what I made sure that I did at Ole Miss is I wanted our whole senior staff to make sure that they had a relationship on campus with somebody, provost, vice president, student affairs. Like, “Hey, I don’t have to be the only one that carries the relationships at that level. Like, we should have multiple touch points.” So everybody around that table could say, “Yeah, I’m close with, you know, the provost. I’m close with the dean of the honors college. I’m close with the police chief. I wanted somebody, because that way, if something happened on campus, you know, kind of one of those “uh-oh” moments, you know, there was a dialogue already happening that maybe before it even got to me.