With Ross Bjork
Written by: Jim Cavale - December 10, 2020
Texas A&M AD Ross Bjork shares his journey as a college intern, all the way to Director of Athletics of two SEC schools. Listen to his football shaped mentality on leadership, work-life balance, and tackling obstacles.
Ross talks about the transition from a collegiate athlete to a working professional. As a sophomore, he started to realize he wanted to give back to an industry that gave him so much, which meant volunteering in the athletic department at Emporia State.
As a young leader, Ross feels like “leaders emerge” and it takes hard work and setting the right example. This leadership mindset was learned on the field as a football player, and modeling his actions after other great leaders.
Ross walks through his journey after college with the Tulsa’s athletic department. During this time, he talks about the opportunities he was given with fundraising.
In 1998 at the University of Missouri, Mike Alden gave Ross, an entry level fundraising staff member, the chance to be in the room where decisions were being made because Mike knew Ross wanted to be an AD.
Ross talks about the ability to network at NACDA and other events to help him build his brand. He said he was hired by Dan Guerrero at UCLA after a networking opportunity brought Ross’s name in front of Dan.
Jim asks Ross about his experience in development and then external, and how that helped him understand more about an athletic department. Ross answers by discussing the idea that all athletics staff start at as a specialist, but he learned that he needed to become a generalist in order to understand the big picture and contribute to decision making.
Ross says every decision starts with figuring out how it affects the university. From there, he says he follows a full back mentality, moves straight forward, hits it head on, and is prepared for blowback.
As the youngest AD in all the FBS schools at Western Kentucky, Ross talks about his ten month experience and the first all staff meeting where he reunited with some staff he had worked with previously during his time at Western Kentucky.
Ross discusses his family support system and how they understand there’s “no clock” when it comes to being an AD of a Power 5 school, but he tries to be intentional when he does have time with his wife and kids.
Ross talks about his transition from Western Kentucky to Ole Miss, his efforts in doubling revenue at Ole Miss, and how Ole Miss used its smaller scale and charm to create a solid following.
From Ole Miss to Texas A&M, Ross goes through why he decided to switch schools within the SEC.
Ross goes through Texas A&M’s core values and their importance not only for Athletics, but also the university. With those strong core values, Ross feels like Texas A&M can set the standard for several areas in college athletics.
When it comes to social media, Ross talks about the importance of having quality content and storytelling to get people in seats at games.
Ross talks about how name, image, and likeness is a big question mark, but Texas A&M approaches the topic as a student, and learn as much as they can and how it could affect the department and athletes.
More episodes of the “I Want Your Job” podcast to be announced soon! Stay tuned, and subscribe to be one of the first to get updates about this new podcast.
Jim Cavale: Welcome to episode three of the I Want Your Job Podcast. I’m Jim Cavale, the Founder and CEO of INFLCR. And I want to start by thanking my team’s, especially my marketing team led by Andres Berrios over at INFLCR for putting together these podcasts that are a chance for you to hear stories from some of the most influential leaders in all of college and pro sports. And INFLCR puts it together because we want you to get better. We want you to learn from the experiences, the trials, the successes, the failures from some of your peers that have lived out, attracted success that you probably aspire to as well.
And today’s guest has had some serious success in college athletics and he’s done it at a young age. It’s Ross Bjork, the current athletic director at Texas A&M. He was at Ole Miss and had a great term there, leading the Ole Miss athletic department through some big transitions. And before that, he was a very young athletic director at Western Kentucky and really his whole story from his last snap as a fullback playing college football to today is inspiring. I think you’re going to need a lot out of it. So let’s dive in to episode three of the I Want Your Job Podcast with Ross Bjork.
All right, Ross, so I guess the first place I want to start is you’re playing fullback in Emporia State. Playing at a high level and you get done. You put all your blood sweat and tears out there on the gridiron as a student athlete. Do you know right then that the next thing you wanted to do is work in college athletics?
Ross Bjork: The first thing I had to figure out is how to stop eating as much and lose, you know, lose 25 pounds, you know, playing football and playing fullback. That was the first thing is try to figure that piece out. But no, it really, you know, I kind of had a sense of really my, you know, kind of sophomore and going into my junior year of college that, you know, I wanted to, I wanted to somehow maybe give back, you know, to the profession. You know, I figured that, look, I wouldn’t have gone to college except, you know, athletics. And that was an opportunity that was given to me. And I thought, you know, what I learned about the AD position, you know, I, obviously, knew what our coaches did because I was impacted by them. But I wanted a little more control, perhaps, of my destiny. And so, I wanted to go on the administrative side, but I didn’t really know how it all worked and how it all kind of pieced together. But I always thought that, “Hey, you know what, this is kind of a cool thing that I’m impacted by this. There’s obviously the next generation. And could I, you know, could I sort of give back if I worked in college athletics?” So I just, I knew, I knew going in really to my junior year that I wanted to do it, and obviously, you know, when that last football game hits, you know, everybody sort of has that “uh-oh” moment, like, what’s next?
And for me, I just went straight into the athletic department and I said, “Hey, I’ve got, you know, one semester left, you know, can I volunteer, you know, in the athletic department?” And they said, “Sure, you know, let’s, here’s what you’ll do. You’ll run some game program, you know, sales, at basketball, you’ll help us with the track meet coming up. You’ll, you know, get involved in some sponsorship, and, you know, some fundraising events.” And, and I just tried to soak it all in. So that was really, yeah, it was, it was formulated very, very early, I think, in my athletic career, if you will, that this is what I wanted to do. And it’s been a great journey ever since.
Well, I guess for me, you know, I always like to think about, as a leader, when I first realized that I could lead, and I think we all learn from failing a lot and learning how to really use example and, you know, speaking and all the things we do, communicate and set examples for others when we’re leading. But for you, you’re a fullback, not a quarterback, but you obviously knew that if you want to be an AD, you felt confident in your ability to lead. So when did you realize that leadership was something that you enjoyed? And how did you live that out before you can actually chase the dream of AD professionally?
You know, there’s a theory, you know, that leaders are born, if you will, and I think we’ve, we’ve done a good job of sort of debunking that. And so, I think it’s more that leaders, you know, emerge. You know, of course, there’s people that have talents, and you know, some people speak better than others and, you know, whatever. And they may, may look nice or be better looking or whatever, and that defines leadership. I think that’s how it used to be that you sort of had this mentality that you had to be born a leader. You know, I think it’s more leaders emerge now more so than, than ever before, because we’re putting more emphasis on it.
You know, so I’ve always just kind of prided myself on, you know what, let’s set a great example. You know, let’s, let’s work hard. And so, even back to my sort of youth days of playing, you know, football and, you know, baseball and neighborhood games, and I always, you know, wanted to be the guy that they said, “Man, I don’t want to play against that guy. Like, he just works hard. Like, he…” I wasn’t the fastest. I wasn’t necessarily the biggest, but I just, you know, I competed. I battled, you know, every single day. And so, to me, the mindset of a leader was sort of formulated then that, “Hey, I’m just going to set the tone and almost like lead by example, not necessarily with words or, or anything like that. It was more about the action piece.
I had a friend of mine that I grew up with right after I got to Western Kentucky AD job and, you know, he called me and he said, “Hey, Ross, you’ve always been a leader to me. You’ve always been sort of destined, you know, to be a CEO or lead an athletic department or whatever, because you always had it in you.” And I said, “But you know what, I’ve never looked at it that way. I just tried to work hard, set a good example, do the right thing, you know, be a person of integrity, you know, whatever it was, just don’t take any shortcuts.” And, you know, so I guess those, those principles, that’s probably my parents, you know, that get credit for all of that, that that’s how they raised me and in my upbringing, you know, the influence that you have.
And so, I sort of had it in me then, and then, you know, look, when you’re a young administrator, and I was guilty of this, you know, I thought I could be an AD when I was 25. You know, why not? Why not? Why not be Tommy McClelland? Right. He was an AD, I think, when he was 26. You know, so we all sort of have, you know, the confidence level that you can do it. But you get humbled along the way because you, you’re really not quite ready. We all know that. But you also want have the confidence that, “Hey, someday, if I do all the right things, if I prepare well, if I learn, if I’m surrounded by the right people, that maybe I have the talent and the skill set to become an athletic director, and you have to hone that and fine tune that, and, and there’s lots of lessons that go with that. But I think early on in my career, I just made sure that I followed and modeled myself after great leaders that I was around and that helped along the way as well.
All right. So you, you decide to chase this dream. And in your head, you’re thinking, this is something that I want to do. And like you said before, that you already can do it, but you’ve got to work your way up. And so, talk about some of those first few jobs, the internships with Albuquerque Dukes and University of Tulsa and some things you did early and some of the biggest learnings you had early on before you got into the 2000s and really started creating a roadmap for your resume to become a head guy.
Exactly. And that, and that’s really what it is. It’s a roadmap. You know, it’s a journey. You know, I remember, I distinctly remember, you know, packing my Ford Topaz. There, there was such a thing. There was a car called a Topaz back in the mid-90s, you know, leaving, leaving Emporia, Kansas, you know, the Monday after I graduated. And all my friends were like going off to party for a month or whatever, and they’re making fun of me because I’m packing my car. And they’re like, “Where are you going?” And I’m like, “I’m moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the summer. You know, I got this internship, you know, in the University of Tulsa athletic department.” “You know, what are you going to be doing?” “I have no idea. I’m going to show up there this afternoon. I’m going to meet with somebody in the morning and they’re going to tell me what to do.” And I got no pay for that. They gave me a free apartment on campus. It had no TV. It had a microwave and it had a mattress. And that was it.
And, you know, so I… you think about the sacrifice, you know, that you have to make. And so, I had to make sure that I had some spending money, right. So I umpired baseball games, you know, at night in Tulsa. My parents obviously had to help me with my car payment, you know, and my insurance to make sure I was, I was solvent. And so, I remember pulling out and remember driving down to Tulsa, you know.
And then, when I was there, there was a gentleman who was the assistant AD for business. And he’s like, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to be an AD.” And he said, “Well, you need to get into fundraising.” I didn’t really know what fundraising was, you know, until he said that. And I was like, “Well, how do you do that?” And he’s like, “You know, you’ve got to be able to communicate. You got to be a people person.” So the next day I went and saw the head fundraising person at, at Tulsa, and learned sort of how they do things.
And I was already set to go to grad school at Western Illinois, so that, that timeline was already firmed up. But then, you know, along the way, you just have people like, you know, like Joe Castiglione saying, “Hey, what do you want to do? You know, do you want to be an AD?” “Yes, I do.” “Okay, let me show you some things.” You know, Mike Alden, you know, when he got there in 1998 to the University of Missouri and I was just an entry-level sort of fundraising staff member, you know, he says, “Hey, do you want to be an AD?” “Yes, I do.” “Okay, let me bring you in the room when we’re making decisions so you can see things that happen.”
So there’s all these sort of, you know, just defining moments that always stand out. You know, somebody gave you a piece of advice. Somebody lets you in a room to be involved in something. You could add your, your opinion to something. And so, those are the kind of things I remember, you know, along the way. And then I was, I was blessed that at Missouri, we were able to network, you know, we were able to go to NACDA. I was able to go to the… at the time it was called the D1A Institute. Now it’s, you know, LEAD1 where I could be around people that, you know, we’re in search firms and other athletic directors. And so, you start to kind of build a brand, if you will, of, “Hey, who’s this Ross Bjork guy? Hey, maybe he’s pretty talented. They’re doing some good things, you know, at Missouri.” And then I get noticed and get a job at the University of Miami, because of, you know, some of that networking.
And then same thing that happened to UCLA. I didn’t know anybody at UCLA, but Dan Guerrero got my name from Ben Sutton, who was the head of ISP Sports at the time. And Dan described the Ben, “Hey, this is what I’m trying to do.” And Vince said, “Hey, there’s a young guy. He may be a little inexperienced, but I’m just telling you, you should grab him now.” And, you know, I get the UCLA job at, you know, 31 years old, you know, running their external, you know, relations. So, those are all the moments that you kind of just remember and treasure, and hopefully that you can tell those stories to others because they need to understand that there is a sacrifice and there is a process, you know, to this whole thing.
Well, the sacrifice side of it and paying your dues is definitely commonality here across the board with, with leaders that are in your position. But one thing that I love about your story and it’s unique is you didn’t stay one route to get there, meaning, one department that you really played in and were successful in. You, you really went from development where you had success for the first five, six years learning a lot to external. And you didn’t just do external anywhere. You did it at UCLA in Miami and Missouri. And I feel like the multidimensional aspect of those two different things probably showed you a lot and create a well-rounded experience for you but also are probably helping you to this day as you try to lead each department within your program. So just talk about the decision to do that and how it’s helped you.
Yeah. Yeah, you know, I think when we all start out, this is what I believe in that we all start out as sort of a specialist, right? You’re a fundraising person. You’re a compliance person. You’re in academics. And as we evolve in our career, we have to become more of a generalist. We have to know a little bit about everything, especially when you’re an athletic director, you need to know a little bit about every aspect. And, and I really give credit to Mario Moccia. Mario was the senior associate athletic director at the University of Missouri. He was brought in by Mike Alden. And Mario created an external relations meeting where we met every Monday afternoon at 1 o’clock, and everybody that impacted the external operations was around the table, you know, development, marketing, tickets, media relations, sponsorship, you know, everything. And it really opened my eyes to, oh, wow, there’s more than just the fundraising people; there’s more than just priority seating and, you know, capital gifts and that’s what I was kind of focused on and it really opened my eyes to kind of become more of a student of college athletics.
So then when I went to the University of Miami, I could tell, I could tell Miami in all candor, “Hey, you know what, I know how to develop a marketing plan. I know how to work with, with Learfield, with ISP Sports at the time,” now, you know, now Learfield IMG College merged as well. So I could, I could speak from an educated standpoint, a knowledge standpoint, because I was in the room with all these things were being formulated and decided upon. And so, I really give credit to that structure that was in place that Mario and Mike Alden brought to the table where it’s not, you’re not just, you know, have your head buried in the sand, just on the job that you do. You can really cross train. You can really understand the broader picture.
And then as you evolve from there, then you have to open it up to not just the external piece, but you need to understand about compliance and academics. And I really didn’t start doing that until I really got to UCLA where, hey, I want to know how compliance works. I want to know how academics works. I want to understand admissions processes and understand what APR is and graduation rates and, you know, all the technical things that go with the academic piece. So that’s… I think you have to approach it that way that you go from a specialist to a generalist. And I think I’ve always really prided myself on being a student of college athletics even to this day. I think you have to constantly learn and I’ve always had that desire to just to get better and know what’s happening in the landscape of college athletics.
I know for me, I look at different departments in our company, and as a CEO, being a generalist, having to know enough about each and continue to learn a lot about each, there’s ones I enjoy more than others, right? And there’s ones I’m naturally better at and ones I’m naturally weaker at. For you, what’s the one or two that you are a little weaker at and you put a lot of time into, as a student, trying to continue to evolve yourself?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say, you know, probably some of the legal, you know, compliance, you know, sort of those things, you know. And so, I probably spend more time kind of reading up on those things to understand them, because that’s really not my strong suit. I don’t have a law degree, obviously. And so, you try to, you know, be knowledgeable of… I love working with our attorneys. And so, I kind of find that fun and, you know, obviously, I joke with them, “Hey, I’m not an attorney. But I feel like one because I read enough contracts,” you know. “Oh, I stayed at holiday inn, you know.” And so, that’s, that was probably my, my weakest point, you know, going into, to the chair of an athletic director and then obviously growing up in that, you know, because you just don’t really get exposed to that until you really have to work on it.
And so, that part of it, you know, is a constant, just desire to keep learning those things. And then, you know, we, look, we had, we had some major issues at Ole Miss on the compliance side. And, you know, you, you work at this Power Five level; you work in the Southeastern Conference, and you know what, compliance is going to hit your desk. I don’t care what program you’re at, you know. And so, you’d have to be ready for that. And so, that, that’s an area that you just, you know, you can never get enough of, you know. Obviously, I’m natural on the fundraising side and the revenue generation and, you know, those things are always going to be sort of at my core, but it’s really those internal pieces that you just have to keep fine tuning and keep learning and kind of soak yourself and immerse yourself into those areas. That’s what I would say was, was kind of the weak, weak spot, if you will.
You know, you brought up the compliance challenges that you went through at Ole Miss. And what I love about the story is the mindset. You know, we’ve talked before, you attack that in a way where you wanted to find out what you needed to know that you didn’t. And you wanted to be able to solve the problem with a solutions-oriented mindset to be able to preserve the school’s vision forward. And, you know, listen, when you’re in your seat, all you’re going to do all day is have problems come at you. It’s not like you’re going to wake up and hope, “Hmm, today, I hope, I hope no problems happen.” You know what I mean?
The reality is, is that’s why your role exists is to solve problems with your team for the university athletic program that you’re leading and the university itself, right? So talk about the mindset when all that’s going on, obviously, on the outside people are thinking and saying and doing all the things that people do, especially in sports. What’s going on in the inside from a mindset standpoint to try to approach it the best way possible for Ole Miss athletics?
Yeah, you know, I think our first, first job every single time no matter what the decision is, is what is best for the university. And you got to look at it that way. And you got to sort of set everything aside, what, what does the university need, you know, to match its values, match its principles, what’s best, you know, long term… short term and long term for the university. And then obviously, how does it impact your, your student athletes. And so, we have to have that. It’s not about self-preservation. It’s not about me. It’s not about a coach. It’s about… it’s about the university. The university is here well before we got here, and long after, you know, we’re gone. And so, that, that’s, to me, that’s the starting point. And, and then, you know, I think it really, for me personally, in kind of how I’m built, I’m like that fullback, you know, you know. And fullbacks typically are, you know, straight ahead, you know, there’s not a whole lot of like, twists and turns and route running. And, you know, your job is to look at that linebacker or that defensive end and block that person, you know, straight up. And so, I looked at it that way.
Like, what is in front of us? Let’s go hit that thing head on. And whatever it is, if it’s going to hit back and it’s going to hit hard, okay, let’s have a plan for that. If you’re going to be able to knock it over quickly, okay, let’s have a plan for that. And so, that’s really how I, how I took, you know, on the challenges. And, you know, some people there, they didn’t like it. You know, they wanted us to maybe go a different route or different strategy. But I knew every single day that I could wake up, and I could, one, I could sleep well at night and I could wake up in the morning going, you know what, we are doing the best thing for the university. We’re protecting the integrity of the university. We’re hitting this thing head on. We’re not going to, you know, run away from if it’s bad, it’s bad.
One of our… one of our counselors there was, “Hey, let’s call balls and strikes. If it’s a ball, it’s a ball. If it’s a strike, it’s a strike.” Another, another saying that we had was, I hope this fits your podcast is, “If you have to eat a turd, don’t nibble, right? Just, just, just bite it. Just bite it. Just bite it in whole,” because, look, if it’s bad, you got to deal with it, you know, you can’t cover things up. You can’t shove things in the trash can, right? You know, you’ve got to just deal with it. And so, you know, those are, those are, I think the lessons that, one, I learn, but also how we dealt with it, you know, along the way that just… let’s just hit this thing head on. And let’s deal with it. And you know what, that’s what accountability is all about. And I think that’s what everybody in college athletics expects you to do is you deal with your consequences and you hold yourself accountable. And that’s how I felt like we, we handled it at Ole Miss.
And in the leadership position, you mentioned some people didn’t like it. I mean, you can’t make everyone happy. It’s not possible. You learn that as you go. And for you preserving the number one, you know, group if you wanted make happy was, was protecting the university. I mean, that, that’s… was your true North it seems like in your mindset.
Right. Yeah, if we, if we followed Twitter or message boards or whatever, we would, we would never, you know, get anything done. We would never be able to move things forward, right. Because you… there is no way that you can make, you know, everyone happy. And I think, you know, there’s all kinds of different sayings about, you know, if you try to make everyone happy, you’ll make no one happy and, you know, all those kind of things. And I think you have to stick to that. Not, not that you have your head buried in the sand. You can never do that. But I think in not, you know, hey, throw up your hands and you know, I don’t care about anything. Of course, you’re going to, you know, gather input and be proactive. But at the end of the day, what is the best decision and that’s what you have to live with. And that’s how people, I think, hold themselves together, you know, in the long run.
I love it. Okay, so let’s back up. You get your first AD job. You reach this big goal. And it’s at Western Kentucky where you had a stop along the way. You get to go back there. I’m sure there’s a lot of people you had already set relationships with at the end of the 90s when you were there, I guess it was ’96, ’97.
You’re there. You’re doing development. So now you’re back as the head guy leading the athletic department, youngest of the 120 FBS schools. What’s that feel like? And then when you get in the office the first day and close the door, what do you think?
You know, it was really, you know, I wasn’t at Western Kentucky the first time very, very long. And it was a 10-month stretch. But what was cool is there was… I think I counted there was like 32 people that still worked in the athletic department in 2010 that were there when I left in 1997. And then there was people affiliated with the university, that obviously were still, you know, connected, you know, some way, shape or form. In fact, the president, Gary Ransdell, who hired me, he had just got named the president right after I left. And it was ironic that I ran into him in 2004 when I was in Atlanta, Georgia at a meeting. I was working at the University of Miami, and he had a Western Kentucky shirt on and I said, “Hey, aren’t you Gary Ransdell?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “Who are you?” And I said, “I’m Ross Bjork. I used to work at Western Kentucky.” You know, and I just kind of told my story and what was cool is we stayed in touch from 2004 until… so, essentially, that, that hotel chance meeting, you know, allowed me to develop a relationship with Gary Ransdell.
And so, the, the first meeting I had, the first all-staff meeting that I had at Western Kentucky, I said, “If you were here in 1997, you know, would you stand up? If I had worked with you as an intern.” You know, I was making $600 a month back in 1996. “If you were here at that time, you know, stand up.” And they stood up. And I said, and I said, “Thankful for all of you. You were nice to me back then. Because now I’m the athletic director.” And so, we had a, we had a light-hearted moment that we were, obviously, it was, it was a joking moment. I didn’t want to put them on the spot, right? By saying, “Hey, your job is in jeopardy now, because you were mean to me. But it was kind of cool to see those people, you know, still there and still giving back and, you know. So, that first day, you walk in, you shut your door, and it just kind of hits you that, hey, you’re responsible, you know, for this, right. You’re responsible for that football stadium. Right, you’re responsible, you know, for all 120, you know, athletic department staff members at Western Kentucky. You know, you’re responsible.
You know, the, the finances, you know, are challenging, you know, at Western Kentucky and we had some challenges that I walked into and now you’re responsible for that. And so, it really… the gravity, if you will, you know, hit you pretty quickly that, okay, you know, just stick to your fundamentals. You know, stick to how you were brought up in the, in the business. You know, ask a lot of questions. You know, learn the dynamics, learn the people. So that, that first day I think you just shut, shut the door and, and have that moment of reflection like, okay, this is really cool. You know, you made it as an athletic director. You’re really humble about all of that. But now it’s like, okay, you know, you’re in charge, people are going to look to you to set the course and you have to be ready. You have to have the chops to do the job and be ready. But it really does hit you in that moment on that first day on the job, that’s for sure.
And so, while all this is going on, you’re building a family at the same time, right? So talk about the balance side of this because when you got that first job, I know one of your sons was born. He was a little boy just starting to grow up. I know you had your second son while you’re at Western Kentucky. So just talk about trying to balance because that’s something all leaders can struggle with. And unfortunately, a lot of times, give more time to things outside of their family. I know you’re a big family guy, and that’s not how you roll. So I’d love to hear your formula.
Right. Yeah, that, that’s a great question. And no, no one is perfect at this. You know, one, I just, I have a great support, you know, base and it starts with my wife, you know, Sonya, you know, luckily, she’s a sports fan. You know, when she first met, she was like, “Hey, can I start getting better tickets to the Mizzou games?” You know, and I was like, “Sure,” you know. So she, so she loves sports. And so, first of all, if I didn’t have that, if I was getting phone calls at, you know, 5:15 every night going, “Where are you? You know, when are you coming home?” It’s probably not going to go over too well in our business because there’s no clock. And so, first of all, I’ve got a very understanding partner in all of this in Sonya.
And so I look at the, I look at the balance aspect as more priorities. Look, there’s going to be, there’s going to be some weeks where I’m traveling, you know, two nights a week. But when I’m at home, I’m at home, I’m not on my iPad, I’m not on my phone. You know, I’m limiting as much sort of work stuff as I can, and I want to focus, you know, on my boys, you know, on Sonya, and try to just, you know, be in the moment, if you will. And then the next week, maybe I’m, maybe I have nothing that night and I get home at, you know, 6:00 or 6:30 and we have a sort of a normal, you know, night, dinner, you know, watching movie, you know, play in the yard, you know, whatever. And so, I think you have to prioritize more than necessarily balance.
I love when I’m in town. I drop off my, my nine-year-old at school. And that’s our… we have 10 to 12 minutes in the car. And that’s our time. He can tell me what happened the day before. He can tell me what he’s worried about at school, if he’s got a test or whatever. And that’s our little time to bond, you know. And then it’s like, “Okay, buddy, I love you. Have a great day.” “Love you too, Dad, you know, see you.” So you’ve got to, you’ve got to have those moments. You’ve got to be intentional. And I think it’s more about prioritizing as much as it is about, you know, the balance piece of it. Because there’s going to be times where you’re just not there because you, you need to be, you know, you need to be seen as somewhere else, or you got to have this meeting, or you’ve got to be at the NCAA Convention. You know, like we have, you know, coming up or, you know, whatever it might be. So my formula is be in the moment and take the time to carve out those, those little nuggets of time and connection, you know, as much as possible.
And then the cool thing about our job is we get to bring our kids, you know, to games. And, you know, those are fun times. And so, a lot of times our sort of our family and I might be going to a women’s basketball game, you know, and we’re sitting there watching the Aggies play, you know. And so, you’ve got to wrap your family, you know, around your athletic events too. One, it’s fun, and hopefully they get to learn, you know, kind of how it works as well. So that’s sort of my formula on how it works on the Bjork family.
I love it man. We got a lot of commonalities there. It’s two of our core values at INFLCR are be intentional, which you talked about and be present. And that’s what you’re really saying is, you know, you’re going to take those minutes sometimes it’s only a 12-minute ride, but you’re being present in that ride than being there but distracted by your phone or something else outside of reality. I love it.
So Ole Miss, so you, you’re not at Western Kentucky very long. You had a lot of success there. I mean, basketball is, is what a lot of people know Western Kentucky. For now football too, but volleyball, a lot of other sports were successful. So you have the short stint, and all of a sudden, you’re not just a young guy anymore. You’re the young guy in the SEC at Ole Miss. Talk about that transition. And at Ole Miss you doubled revenue, which was a huge accomplishment. What was the key to that? So just two questions in one, sorry.
The transition from Western Kentucky to Ole Miss and then the key to all the successes at Ole Miss.
You know, one of the one of the things that, you know, I don’t like necessarily about the, the past is the short stints, you know, at Miami, the two-year period and then at… in Western Kentucky, you know, back as the AD, a two-year period. To me, you know, I’m big on loyalty, I’m big on, you know, commitment and, you know, all those things, but I also believe on, “Hey, you know what, we only get one shot at this, and we better make the most out of every opportunity,” and that’s what those two moves were all about. And so, I, you know, I just look back at that and say, “Man, I wish I could have been there longer,” but I also understand that, look, I took a move up, you know, in both cases. And so, that’s, that’s really the mindset of the Ole Miss transition was I wasn’t looking to leave Western Kentucky. The president was committed to athletics. You know, we had some good things going, you know, FBS football was just on the scene. And we were building that and Willie Taggart, you know, really had it going and I loved working with him. And, and so, you know, I get this call, you know, from Bob Bodine, who had the search at Ole Miss, and, you know, he’s like, “Look, I got a ready-made job for you. It’s perfect for you.” And I’m like, “Bob, I’ve only been here, you know, like 21 months. I can’t leave, you know, that’s not fair.” “Okay, okay. I understand. I get it. Call me back like two weeks later, Ross, that they haven’t found who they’re looking for. I keep telling them that you’re the perfect fit.” “Bob, it’s just not the right time.”
And so, after about the sixth phone call, Bob is basically screaming at me, saying, “Ross, this is the SEC. This is Archie Manning. This is the grove. You need to research Oxford. You need to check this out. This is an unbelievable opportunity. They need to modernize their athletic program. You’re perfect for this job.” And I’m like, begrudgingly, really, I just said, “Okay, but here’s the parameters of how I need to be involved in the search. And if they can’t do that, then that’s fine, too. I understand. Look, they have a process and if they, if they don’t, you know, like the way I want to kind of formulate it, then that’s okay, too.” Because I didn’t want to, I didn’t really want to hurt Western Kentucky by, you know, being, you know, another one that sort of left them for a bigger job, if you will, because there was a really laid perception around that, really, from a coaching standpoint. But I thought, you know what, it is Ole Miss, it’s Oxford. And so, I showed my wife an article from the New York Times and I said, “Look, we really need to look at this. You know, we had just got settled in our house and churches and schools and, you know, luckily our youngest was young enough where he wasn’t going to remember, you know, the move.” And so, family wise, we were in a good spot and I said, “Look, we got to do this.”
And that’s really what it’s all about. And then, so, when we got to Ole Miss, you know, it was really about modernizing the systems that helped us, you know, double the revenue. It was about really just being intentional with folks, you know, asking people, you know, it’s amazing what happens when you ask people, you know, for money. It’s amazing when you have a proactive, you know, ticket sales, you know, plan and redo your sponsorship packages and redo your apparel deal. And, you know, we really just kind of did the blocking and tackling, if you will, around all the revenue pieces. And, you know, it paid off. People, people invested. People were hungry. The Ole Miss fans, this is where the Ole Miss fans get, get the credit, is they were hungry, you know, to step up and modernize things, and really try to be relevant in the SEC. So that was really our approach, you know, and obviously, that takes people, that takes strategy, and we get all those things. But it was really about just, “Hey, if we don’t ask, then we’re not going to get. And so, let’s make sure that we’re, you know, very, very focused on just trying to be aggressive, you know, the right way, but be aggressive in turning this thing around.”
We have a common friend in Ben Craddock. And he always likes to tell me about the pride, not just himself, but all of the alums at Ole Miss have had over the past decade, because it’s different moments that have happened on campus, things that happened during your time and the leadership that you had with the team that you had leading the way for the athletic department. And, you know, these stories of Johnny Manziel coming in and Phil Knight coming in from Nike to watch the game or the day that Katy Perry and Woody Harrelson were both there on the same day.
And game day is going on. You had to have some really special moments that put Ole Miss on the national scene more so than, than before, or at least in recent times. Talk about those little things, even though they’re anecdotes, they’re not the same as going from 57 million to more than 100 million revenue. But those anecdotal subjective things lead to some of the objective stats like revenue that occur?
What I always said, you know, kind of the mindset was, you know, why not, you know, why not Ole Miss? You know, we’re in the SEC. We have a unique, you know, sort of, you know, it’s smaller, the scale is different, you know, much different than here at Texas A&M. But let’s, let’s utilize that. Let’s capitalize on this, you know, sort of one-on-one connection, you know, this family atmosphere, this unique, you know, town-gown, you know, relationship. I mean, the square is sort of one of a kind in, in college athletics, you know, how do you just capitalize on the charm and the beauty and then have an attitude of why not? You know, who says that we can’t do this. And so, then you, you start to sprinkle in, you know, success. You start to sprinkle in, you know, moments, you know, like you described and people were like, “Hey, what are they doing there? You know, they must… there must be something, you know, really happening, you know, positively there at Ole Miss,” and it starts to just change, you know, perceptions. And then it changes expectations of your fans, which is a good thing in my mind that, “Hey, we can do it, we can do it, because then you can go back and ask them, “Hey, do you have high expectations, you know, we need you to help. We need you to invest.” So it just creates this cycle of a higher level of thinking, and those moments I think helped just kind of bring sort of credibility, you know, to the storytelling when you have those types of things. I mean, Morgan Freeman, you know, still comes to basketball games at Ole Miss. And he’s been doing that for some time but you have him in the, in the stands and setting courtside, you know, that’s a big deal. And so, you got to capitalize on those things. And I think that’s what we, what we did along the way.
And then more recently, the transition opportunity to win a Texas A&M and obviously Ole Miss, you had a much longer stint. I guess stint wouldn’t even be the right word. You were there for just short of a decade. You did a lot of great things there. You had a chance to work with a lot of great people. And then this opportunity comes up at Texas A&M. Talk about your thought process in making the move.
Same, same approach that I had Western Kentucky to Ole Miss, I wasn’t looking to leave Ole Miss. You know, I was in a great spot. You know, yes, we had some challenges, but we were coming out of those. You know, we had a plan to continue to work through everything. And, you know, obviously, I knew about the A&M job, you know, I knew Scott left and went to LSU and, you know, thought to myself, you know, A&M is probably going to hire maybe somebody, you know, maybe a little more connected, you know, to their program somehow. And I just, I really didn’t think about it. I was with one of their administrators at an SEC meeting and, and her and I talked, you know about, you know, what was happening and kind of the search and I was asking her, “Hey, what are they thinking? What are they doing?” You know, “Hey, who’s out there?” Just really just curious about who would sit around the table with us, you know. And then about two weeks later, I get a phone call, you know, from somebody who was helping the, the president, you know, conduct the search saying, “Look, they want to target a short list of folks. They would really like Power Five, you know, sitting ADs, you know, do you want to be on the list?” And you sort of get caught like, well, you have to answer that, you know. You got two answers, you know, yes or no. And I said, “Yes, I would, but I also need to make sure that it’s, you know, confidential,” and they could assure that.
And, and the reason why I looked at it, you know, was really, you know, a couple reasons. One, I’ve always been really intrigued by the state of Texas, just living here, you know, the economics, you know, the size and scale the mindset, you know, for my boys and their future, you know, if they can grow up in the state… I’ve always just think, thought that, boy, Texas just has a lot going for itself, you know, and just many ways. And then Texas A&M, I mean, largest university in the country, you know, largest budget in the SEC, just rebuilt Kyle Field, you know, all these traditions and all this passion and this sort of standard of excellence. I think if you work in college athletics, you want to be around, you know, the best programs and be at the highest level. And I thought, you know what, A&M, maybe we’re not quite here yet but we have the potential to be a top five athletic program. And I always thought that I wanted to be at a place that could live in that space. And that’s why I was interested. And then, you know, obviously, President Young and the people that you work with are very, very important. And they had the same mindset. And so, that that was really the thought process behind it was go somewhere where you have a chance to be the best.
And I’m not sure we can ever catch Stanford in the Directors’ Cup because of how many sports they have. But there’s no reason that we can’t be, you know, at the top of the SEC, you know, every year. There’s no reason why we can’t win, you know, multiple national championships and multiple SEC championships because of where we set because of our resources, because of the, the history of the university and the traditions and the student body population and the 12th Man and all these things that we have to offer. So that’s how I looked at it. And, you know, we’re just blessed to be in a great place like this.
And so you mentioned a lot of different things that are probably specific goals you guys have, Directors’ Cup, SEC championships. But what’s the, if you sum it up, what’s the vision forward for Texas A&M and what are the values around that vision?
You know, the, the great thing about Texas A&M is we’ve already got an established set of core values that the university puts front and center. And it’s amazing how many students, you know, know what the core values are. And so, the cool thing that I could walk into is I don’t have to recreate core values for the athletic department, the university already has them. And so, that’s, that’s an easy thing to walk into. And the alignment, you know, is really going to take care of itself from, from that perspective. And so, I love the fact that we put our values out there, you know, every single day. And we’re going to live by those and our students understand them. Our student athletes understand them. So that, that part that’s the easy part, you know, is matching our values to the university because they’re all the same. They’re uniform.
And then, you know, I think the standard that we’re after is exactly what I came to Texas A&M for is that it’s about the highest level. It’s about excellence in everything that we do. It’s about trying to, you know, people talk about… I talk about model athletic program that we tried to create at Ole Miss, and modernize things. To me, this is about, hey, we should set the standard, we should be leading the charge, whether it’s NCAA legislation, whether it’s facility development, whether it’s a marketing plan, whether it’s the competitive environment with the sport, you know, to me, there’s no reason why A&M should not be, you know, at the top of college athletics in a multitude of areas. And so, we have a ways to go in some areas. We’re there and close to being there in some other areas. And so, kind of that culture of excellence, and, you know, no shortcuts, you know, let’s set the standard. Let’s be the best, you know, possible that we can be. And that’s a mindset that spreads across the entire, you know, landscape of the university. I think we have, I think we have over 40 departments on our campus that are number one in their, in their discipline in the academic world. I mean, that’s, that’s incredible, you know. So let’s have the same mindset in the athletic program that the rest of the university has.
I love that. I love that. And if you think about just the industry right now, college athletics, just a lot going on. And if you think forward, what do you think are the biggest opportunities for innovation, you know, pro activity adoption to set yourself apart and really be the best for the student athlete?
We have a, we have a lot of tools. When I think of our student athletes, I think of kind of really that whole mental health, that health and sports performance piece, the nutrition piece. This week I met with a couple of folks from… there’s an institute here called the Huffines Sports Institute. And they do a lot of research around the stuff that we’re trying to accomplish, whether it’s concussion management, whether it’s, you know, mental health things, whether it’s just different protocols in the health sciences area. And so, you know, we want to be a leader in that. So I think there’s a lot of applications, a lot of technologies that we can apply in that world, where our student athletes are performing at the highest level and we’re, whether it’s… we’re tracking their, their GPS and their heart rates, and we’re understanding their workload and impact and all those kind of things. You know, those are the kind of things that we want to do, you know, in innovating, you know, this athletic program. We’re, we’re talking to our Health Sciences Division right now about maybe forming a partnership around, you know, medical, you know, coverage, and maybe being, you know, state of the art with some things that we’re talking about.
So I really look at those pieces, where, you know, we’re talking to Adidas about, you know, how do we maybe outfit our, you know, sports performance, our science center that we have within our footprint of our athletic complex. So there’s a lot of things like that, that I think that we have resources to here at A&M that, that maybe others don’t have. And so I think we can set a high standard around innovation and around technology. So those are the things that we’re looking at. You know, the fan experience piece, you know, we have a whole unit dedicated to analytics. So we’re capturing all of this customer data. We’re capturing trends. We’re capturing lifestyle things. You know, so we haven’t really turned that on to really understand what we do with that, and how we, you know, monetize it, but also how we make connections. You know, it’s not just about the money, but how do we make connections with families or children or kids where they lead to a long-term relationship with A&M. And so, there’s a lot of things like that, Jim, that we have on the table, and, you know, I’ve been here six months, and it’s like, okay, I want to turn all these things on in a quick, you know, short amount of time. And so, you just have to keep taking the steps to formulate it. But I think there’s a lot of things that we can be doing here at A&M that others look to and then they, they ask, you know, “How do you guys do that? You know, how did you put that plan together?” So that that’s what we’ll be honing in on as we move ahead here.
No doubt, those are all very innovative things. And like you said, having the resources, facilities, some of the things already in place, partners like Adidas to do some of those things now, tremendous opportunity, especially for the student athlete, which is why we’re here, right? It’s like, we’re all here to serve the student athlete and they’re all a shared True North, purpose for whether it’s my business, whether it’s your athletics department, that’s why we’re here talking about the student athlete, talking about social media, which is what really established our relationship at INFLCR and Ole Miss work together and still do. And now we’re getting going with you guys at Texas A&M. And the reality is, is the eyeballs continue to migrate more and more to the phone and, and on the phone. They’re consuming content more and more on social than anywhere else.
And so, for you, I love your philosophy. I’d like you to talk through it because you talked before, like, we’re not going to look at social media to see what people think about a decision we’re making. And I think that’s very wise. At the same time, I know you’re proactive with investing into the creation of content, storytelling content, equipping your student athletes with content to be able to tell their story in the context of the team that they play for. Talk about your philosophy on social.
Yeah, I probably should have clarified that. I don’t, I don’t read my mentions when people are trying to ding me, right? Of course, we have to be involved in social media, but when they start yelling at me on social media, I just, I just ignore it, right?
Yeah, of course.
Those are, those are the ones we don’t listen to. No, I think, you know, that, that’s where everybody is going. I mean, I mean, shoot, I’m, I read Twitter every day, either as a news feed, right? Or to follow our student athletes. Or, if there’s a cool video that we just put out, or whatever. I mean, everybody is, everybody is utilizing it. And so, you know, I think that the challenge that we have moving forward, well, one, from a fan experience standpoint, how do we utilize that where they, you know, come to games, right? We want people in our venues, that creates the atmosphere, that creates the moments that, you know, we were talking about earlier. You know, so how do we utilize that content, you know, to get people in your, in your venues? And I don’t know if anyone has sort of cracked the code yet on that, you know, in a perfect way. And so, that’s how, to me, we have to utilize social media is we have to story tell. We have to tell, you know, the message about what the student athlete impact is, and they, you know, our fans make a difference, you know, in coming to games and, you know. So I want to utilize it, you know, from that standpoint as a, from a broad perspective, you know.
Me personally, you know, I use to answer everything. You know, if I got tweeted at, I would answer every question or, and I really stopped, you know, doing that, not that I don’t, you know, care about what people are asking me. But it’s like, where does it stop, you know, so I usually kind of give it to somebody else and they can attend to it if it’s a fan experience issue or, you know, something like that. And so you’ve got to, you’ve got to, you know, sort of engage but I think there’s a fine line in terms of how I, you know, engage with people because I could be on it, you know, 24/7 in responding to people and all those kind of things, and that’s not productive for the rest of, you know, running the athletic department. And so, I think it’s like anything, it’s a balance. We know it’s there. We know people are utilizing it. We know our student athletes are impacted by it both positively and negatively. And so, there’s a lot of education that goes with it. And that’s where, you know, company like yours, you know, it really looks at the positive side of it. And we’ve got to just do more of that. We’ve got to just do more of the positive storytelling, both in terms of how I utilize it. And then in both of how we, you know, monetize it, and capitalize on it as a department.
And also ahead of us, of course, is something that we couldn’t talk about as much just a year ago, but I think it’s become something that’s less about if and more about when and that’s name, image and likeness. How do you… how do you prepare for something that has so much unknowns, knowing that there’s committees and there’s all these different things that are happening in the background to try to establish what will be a first set of parameters and then they’ll be iterations and everybody’s got their theories, how do you focus, not ignore it, because you have to be thinking ahead, but at the same time, not listen to everything in a way where it affects your mindset?
Yeah, when you, when you started your question, I was getting ready to respond. I wish I knew how to prepare yet, because we don’t know what the models, you know, will look like or we don’t even know what the proposals, you know, will look like, you know, specifically. All those things are being worked on, you know, at the NCAA level, but now you’ve got, you know, Congress, you know, involved. You’ve got state by state legislation that’s pretty much popping up, you know, every single day as these legislative sessions, you know, get going across the country.
So, you know, the way we’ve prepared is what I talked about at the very beginning of this conversation, hey, let’s be a student. Let’s gather as much information as possible. Let’s educate our coaches. Let’s educate… let’s keep talking about it to our athletic staff. You know, obviously, this is probably going to be housed in the compliance area, right. And so, they need to be, you know, prepared and sort of geared up, you know, and, and be thinking about, you know, pitfalls and, you know, also opportunities as well. And, you know, so we’re, we’re starting to talk about, okay, what would be monitoring systems, you know, what would be some, some sort of checks and balances. You know, again, we don’t know exactly what it’ll look like, but we need to be prepared in kind of all these categories. You know, what about, what about tax implications, you know? Do we need to… do we need to have a tax advisor, you know, in our compliance office to advise, you know, student athletes on the tax implications, because this is not just, you know, free money without consequence?
You know, this is taxable income, right? So you start to really kind of look at all those things, you know, that come with this and just like, I’ve just got like a running list. You know, every time something pops in, I just write a note down, hey, we need to be thinking about this, or I read an article, I write something down. So we’re just kind of keeping a running list. Preparing for it. I think we all realize that today is going to change and the model is going to change in some way, shape or form. And, you know, you have to be, you know, ready for it.
And I think, look, so here’s the way I look at it too, a place like Texas A&M, whatever it looks like we should, again, back to the leadership position, back to resources, we should be in a position to support our student athletes at the highest level. And so, that’s the mindset and approach that we’re taking as this gets developed and comes down the pathway here in the next, you know, couple months in the coming year.
What a time to be in the role you’re in. I’ll say that. You got to be… you got to be excited about the opportunity to make some of these decisions at such a crucial time. And once again, I mean, you’ve… it’s almost like you got our, our INFLCR vision in front of you. You said five of our great core values just naturally in the interview, but one of them is be a student, you talked about be a student. It’s seems like that’s been a theme throughout your whole career. And if anybody listening wants to grow in the role, that’s what you got to do. You got to constantly admit you don’t have the answers and go find them. And if you’re tenacious enough, they’re out there.
So, Ross, man, thank you. Thank you so much for making time for this podcast interview. Really appreciate your belief in INFLCR early on. I mean, when we when we designed our athletics-wide deal with you at Ole Miss, I believe that was our 10th deal.
And what’s funny is…
Well, we’re past 100 but Texas A&M was the 100th deal in college athletics for us.
So pretty neat, pretty neat, you are the 10th guy to believe in me and you believed in me again at 100. And it wasn’t me. It’s my staff, with my company because we’ve grown and we got a team and we’ve got a track record and a lot of that is because of what we did at Ole Miss. So I really appreciate you and your way to think forward.
Yes sir, no, glad to partner with you, Jim, and thanks for having me on the podcast and I enjoyed the conversation. I appreciate it.
So many great stories told by Ross in this interview and you can find the show notes at INFLCR.com. That’s I-N-F-L-C-R dot com, click on the menu option and podcasts and you’ll find season two where this episode lives. And you’ll see not only show notes, but how to follow Ross and engage with him on social media. And of course, you can go to past episodes. This season has been chock full of some great guests with Danette Layton from the Pac-12. She’s a CMO there to John Calipari, the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. And we have so many great guests coming and that’s thanks to the INFLCR team that puts this together for you to get better. And so I want to thank the team. I want to thank you for listening. I want to encourage you to share and subscribe to the podcast because we have a lot of great episodes coming here in season two. And for everybody at INFLCR, I’m Jim Cavale. Thank you for listening to episode three of the I Want Your Job Podcast.