All you need to know about Ross Bjork is he turned down the chance to be athletic director at Missouri in 2015 and Nebraska in 2017.
He said no because the job at Ole Miss was better — in part because he made it better. He also figured there would be better offers down the road, which is the case now. Bjork couldn’t say no to Texas A&M, which continued its run of home-run hires by bringing him to Aggieland.
But before C.C. Creations starts printing “Ross is Aggies’ New Boss” T-shirts, let’s remember A&M’s last two AD hires were considered home runs but fell short.
Hiring South Carolina’s Eric Hyman to take A&M into the Southeastern Conference seemed like a stroke of genius. It should have been a home run, but like the AT&T commercial, it ended up being just OK. The Hyman regime had a riveting start as the Aggie football team went 20-6 in two seasons, but it fell into 8-5 repeated mediocrity by the time he left. The men’s basketball program was so inconsistent fans didn’t know if the Aggies would reach the Sweet 16 or be stuck in the CBI. Hyman left with a year left on his contract because things were far from OK.
Scott Woodward turned things around by hiring Jimbo Fisher as football coach and Buzz Williams as men’s basketball coach. Woodward also hired women’s golf coach Andre Gaston, who won a trio of national championships at Southern California, and he oversaw the openings of Davis Diamond and E.B. Cushing Stadium.
Woodward figuratively knocked it out of the park at least a half a dozen times in his three years at A&M when you factor in the men’s basketball team sharing the 2015-16 SEC title with Kentucky and reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Yet by the time Woodward left for LSU, his regime had only reached first base — and barely that thanks to a 74-72 seven-overtime victory over LSU in football.
Woodward could have circled the bases once or twice in the next few years if he had stayed. Bjork now will try to finish what Woodward started. A&M athletics is potentially on the verge of a magical time when success and championships in the major sports could match or exceed the decades of success of its nonrevenue sports. Depending on your point of view, Bjork’s walked into a great situation or one with unbelievable pressure. He’s replacing someone at a Texas Hold ’em table who had to suddenly leave after being dealt aces. Odds are he’ll win with those hand-me-downs, but it’s not a slam dunk.
A job made easier
ADs are judged by fundraising ability, communication skills, branding, creativity and handling crises. But what separates ADs is their ability to hire, help and keep great coaches while firing the underachievers. Bjork has been good at that at Western Kentucky and Ole Miss, but at A&M he seemingly inherits a pat hand for all the sports, especially the main ones.
A&M has invested almost $100 million in Fisher and Williams, so they’re here to stay. Baseball coach Rob Childress is about to make his 13th straight NCAA tournament appearance. He’s also made two College World Series appearances. Softball coach Jo Evans has made 18 straight NCAA trips with a trio of Women’s College World Series appearances. Women’s basketball coach Gary Blair has made 14 straight NCAA tournaments, including a national championship in 2011. The 73-year-old Blair does have to constantly say he’s not ready to retire, which means it’ll happen sooner rather than later, but not with a team likely to start next season in the top 10.
If those coaches each win at least a regular-season championship in the next five years along with the group getting a national championship or two, the school might erect a statue of Bjork. They’ll have to design it in such a way that at certain angles you’d swear it was Woodward if the football and men’s basketball programs lead the way. Bill Byrne accomplished great things as A&M’s AD from 2002-12, but the football team was average and he couldn’t duplicate his home-run hire of men’s basketball coach Billy Gillispie. Unlike Byrne, Bjork basically will have to be a cheerleader when it comes to football and men’s basketball.
Fisher did have a hand in hiring Bjork, which is great. It’s not that Fisher needs to be chummy with the AD, which was the case with Woodward because of their days at LSU, but you don’t want a power struggle between the department’s biggest players, which was the case at times between former football coach Kevin Sumlin and Hyman. As for Bjork and Williams, they’ve each done enough to earn the other’s respect and should work well together.
Bjork’s last big hire was former A&M men’s basketball coach Kermit Davis Jr., which wasn’t a popular move with many Ole Miss alumni who wanted a big-name hire, not a 58-year-old from Middle Tennessee State with baggage. It proved to be a shrewd move. Davis was named the SEC coach of the year after leading the Rebels to a 20-13 record, including 10-8 in the SEC. Ole Miss was coming off a 12-20 season, just 5-13 in league play. Bjork rewarded Davis with a new four-year contract in March.
It’s hard not to believe Fisher won’t string together Top 10 seasons and Williams won’t be taking the Aggies to the NCAA tournament with regularity. Yet what if New Year’s Six bowls and Sweet 16 appearances come every two to three years but with no SEC championships? That’s darn good, but it could put pressure on the other sports, especially if they aren’t winning league titles.
The women’s basketball team had a remarkable season considering it had a pair of starters transfer. Blair, whom some wanted to retire, could have been the SEC coach of the year as the Aggies reached the Sweet 16. But now his challenge is to reach the Elite Eight or better.
Evans was dealt a much worse hand than Blair this season. She had only one returning starter, not the way to debut the inaugural season in the $23.6 million Davis Diamond. The Aggies were much better than expected, but now everyone expects a team reflective of the venue.
That’s even more so for baseball program. Baseball is the sport that matters most around here behind football. The basketball program’s struggles might have a little to do with it, but the fan base for baseball has been faithful for decades as evidenced by Blue Bell Park, which had a price tag of $24 million.
Since moving into Blue Bell Park and joining the SEC in 2012, the Aggies have won a conference tournament (2016) and reached the College World Series (2017) but haven’t won a regular season title. A&M has made eight super regionals overall, including three in the last four years. The Aggies have been good but arguably shy of great. And A&M is only 2-12 all-time in the CWS and haven’t won a game in Omaha, Nebraska, since 1993. That needs to change, and A&M’s baseball team is good enough to make that happen.
It would be ironic if Bjork’s first step in being a home-run hire would come from a team built on pitching. That sounds far-fetched, but don’t bet against a guy given the financial contract of his life after being dealt a pair of aces.