As new Western Athletics Director Ross Bjork makes the move to Bowling Green, he’ll also meet another transition that will require some attention.
Bjork said he’s ready to attack Western’s move to Football Bowl Subdivision play and help leave 2009’s 0-12 record a distant memory.
“Moving up to FBS has its challenges, but we’re inspired by (Head Coach) Willie (Taggart’s) leadership and the coaching staff that’s here in place,” Bjork said.
Bjork said that the football team should have no problem recruiting with the facilities and resources at its disposal, and there’s no reason that the program shouldn’t “dominate the Sun Belt.”
“We’ve made the investment as an institution to move into that level, so the next hurdle is to be one of the top programs in the Sun Belt Conference, going to a bowl game on a consistent basis,” he said. “You talk about aspirations beyond that – it’s a process. We have to have patience. This is not going to happen overnight, because we know this takes time. “
Bjork also addressed both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, saying that he will sit down with Head Coaches Ken McDonald and Mary Taylor Cowles to discuss what needs to happen to top the Sun Belt again.
“The expectations are high,” Bjork said. “There’s no question that people expect success, and they expect some dominance here and to get us back to the NCAA Tournament on a consistent basis. That’s the norm around here.”
Bjork expecting community support
If there was one thing Bjork took away from his time as an Assistant Development Coordinator at Western in 1996-1997, it was that the community takes its sports seriously.
“I’ve told many people in my journey in college athletics that there’s no greater fan support per capita than Western Kentucky University – I really believe that,” Bjork said. “Again, the care factor is extremely high, so the passion and spirit for this program is really unmatched in my opinion.”
And it’s that spirit that Bjork said he’s counting on for increased revenue.
“Everyone can help us raise money in some way, shape or form,” he said. “They may not be in fundraising, but the presentation we make leads to people supporting us. We have to generate more resources in order to compete. We have to sell more tickets, we have to get more donors, we have to get more sponsors, so we’ll be out there aggressively seeking those new opportunities.”
Bjork said Western has a good head start towards the level of success he envisions, pointing to the $100 million in renovations used to give the campus and its athletic facilities a face lift over the past decade.
“The transformation kind of just blew me away,” Bjork said. “The facilities here are as nice as any BCS-level facilities. UCLA is UCLA, obviously – the four letters are very powerful. The facilities here rival if not beat a lot of the facilities we have at UCLA.”
Looking for a crowd
Bjork said Western must sell more tickets for football, basketball, baseball and beyond, and he plans to do that quickly.
He estimated that season attendance for Western football was about 18,000 last year with season ticket numbers around 7,500.
With Smith Stadium holding a capacity of 23,500, Bjork said he would like to see attendance evolve into a Western football game becoming a “tough ticket.”
“It’s the right size for that,” he said. “The way it kind of breathes into campus here is a great setting for families and for our consumers to come out and support the program.”
Bjork said he would also like to see larger support from the student body – especially when many live so close to the stadium.
“Getting them here shouldn’t be that hard,” he said. “We just have to provide the right access, we have to provide the right entertainment options for them to make it fun. Luckily they don’t have to go far, so we need to make it fun and easy for them to get in.”
Wisdom beyond his years
President Gary Ransdell was asked at Bjork’s introductory press conference if he was beginning a pattern of hiring younger people for positions.
The question seems justified, as Bjork is 37 and Taggart is 33. Both are the youngest at their positions among the 120 members of the FBS.
But Ransdell said age doesn’t matter to him as long as the person is right for the job.
“Age is a number. The important thing is, how do you correlate age with experience and commitment and talent?” Ransdell said. “Those are the things I look for. Age is not particularly a relevant factor for me. I’m interested in those other variables, and when I find those variables, age isn’t really a factor in such a decision.”
Bjork said that he’s had administrative responsibilities at all of his previous positions, and it’s been those experiences that have led to his success.
“Every chance that I’ve had in this business, I had AD-like experience,” he said. “I was in the room when decisions were being made, and those individuals gave me the opportunity to sit here today.”