Last night, the unlikely happened when Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork traveled to Starkville for the first time, was welcomed by Bulldogs and shared jokes and high fives with Mississippi State Athletic Director Scott Stricklin.
Stricklin and Bjork were the featured speakers Tuesday night for a Boy Scouts of America event on MSU’s campus, both discussing topics of leadership, neither frazzled by the other’s presence.
As it turns out, the pair’s history is far more interesting than the mere fact they spoke together.
When Bjork was still the Athletic Director at Western Kentucky, he, Stricklin and Greg Byrne – former MSU and current Arizona Athletic Director – were in a club or sorts with other young A.D.s around the country.
Currently, Bjork is the youngest Athletic Director in the SEC. Before that? It was Stricklin. Before him? Yep, it was Byrne.
Call it a support group, exclusive club or just a few friends helping each other out, those who were members of the fraternity used each other for support, ideas and direction.
Long before Stricklin and Bjork would stand on opposite sides of the field during the Egg Bowl, they were friends. They bounced ideas off each other, joked together and never imagined they’d be fighting each other for the support of those in the Magnolia State.
Then, the Ole Miss job opened up.
“Two days before my first visit to Oxford, I called Scott and asked, ‘What’s it like being an SEC Athletic Director?’” Bjork told the audience Tuesday night.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, Ross must be really desperate to be in the SEC,’” Stricklin joked.
“You can perform at this level,” Stricklin told Bjork before his visit.
Each now knows one of their most important tasks is beating the other not just on the field of play but in the court of public support and opinion.
The dynamic, certainly, has changed from when the pair were young A.D.s leaning on each other for support. But as the two easily ribbed each other and spoke together Tuesday, the term enemies would clearly be far too strong.
“We want to beat each other when we play,” Bjork said, “but we know we can shake hands and be friends after.”
However, as each spoke, the message was not about winning. Leadership and success, they say, is not just about having more wins than losses.
The best example of leadership, Stricklin said, is a 300-pound man.
“[Kentucky athletic director] Mitch Barnhart once said, ‘Leadership is not about getting where you want to be. It’s about getting others where they want to be,’” Stricklin said. “Offensive linemen are a great example. Most of them are faceless and nameless. There’s not a lot of glory there, but you’re still leading. You’re getting others where they want to be.”
“I look at things as a thermostat,” Bjork said. “Are we controlling the temperature or taking it? Attitude and effort are all we can control. I can’t control a 21-year-old pitcher on the mound. But I can make sure our department, coaches and players have the best attitude and put forth full effort.”
“Our core mission is to promote the success and well-being of our student-athletes,” Stricklin said. “In the SEC, it’s very easy lose to track of how important winning is. Sometimes it’s too important.”
Of course, the preferred endgame is to have prosperous student-athletes who then go out and win.
Both Stricklin and Bjork, when asked in a question-and-answer session, described the type of players and coaches they like to have around.
“I like people to have a little juice to them,” Stricklin said. “Because of our intensity and competitiveness, I want the other team to be ready for the game to be over with as soon as it starts.”
“Attitude, toughness, discipline,” Bjork said, “none of the above take talent. Everybody is good in the SEC. It’s not the talent factors that can provide a winning advantage in this league.”
The similarities between the two – youth, energy, creativity and a passion for people – are not hard to spot when they’re put in a room together. Nor is it difficult to understand the friendship the pair formed before becoming rivals in the state of Mississippi.
When each was introduced Tuesday night, a list of accomplishments was shared by Bill Kibler, the emcee of the event and the vice president of student affairs at MSU.
“I’m surprised you mentioned the Egg Bowl,” Bjork said.
“Yeah, I am too, Bill,” Stricklin said meaningfully as he turned his eyes to Kibler.
The jokes come easy. They’re friends destined to try and beat the other, but friends nonetheless.
After each answering a question on the soon-to-be-announced SEC Network, moderator Sid Salter looked at the pair and said,
“To your credit, those were the best non-answers I’ve ever heard.”
Stricklin and Bjork just laughed and high-fived each other.