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Parham: Ole Miss, Bjork hit right marks in first town hall meeting

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CLEVELAND | The intimate environment of the Sanders Soundstage inside the GRAMMY Museum in Cleveland, Mississippi, doesn’t offer much protection for the participant on display.

The quarters are tight inside the 130-seat theater, and when Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork first walked into the venue for the first of seven town hall meetings spread across Mississippi and Memphis, he vocally approved of the area and asked for the lights to be as bright as possible.

If the goal is to be visible to the Ole Miss community, you may as well go all the way with it.

Bjork fielded questions for most of the 90-minute event on Monday, as a crowd of approximately 50 fans alternated between a mixture of emotions that included annoyance, frustration, appreciation and, yes, even hope. So as to not be confused with a pep rally or social event, there were no food or drinks. It was a business meeting.

“The plan is they let everything out and ask it of me,” Bjork said as he grabbed his jacket from the school-issued Ford Explorer upon arrival at the museum. “I can’t guarantee they like my answers, but I’m going to be truthful and try to explain what happened and why.”

The collective scar tissue of a fanbase still smarting from years of bad publicity and continued shots to the gut was evident, even with the small sample size in the Mississippi Delta. NCAA questions comprised half the topics posed to Bjork, and snippets of revelations came from the answers. It was part venting session, part information session and potentially a major step on the path to closure.

[Related: Ole Miss vacates 33 wins over six seasons]

Bjork admitted Ole Miss should have made the entire notice of allegations public in January 2016, putting an end to the months of speculation and upping the transparency that he’s trying to rectify with these outings. He worked in the tidbit that when they pressed the NCAA about leaks, the leaks stopped, but then they would start up again.

The biggest disconnect remains the public vs. private nature of Ole Miss’ fight during the investigation. Bjork guided attendees to the NCAA timeline provided on “placemats” that also featured financial information, milestones and an area for jotting down notes. In December 2014, Ole Miss met with NCAA officials in Indianapolis and won an important decision to reduce allegations. The following spring the NCAA told Ole Miss the case was close to completion. That summer Laremy Tunsil and Lindsey Miller had their altercation and all hell broke loose.

And while the information — on any topics posed — was the reason for the get-together, the tone of the crowd shifted because of the intent and the attempt. No one moderated the questions or shifted focus. Hands raised, microphones passed, questions asked and Bjork did his best to respond. The majority of attendees stopped to shake his hand afterward, and the theme was an appreciation for coming over and being accessible. The bare-bones operation provided some catharsis because of its lack of smoke and mirrors.

During the one-hour, 45-minute trip from Oxford, Bjork went over expected questions one final time, asking Ole Miss officials Michael Thompson and Kyle Campbell if they had missed any obvious or off-the-wall possibilities. But instead of studying with an eye on coach speak, he was checking for any further information that could be provided, practicing to organize any details he wanted to include when the time came.

At least for the majority of the crowd in Cleveland, it was a marked moment in moving on. After 45 minutes of questions about NCAA and MSU involvement, there was a notable shift to basketball, campus, baseball and football coordinator inquiries. It was as if the room cleansed of all the raw emotion — even if some answers ended in impasse — and the fans were free to look ahead.

“A lot of times you don’t get the chance to talk through issues and assess where you are, but that was something that happened tonight,” Bjork said. “We need to do this how many more times and try to reach people.”

Bjork broke the news of 33 vacated football wins over six seasons during the meeting. There were a few audible gasps as he ticked off the seasons of total removal and then a few chuckles and exclaims as he pointed out the 2015 season, including the Sugar Bowl trophy, was spared. Vacated wins were always going to be the NCAA’s final knife wound when things were complete. Ole Miss argued for more leniency, but the bylaws make no sense and are designed for max damage of a dumb punishment. Bjork called it a “broken system.”

Ole Miss also didn’t shy away from financial discussions. In 2017, there was a “rainy-day fund” of $27.7 million (compared to $5.9 million in 2012), but as Ole Miss has lost a total of $16 million over the past two seasons from bowl revenue punishment, that reserve has fallen to $8.1 million in order to keep the budget at full capacity. In one of the only pep-rally moments of the night, Bjork called fans to action, asking for whatever support they can provide as he hopes an upward climb has finally begun.

Among all the concerns, there were glimmers of what may bring Ole Miss back into the national brand that it was as recently as 2015. The Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre hires noticeably increased energy in the room when discussed, and fans are clinging to the relative success of basketball under first-year coach Kermit Davis and the expected national success of baseball when it starts in a few days.

Regardless of feelings about how and what occurred during the past five-plus years, it’s officially done. The money and the wins have been stripped, and all payments have been made. If Ole Miss stays out of NCAA trouble until 2022-2023, it gets $8 million of that lost revenue back.

Wins, normalcy and competence all-around are the only ways to fully work back to where Ole Miss was prior to the NCAA haymakers. Town halls and talking aren’t the ultimate answers, but Monday night in Cleveland showed they just may be a step in that direction. Instead of the disconnect fans felt with the Ole Miss administration for some time, it was easy to see a step toward togetherness.

The are six more town hall stops, and then 11 Rebel Road Trip locations around the region to shift from the past to the future. The oxygen isn’t all the way back in the program, but for the majority of the crowd in Cleveland, Monday night marked their first full breath in a while.