KINGSTON – As much as the URI men’s basketball team winning the Atlantic 10 tournament last year was a culmination of five years of grueling hard work by head coach Dan Hurley, it was equally a testament to the behind-the-scenes machinations of athletic director Thorr Bjorn. Eleven years into his tenure as the leader of the state university’s athletic department, Bjorn has helped pull the school into national relevance in multiple sports.
As the confetti drifted down on the PP&G Paints Center and the Rams celebrated their first NCAA tournament berth in 18 years, Bjorn thought back on how far a journey it had been since Hurley first came to campus, and even further back to when he ran into major roadblocks in his first year as AD.
“The first surprise – my first year in 2007 – was going through a major budget cut,” he said in a sit-down interview last month. “About a million dollars that forced us to cut four sports. That was certainly not part of my plan coming here. That was really hard.”
Just six months on the job, and Bjorn was forced to make a series of difficult decisions. After consulting with the entire department and all of the coaches, he made the choice to cut four sports – men’s tennis, men’s swimming, field hockey and gymnastics, in order to meet the new budget.
“I learned a ton. I learned a lot about transparency and the business,” he said. “My philosophy right then – six, seven months on the job – [was that] if we took the cut across the board, we would’ve struggled in everything. We decided to basically cut off that limb.”
Bjorn underwent a similar struggle shortly after Hurley had made the decision to leave Wagner to coach the Rams. Following the dismissal of Jim Baron, star player Jonathan Holton was arrested for video voyeurism and Baron’s son Billy announced he would be leaving to follow his father to Canisius.
“It was the situations we didn’t foresee happening,” Bjorn said. “The Jonathan Holton situation. Billy Baron, who we all understood transferring. Our two best players arguably at that time were leaving. Then the APR thing we didn’t see coming.”
The end of Baron’s reign was littered with gambles on players who were seemingly uninterested in the first-half of the term “student-athlete,” leading to URI nearly entering what Bjorn calls “APR hell”. The NCAA uses APR – Academic Progress Rate – as a measuring stick for a program’s academic health. Fall below a certain threshold, and you face penalties ranging from practice limitations to a ban from NCAA postseason play.
“That probably put a lot of trust issues in him,” Bjorn said. “He’s thinking, ‘What did I do coming here? Is Thorr selling me a bill of goods?’”
Bjorn navigated his way through those bumps in the long, winding road, and now enters his second decade at the helm with a renewed outlook on the state of athletics in Rhode Island.
For Bjorn personally, this year marks his 11th year on the job. In an athletics landscape marked by transferring players and coaches always on the lookout for their next job, Bjorn has opted to buckle down for the long haul in both of the athletics jobs he has held in his career.
After playing football at UMass, Bjorn spent six years as his alma mater’s assistant athletic director for tickets and game operations. All told, he spent a decade-plus with the Minutemen, with a three-year gap in which he worked for a regional sports network.
“I’m very blessed to be here,” he said. “The two schools I’ve been at, I stayed for a long time.”
His experience working with UMass helped him prepare for the challenges he’s taken on at URI. Rather than diving into a complicated situation with little to no understanding of the region, Bjorn felt he had a handle on how the smallest state in the union does things the first day he walked on campus.
“I was very fortunate being at UMass – having as good an understanding of Rhode Island as maybe a lot of people would,” he said. “The challenges here are not that much different from any other place. You could always use more resources, but I’ve always looked at that as an opportunity to go out and generate that.”
That existing understanding of the uniqueness of Rhode Island has helped him to deal with the biggest albatross weighing around his neck: the football team. One of the programs with the highest visibility – and biggest inherent challenges – has averaged just over two wins a season and had four different head coaches in Bjorn’s 11 years at URI.
“Do I feel like we’re on the right track? Absolutely,” he said. “Football takes a lot of time to rebuild. We’re playing in the best league in the country and trying to fund our program accordingly.”
The CAA is the premier FCS division in the country, having produced three national championship teams in its 11 seasons of existence. Bjorn came on board right at the inception of the conference, but as it began to shift more towards the southern part of the country, he looked to move the Rams down to the Northeast Conference.
The move would have saved the school a lot of much-needed money on travel and scholarship costs. Then-head coach Joe Trainer attempted to guide the program through the transition, recruiting fewer players and focusing on athletes more suited for the lower level of competition.
Before the Rams could even play a game in the Northeast, the always-changing conference landscape moved enough to cause Bjorn to reverse his decision. With Albany and Stony Brook replacing the likes of Old Dominion and Georgia State, the reasons for leaving the CAA had disappeared overnight.
“It absolutely set us back,” Bjorn said. “We started reducing scholarships. We were giving 59 out-of-state scholarships. To move down to the Northeast Conference, we had to go down to 40.”
URI went winless in what was originally supposed to be their last year in the CAA. In the three seasons after the fateful reversal, they won a total of four games.
Now half a decade removed from that situation, Bjorn believes current head coach Jim Fleming has his team headed in the right direction.
“Football is really important,” he said. “We’re on an upward trajectory. I believe in Jim and I believe in his coaching staff.
“It’s only Year 4, which sounds crazy, but you look at what Dan Hurley has done, that took time.”
Hurley didn’t break through into the NCAA Tournament – the true goal of any Division I basketball team – until his fifth year as head coach of the Rams. The trip to the NCAA Tournament last year – and this year’s historic 16-game win streak – were major milestones on a journey that started at an indistinct diner in New Jersey six years ago.
“I was driving back from the A-10 tournament. We had made the change,” Bjorn said, of dismissing Baron. “Dan was at the top of my list. The stories of [athletic directors] having a list on their desk is very true – it may not literally be on your desk but you have a list of coaches and replacement coaches [in your head]. I felt that Dan was the person we wanted.
“I can’t remember what diner or what town, but it was definitely in New Jersey. He told me where to go. We spent three-and-a-half hours talking in the back corner. I enjoyed the conversation a lot. We talked a lot about philosophy. From Day 1 to where we are now has been a journey. It hasn’t always been easy. I kind of broke down last year when we won the [A-10] championship, just because so much went into it from so many different people. It felt amazing.”
As much as Bjorn was interviewing Hurley to see how he would fit in within the program, Hurley was evaluating if Bjorn was the type of athletic director he could work alongside. With the amount of work Hurley believed necessary to build the Rhody basketball team back up to its former heights, it would have to be an incredibly close working relationship.
“Our relationship is closer than most athletic directors’ [with their coaches] just because we’ve had so much to do together,” Hurley said. “We’ve had so much that we’ve built together. We’ve gone through challenging times, the fire that this relationship has been forged in.
“He’s such an easy guy to get along with. Such a nice guy, so supportive. I don’t know if there’s an easier, better athletic director to deal with or work with.”
“Working with Dan, I love it,” echoed Bjorn. “I feel extremely close to him. We’re absolute partners in this initiative.
“What amazes me about Dan is how smart he is. Not just basketball, he’s extremely insightful. He can read people as good as anybody I’ve ever met.”
The pair have worked to renovate the old media interview room into a state-of-the-art video room, built a weight room that is utilized by the entire athletic department, and re-did the locker rooms inside the Ryan Center.
“The motivation behind me – and I hope it comes across right, because I don’t want to be negative at all – is I’ve never wanted to give people a reason to say ‘typical Rhode Island’,” Bjorn said of the renovations and constant upgrades. “I had heard that prior to coming here.”
There are currently no concrete plans on the docket for the two, but rest assured they’re constantly evaluating what they have and what they need to be a top-level program.
“Practice facility for men’s basketball – probably not a standalone, but maybe it’s taking West Gym and turning that into a facility for men’s and women’s basketball,” Bjorn said.
Before Hurley and his Rams broke into the NCAA Tournament, it was the baseball team that ended a long postseason drought by winning the Atlantic 10 tournament at the end of the 2016 season. It was the second NCAA Tournament bid in program history, the first coming in 2005.
Current head coach Raphael Cerrato took over for Jim Foster on an interim basis at the start of the 2014 season, and a successful first season at the helm earned him the job on a permanent basis. In his third season as head coach, Cerrato led his team to the postseason, where they upset top-seeded South Carolina, their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.
“It’s been incredible,” Bjorn said of baseball’s success. “Jim Foster did a really nice job, and Raph has continued that and taken it to a new level. He’s a wonderful person to work with. His players are great.
“The other thing I love that Jim Foster and Raph has done is getting the local guys. It’s become a program that kids want to come play at. We play a great schedule, we’ve had guys get drafted and make it to the next level. We think we can compete for an A-10 championship every year, which gives us a chance to go play the South Carolinas and beat them.
“We would love to keep the best Rhode Island players here. It doesn’t always work out, but I think every one of our coaches wants to have a presence in the local high schools. If we can have Rhode Island students here, that’s just a bonus.”
Chris Hess – a North Kingstown High School graduate – is the most recent local baseball player to make good by staying in-state for his collegiate ball. The second baseman hit .317 in his four-year career at URI and was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 17th round of the MLB Draft last June.
Cerrato hails from Connecticut originally, but has become a local baseball fixture himself. He was a captain for URI baseball in the ‘90s and returned to Kingston in 2012 to serve as an assistant under Foster.
“I played at URI when we weren’t very good,” Cerrato said, prior to the 2016 NCAA Tournament. “Back in the early ‘90s, we were just trying to stay above water as a program, in every way. Budget, players, coaches. It’s such a different setting now. Guys come in and expect to win. That goes back to [former head coaches] Frank Leoni and Jim Foster. I give Frank Leoni a ton of credit for turning the program around.”
The smallest state in the union makes up for what it lacks in size in the quality of its athletic programs. URI is joined by three other in-state institutions that compete at the Division I level, Bryant University, Brown University and Providence College.
“If you sat [all the athletic directors] around the table, all three of us would say the same thing,” Bjorn said. “We need more resources. Every one of our coaches could use more resources, and we know that. You want to be able to provide our players and coaches with everything they need to compete at the highest level.”
Rather than viewing the three other ADs in his proximity as competition, Bjorn sees Jack Hayes at Brown, Bob Driscoll at PC and Bill Smith at Bryant as confidants and friends.
“We have a lot of rivalries and we want to beat the in-state teams, but I’m dead serious when I say that we want each other to win,” he said. “I get together with those guys. It’s great to have those three in the state, so that I can pick their brains, and hopefully vice versa.”
“Jack and I were actually interns together at UConn. We’ve been friends for quite a long time. We get together for breakfast up in East Greenwich probably two or three times a semester. We share stories, pick each other’s brains.
“Bob is a great mentor. He has been since my time at UMass. He’s someone that I absolutely lean on during hard and difficult times. He’s a great friend.
“Bill, I met when I first got here, he’s become a really good friend too.”
Bjorn views the success of the state institution as something that can be shared throughout the state – regardless of someone’s particular allegiance.
“When we are successful in any sport, the entire state can benefit from that,” he said. “You may be a Providence or a Brown fan, but if you live here and Rhode Island goes and beats South Carolina in baseball, or is a minute away from beating Oregon to get to the Sweet Sixteen, that’s prideful for the entire state. That brings great exposure that the state needs.”
Even with all that URI has accomplished under Bjorn, the feeling is still that complacency is death.
“We can never, ever stop asking what’s next,” he said.