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Vassallo Interviews: Jeff McManus Creates Beauty on Campus

Photo courtesy of UM Communications
Photo courtesy of UM Communications

Jeff McManus hit the Ole Miss campus like a storm, but that’s probably not the preferred way to describe his entrance.

An artist of perfection, Jeff McManus has changed the landscape of the Ole Miss campus like never before. Accolade upon accolade have been received since his arrival and they never stop coming. The Auburn mastermind has achieved a record of success here that continues expanding with each new season. Here are the secrets behind this success.

HottyToddy.com: Jeff, you have achieved a considerable amount of success here at Ole Miss. What do you attribute this to more than anything else?

Jeff McManus: Like any success, there is always a dedicated team of people. We have great landscape people, great university leadership. Dr. Khayat, Dr. Dan Jones and Larry Sparks see the great significance landscaping has on our campus. I was blessed to be picked to head up the challenge of landscape beautification. Our staff is empowered to lead. I affectionately say we are growing “weeders into leaders.” Our landscape staff along with other departments on campus aspire to see Ole Miss compete and be the best.

Photo by Nathan Latil
Photo by Nathan Latil

HottyToddy.com: Being an alum of Auburn, was it difficult coming to Ole Miss?

Jeff McManus: Having lived around the Southeast all my life, our family was excited about coming to Oxford. The rivalry in the South makes our culture unique and exciting. We are blessed in Oxford to have such a culture that respects and loves one another. It is exciting to be a small part of such an inspiring community. I am excited about the incredible opportunity at Ole Miss.

HottyToddy.com: Robert Khayat recruited you. How did you feel about a chancellor being directly involved?

Jeff McManus: When a legendary leader is interested in your work it is always an honor. Dr. Khayat is a tremendous leader who had the courage and vision to set Ole Miss up for greatness in so many areas. He knew landscaping was a great ‘secret weapon’ for attracting the great people to Ole Miss. He often told our team how many times parents shared with him that they were attracted to Ole Miss by the campus appearance. I believe awesome landscaping is a great ‘secret weapon’ to have. He wasn’t afraid to pull a weed or two as he walked the campus, I call this “weeding by example” and is a great example of modeling the way as a leader.

HottyToddy.com: Describe your vision for the Ole Miss campus.

Jeff McManus: Studies show that many prospective college students will decide in the first few minutes if they are attending a college based on the appearance. Our landscape vision is we are always cultivating greatness every day. Today, we may have the future Dr. Hannah Gay or Eli Manning visit our campus for a college visit. We must be providing the competitive edge that our coaches, faculty and students need to be successful. We don’t just cut grass, trim shrubs or plant flowers — we are growing great landscapes that attract people onto campus that will change the world.

landscape university

HottyToddy.com: Your staff seems totally energized! Why so?

Jeff McManus: I believe most of our staff understands the value they add to the Ole Miss experience. They know their work benefits and add value to lives. They know their work may help recruit the next person who goes on to cure cancer or becomes an All-American athlete. We work hard at growing great people, who grow great plants. We train and develop staff using a great system we developed called the Landscape University. This program has helped transform our culture from a mindset of “weeders to leaders.”

HottyToddy.com: We have heard through the grapevine that Hugh Freeze is a role model to you. How has he inspired you?

Jeff McManus: Coach Freeze has been instrumental in encouraging our front line staff in the valuable work they bring to his team. His message of hard work, character and getting people to buy in resonates well with our staff. When our staff are outside mowing or spreading pine straw in 100-degree weather, it is important they know why they are doing this besides just a paycheck. Coach Freeze lets our front line people know they matter, they are important and each person is significant in the success at Ole Miss.

HottyToddy.com: You have one beautiful family. Has Oxford been an adjustment for them away from the beach?

Jeff McManus: My wife Suzanne and four boys, Sam, Nate, Josh and Mark have all enjoyed living in Oxford the last 15 years. My wife has made it mandatory that our family goes to the beach each year. It doesn’t take but one vacation to another town to realize how special Oxford is.

Jeff McManus with his wife and four sons
Jeff McManus with his wife and four sons

Hottytoddy.com: Are there any new projects you are personally working on that you’re excited about?

Jeff McManus: I am writing a leadership book right now. It is called Growing Weeders to Leaders and is about cultivating the culture for greatness with front line staff. I believe with the four national landscape awards we have received, we like to say, four national championships. There is a story to be shared. I am thrilled to share our success stories and the leadership principles we use.

HottyToddy.com: Of all the beautifully colored landscaped areas around campus, which one or ones receive the most compliments from visitors, students and faculty?

Jeff McManus: I asked our landscape team what was their most favorite area on campus. Just about everyone answered, “All of the campus.” It is difficult to pick one area. I think the Quad, Fulton Chapel, Brevard and the Circle rank in the top. But I love our entrances onto campus especially in the spring when our staff add all the daffodils and tulips.

HottyToddy.com: Just recently I learned (and observed) what a dynamic public speaker you are. How do groups go about scheduling you?

Jeff McManus: You are very kind. My passion is to grow people who grow great plants by reaching their full potential. If you don’t love what you do, you should find something you do love. Sometimes we have to make a choice to love our work. Many people never realize they have a choice. They can choose to love what they do or can choose to do something else. The best way to reach me is on my website at www.jeffmcmanusspeaking.com.

HottyToddy.com: Are there any more hills to climb on the campus or have we reached perfection in our potential for natural beauty?

Jeff McManus: The great part of a growing campus is we are always adding buildings and changing outdoor spaces. We want to keep inspiring more students to come to Ole Miss to develop and grow their opportunities. We are always looking to do more with less.

HottyToddy.com: Are there any universities around the nation that have served as an inspiration to you in shaping the Oxford campus?

Jeff McManus: I love to take our staff to visit other campuses and inspiring properties. We have seen well over 30 campuses the last 15 years. We always gain great insights when we visit. When I first came in 2000, Vanderbilt was one of the first places we visited and we felt they had a good campus. I like to get outside our industry of higher education to visit inspiring properties like the Biltmore in Ashville, North Carolina or Monticello in Virginia. These type properties allow us to see a great eye for detail and how excellence in all we do does make a difference. Creating an eye for detail and sense of excellence is caught easier than it is taught.


HottyToddy.com: Please complete this thought: A great day at work for Jeff McManus would include….

Jeff McManus: Inspiring and being inspired by others to grow GREATNESS in all we do.

HottyToddy.com: You are still quite young to be thinking about retiring at Ole Miss although most everyone wishes you would remain here permanently. Is there any job out there that would be one that you could not turn down if presented? I’m thinking of a golf course superintendent, such as being offered the position at Augusta National for example?

Jeff McManus: When I was working at Turnberry Isle in North Miami, Florida I interviewed with some really great signature places. What attracted me to Ole Miss was to work directly with leadership, especially that of Chancellor Robert Khayat. There was a vision for something magnificent here, I felt I was a good fit for Ole Miss and Ole Miss for me.

HottyToddy.com: Lastly, which area of the campus has changed the most since your arrival?

Jeff McManus: It is great to be on a campus that is changing and evolving. The Quad went from a parking lot to beautiful showcase green space. The Village apartments were removed and the space went to a tremendous law school.

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