Deja Vu All Over Again. The 2 Worst Marketing Campaigns in NCAA History

It’s a case study for how NOT to do things.

For the second time in two years we’re a bowl-bound team without a coach. It must have some significance in the record books – somewhere.

Just yesterday, Gus Malzahn followed in his predecessor, Hugh Freeze‘s footsteps, and headed for the winning, but not-so-friendly-confines of the Southeast Conference leaving Arkansas State University behind in the wake of toxic Gus Bus fumes.

Replacing Malzahn may not be our most formidable challenge.

Gus Malzahn with fans after Saturday night's championship.

Gus Malzahn with fans after Saturday night’s championship.

No, ASU System President Dr. Chuck Welch and newly appointed Athletic Director Terry Mohajir are most capable of seizing the Red Wolves‘ momentum and recruiting a quality coach. We’re now an attractive place to coach a football team. With an almost flawless year of first-class hires, in and out of athletics, Welch has too much at stake not to pull another rabbit out of his hat. And he will.

Hiring a good coach isn’t the challenge that troubles me most.

It’s Welch’s and Mohajir’s noteworthy task to use the opportunity to bring some fresh faces with new ideas to the ASU athletic marketing department. The best thing Welch and Mohajir could do is place the entire ASU athletic marketing staff on the Gus Bus headed south, and drop them off somewhere in north Mississippi.

There’s just no polite way to say this. They are good people, I’m sure, but marketing rookies all the same.

It took the ASU marketing staff about two seconds last year to capitalize on Freeze’s name, much in the same way a junior high newspaper staff might.

Simply stated, our genius marketing plan was to brand ourselves with a coach’s name and “freeze out” everything. We froze out opponents. Froze ticket sales. It was a cool change for ASU athletics. The most obvious, easiest and most ridiculous marketing effort perhaps in all of college football.

One local magazine went so far as to feature Freeze on its pre-season cover pictured, where else, but in the deep freeze of a local ice company. The ultimate journalistic cliche’.

And there was the inevitable brisk awakening when Freeze took a cool deal with the University of Mississippi so quickly that his bowl-bound team was left behind.

Lesson learned? Nope.

Enter – deja vu all over again.

Along comes a guy named Gus.

We can only imagine the ASU marketing team’s first strategy session…

“What rhymes with Gus?” they must have said. “Bus! Hey! There’s that song about the Gus Bus!” And our new marketing strategy was born.

And so we put everybody on the Gus Bus, and once again, inevitably gave them a free ticket to LetDown’sville.

Over two years ASU invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a marketing plan grounded in these men’s names. The investment went South, literally, both times.

We experimented, and still flirt with the whole HOWL concept from time to time, but this is what I’ll never forget.

Early on in the adoption of the new Red Wolf mascot, within two weeks, in fact, I saw prominent billboards – one said Howl Yes! – the other, Howlelujah!

I didn’t know if we were Saints or Sinners.

Let’s hire some marketing pros who understand the value of long-term branding.

For related stories on Arkansas State’s Sun  Belt Conference Championship, see this post and this post.

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Arkansas State’s Conference Championship: The Biggest Plays Came After the Game

(For coverage of last night’s championship game with some fairly decent photos, check out last night’s post just after the game.)

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Sun belt champions

It was a great night at Liberty Bank Stadium, and for the record, I love the movement to call it The Vault.

Offense and defense showed up putting together a classic championship victory – a 45-0 statement likely earning them a ticket to the Liberty Bowl.

Too bad the game’s post-championship ceremonies couldn’t have been more about the team. For the play-makers at the microphone it was much more about future moments than present ones.

And necessarily so.

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First, there’s this. ASU System President Chuck Welch is a highly effective advocate for his school. His earliest months are producing tangible, visible, measurable results. Welch has drawn the plays, called the plays and executed the plays. His most recent executive hires over the last three months assemble a multi-talented team both in and out of football. He’s delivered.

Welch will pay a price for his success. He’s now required to get even better.

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It all played out on a make-shift stage at the 50-yard line last night as the microphone went from one “player” to the next.

You could almost see ASU-Jonesboro Chancellor Tim Hudson cringe at Welch’s out-of-the-gate calculated, but necessary statement.

DSC_0112Here’s what they all said (accompanied by a translation of what they were all really saying.)

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WELCH: (I’m paraphrasing this quote but it’s pretty close.) “I want everyone here right now to show Coach Gus Malzahn (and his team) just how much we appreciate what they’ve done.”

Translation: Malzahn’s hot, if not the hottest property in college football right now. We’re all going to have to pull together and do our part to keep him here, and it may take a lot more money … or money may not even matter.

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HUDSON: “How about the students at ASU? I want to hear it for the students!”

Translation: Everybody just heard Welch single out the coach. It’s not right, but he had to do it. My job here is political correctness and keeping everyone (impossibly) happy.

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MALZAHN: (In response to  reporter’s question about his desire to take ASU’s program to the “next” level.) “Look at this,” he said, scanning the crowd. “This is the next level.”

Translation: Okay, Auburn, Tennessee and anyone else (especially in the SEC) who wants to continue calling or call anew, look at the scoreboard. We just made a statement, and I’ve backed up everything I promised here. What say each of you now?

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Political X’s and O’s at their finest.

Will Welch be good enough to keep Malzhan at ASU? And if not, what rabbit will he next pull out of the hat?

Good news is, we’ve never really had to worry about this stuff before. Bad news is, we’re worrying about a lot of stuff, and it’s all new to us, so we don’t quite know how to react or what to do.

Now, we wait.

Waiting may be all we can do.

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The Language of Coachspeak

A quick follow-up from yesterday’s post: Here in Arkansas – It’s the Perfect Storm. http://wp.me/p2bjEC-8j

Quotes (and interpretations) from Coach Gus Malzan regarding his possible candidacy to become the next head coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Malzahn Quote: “I’m the head coach of the Arkansas State Red  Wolves.”

Interpretation: That’s what I am today. For the moment I’m avoiding what tomorrow may bring, and you know I’m not gonna say anything about this, anyway.

Malzahn Quote: “I’m sticking to ‘I’m the head coach here (ASU) and I’m not worried about anything else.'”

Interpretation: I’ve had no DIRECT conversation with UA, but our representatives are talking. I’m not worried about anything. Hey, I come out a winner either way!

Malzahn Quote: “I’m committed to being here.”

Interpretation: Just as much as I was yesterday, but hey, a dream job is a dream job, and I could be committed there too.

Dr. Dean Lee (ASU Athletic  Director)  Quote: “We feel good about who we are and what we have to offer…”

Interpretation: I’m worried.

ASU Quarterback Ryan Aplin Quote: “It’s just something we’re going to have to try to deal with as a team and try to look over it and stay focused on practice.”

Interpretation: I’m doing my best to keep my team in good spirits (because that’s part of my job) but the whole team is really worried. This could be bad.

The Perfect Storm in Arkansas continues to brew. Lightning’s gonna strike somewhere.

Your thoughts?

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Blogging Outside Your Comfort Zone: 7 Tips

(Blogger’s Note: If you’re a blogger or writer, I’d love to hear your own experiences about writing outside your comfort zone. Please share away!)

Traditional tips you’ll read about effective blogging will typically tell you to write about the things you know, choose a niche and pitch yourself as an expert and an authority.

It’s good advice. Everyone’s an expert in something, and there’s definitely something to be said for consistency in your blogging topics. It’s the best way to build a strong platform and a loyal audience. Your readers should come to expect a certain style in your work.

But the adventuresome blogger, will, from time to time, will make a gutsy move and go outside his comfort zone for the sake of curiosity, and just to see what happens. That’s exactly what I did yesterday.

My brand of writing is designed to make people think. Not necessarily to change their minds, but to think differently with new perspectives about certain things. Mostly, I enjoy using Biblical metaphors and writing about the application they have in our present lives. But every so often, I’ll jump outside my writer’s comfort zone to experiment, and yesterday’s blog, titled Here in Arkansas – It’s the Perfect Storm http://wp.me/p2bjEC-8j …. was just that. An experiment that proved interesting.

The blog’s topic was the national attention that’s been drawn to the University of Arkansas’ football program and the subsequent firing of head coach Bobby Petrino. Moreover, it speculated the Razorbacks would attempt to lure Arkansas State University coach Gus Malzahn (just 300 miles down the road) as his replacement.

It’s a topic ripe for speculation and controversy, and so I ventured into the unknown to see what attention might be drawn to my theory of how the scenario might play over the next few days.

The results: A record number of hits for a single post with readers in seven countries.

In thinking about writing outside our comfort zones, I wanted to offer seven tips, lessons learned, if you will, for how this post generated record traffic. Consider these tips in a future venture outside your own blogging comfort zone.

  • LOOK FOR A HOT TOPIC – Even if you’re not an expert, it’s okay to jump in the middle of something. Sports, especially college football, is a big deal. In the SEC, some call it Saturday Down South. Take advantage of writing directly to a well-defined audience. SEC football fans are pretty well-defined.
  • SPECULATE – That you are not an expert – it matters not. Opinion piece writing generates more opinions, and more hits on your blog. It creates conversation and back-and-forth dialogue. Everyone has an opinion. Share yours.
  • TAG TAG TAGHere in Arkansas – It’s the Perfect Storm http://wp.me/p2bjEC-8j had some 50 tags attached, and the search engine results showed the tags worked.

  • USE POWERFUL VISUALS – It was an easy choice for this particular post. Choose an image of a Razorback and one of an Arkansas State University Redwolf, and the collective blood pressure of football fans across the state skyrockets.

  • GO PLACES YOU’VE NEVER GONE BEFORE – I placed this post on Facebook pages everywhere … official pages of both universities, football blogs across the South, media outlet blogs, and it worked.
  • USE POWERFUL METAPHORS – The Perfect Storm perfectly described the possible scenario for the outcome of this unique situation. All the elements are perfectly lined up for a monumental fight if UA even breathes on Malzahn.
  • BE INTENTIONAL IN LOOKING FOR RIVALRIES – For your post it may be politics, education, religion or whatever. College football in the South is ripe with rivalries and putting yesterday’s post in the middle of it all just added a small bit of flame to the fire. That’s what writers love, right?

Niche, consistency, expertise – yes – it’s the best way to blog. But stretch yourself sometimes and get in the thick of something wild.

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Here in Arkansas – It’s the Perfect Storm

I have some 20 years experience in the news media – writing, editing, publishing, and as much as I love sports, I’ve never written a single sports story. Today will be different, however, if just an educated observation.

College sports in the South is business. Football is serious stuff. It rocks our world. And a major tremor hit here in Arkansas last night. The magnitude and collateral damage could be significant. Only the dawn of Wednesday will tell.

First – hats off to University of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long. Faced with pressure from all points we can only imagine, Long fired a Razorback coach who put a team in contention for a national championship last season. Bobby Petrino is a winner on the field, but we now know that he’s only human, not a superhero, off the field.

There was every reason in the world for Long to find a way to allow Petrino to stay. Millions of dollars were at stake, and the diehard win-at-all cost fans wanted him to remain.

But at a 7 p.m. press conference last night, Long announced Petrino’s termination, no strings or perks attached. He’s done, and the collateral damage Petrino has brought onto himself is now his alone with which me must deal. It’s no longer a professional issue for Petrino. The consequences will last forever. I hope his family heals and forgives over time.

But what of the future?

Here in a remote corner of the state is Arkansas State University, the stepchild, clambering for attention for decades and making strides with a magnificent season last year under coach Hugh Freeze, who immediately afterward RAN to the SEC leading the Ole Miss Rebels. You can’t blame the man, but from ASU’s standpoint, it’s hard to be the doorman at a revolving portal.

Then – as if manna from Heaven – ASU pulls its own miracle hiring coach Gus Malzahn, an up-and-coming SEC star courted by many reputable schools, and some how, some way, ASU financial supporters court Malzahn well enough to convince him  ASU would be a great place to take a program it its next level.

Billboards go up across the state. Game On, they say. It’s the era of Howlzahn. Finally, the stepchild is getting some well-deserved attention.

Now, 300 miles down the road, there’s an SEC opening anyone would kill to have. When Malzahn came to ASU, there were even rumors the U of A Foundation helped make it all possible, setting Malzahn up for his next job at U of A.

Unless Malzahn comes out TODAY with the announcement he’s staying put – it’s on.

We’re about to find out. It’s going to be one of those hot, humid, sticky days in Arkansas where you can just feel something coming headstrong through tornado alley. We will look to the western horizon to see what develops. It may just be a famished, blood-sucking Razorback with sharpened tusks looking to wreak havoc on Jonesboro.

Did Jeff Long go into his press conference last night knowing he had an Ace in the Hole? Stay tuned. It won’t be long. If I were a betting man, I’d double down.

ASU fans have long-awaited the day they would match up with the Razorbacks on the gridiron. Well, game day is here, and it’s the Perfect Storm.

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