Following this year’s Big Ten media days, David Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot-News penned his ranking, 1 to 14, of Big Ten football coaches based solely on how they delivered their message when addressing the media. Indiana’s first-year head coach Tom Allen topped Jones’s list, largely for his “cajones” in speaking out against the conference’s decision to play games on Friday nights this year. Jones related him to a preacher who “has a little Sunday sermon in him.”
That Allen finished ahead of more recognizable coaches such as Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer, and James Franklin was surprising. But Jones was evaluating message delivery, not football success, not brand recognition, nor personality – characteristics which usually make for compelling content. While most coaches would probably list talking to the media among their least favorite parts of the job, the increased exposure afforded through ubiquitous social media suggests coaches may need to reevaluate how they engage with the public.
And this is where we find ourselves, confronting a reality in which college football coaches have unprecedented opportunity to shape message delivery and create a persona which is less about wins and losses, and more about attracting today’s attention-challenged recruits and deep-pocketed boosters who keep programs vibrant. Yet, many coaches seem hesitant to adopt available social tools. Since they are the public face, or CEO, of their football program, often more recognizable than their athletic director bosses, they have the ability to stand out in a crowded landscape of messages and brands.
Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for Weber Shandwick, stressed the need for CEOs to be effective storytellers for their companies in her contribution to the book, CEO Branding: Theory and Practice, released in 2015. This concept, which she called “The emergence of the social CEO,” represents “one of the most underutilized ways to build company reputation is for CEOs to communicate online in addition to traditional media channels… CEOs who are social may develop an advantage over their competitors.”
We know that football coaches are competitive by nature, and frequently push boundaries of what is and what isn’t permissible to gain an advantage. But does that desire to win translate into aggressive social media visibility in an effort to secure a competitive advantage?
In 2014, I, along with Jonathan Jensen (now at University of North Carolina) and Shaina (Ervin) Dabbs (now at Elon University), examined which factors affected the popularity of FBS football coaches on social media. Based on data from the 2012 season, our conclusions found that the strongest predictors of coach popularity on social media (number of Twitter followers) were related to program stature (all-time wins, winning percentages, and bowl appearances). However, our analysis revealed a large amount of variance in followers of football coaches that was unexplained by program stature, coach stature, and size of fan base.
We concluded, at the time, there must be a reason “charismatic personalities such as Les Miles, Butch Jones, and Bret Bielema” were among the coaches with the most followers. We even suggested that administrators who are willing to encourage their coaches to openly share more of their personality with their followers on social media may see their football programs reap the rewards of an increased following and popularity. “Increased reach on social media, along with greater access to a coach’s personality and daily activities, may also pay dividends on the recruiting trail.”
Whether or not a coach’s social media presence actually lands a coach a particular recruit is unknown. However, it almost certainly aids the process by giving coaches additional touch points in a highly regulated space where the NCAA limits the number of in-home visits a coach can make, as well as the number of official visits a prospective student-athlete can take. Despite this potential advantage, many coaches are still slow to fully embrace the medium.
Compare the Twitter personality of Tennessee’s Butch Jones to that of Arkansas’ Bret Bielema for a moment. Neither coach’s program is experiencing much on-field success in 2017. On Nov. 6, the day I checked Butch Jones’ Twitter account, he had 1.33 million followers, third highest among FBS coaches, yet had not posted an original Tweet since Sept. 28. He has, however, retweeted several UT commits during the past month, suggesting Twitter is primarily a tool to disseminate positive program news.
In contrast, on Oct. 13, Bielema, 5th among FBS coaches with more than 257,000 Twitter followers, posted a photo of his infant daughter, hardly the first time he has done that. Also in the past month, Bielema Tweeted birthday wishes to a current player and thanked a pastor for leading a Bible study for coaches. Allowing the public to see into the personal life of a coach carries a risk as it opens the coach up to negativity and harassment from “fans” and trolls on social media.
That Bielema lifts the veil on his personal life suggests he is an outlier among FBS coaches, according to research from Matthew Zimmerman (Mississippi State) and his colleagues James Johnson and Megan Ridley from Ball State. Their 2016 study found FBS coaches “use Twitter most often to give followers information about the team and program they lead.”
In fact, the authors suggested this is a deliberate attempt by the coaches to provide a direct link between the the coach and fans. “Head coaches are distinctly aware that their Tweets are a way to market their programs,” they concluded. This insinuates that coaches are in a constant recruiting mindset. Despite the salesperson role, using Twitter for personal posts was “extremely rare.”
Perhaps no coach provides greater access to his brand and personality than Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was hired as Michigan’s head coach in 2015, just after our 2014 study was published, and after data collection was complete for the 2016 study.
Harbaugh is a one-man media company, with the largest Twitter following among college football coaches at 2.16 million followers, a regular podcast, and come January, a behind-the-scenes documentary produced by The Montag Group airing exclusively on Amazon Prime. Harbaugh has his own director of communications, J.T. Rogan, who assists in executing much of Harbaugh’s schedule. Rogan, the subject of an ESPN profile in September, does not, however, speak for Harbaugh on social media.
“(Harbaugh) has insisted he has all creative control of his social media,” Rogan told me. And while that may lead to the occasional typo or random capitalization mistake, the benefit outweighs those risks. “His Twitter feed is the most organic, authentic, natural stream of consciousness out there.”
Since Harbaugh’s Tweets vary from identifying the names and GPAs of the 65 athletes who earned a 3.0 to milking a cow to social justice issues, he is opening himself, and therefore the Michigan brand, to criticism. Rogan defends this, stating “we welcome judgment. We believe in what we are doing.”
And what Harbaugh and Michigan are doing, beyond mere Tweets, is transforming how stakeholders view college football programs. Most college football coaches are historically among the most secretive, protectionist figures in college athletics, frequently closing practice to the media and delivering evasive answers to media questions.
The idea that a coach would permit camera crews to document every move he and his program make – and then share that to the world – flies in the face of conventional wisdom in a profession filled with late adopters.
Rogan acknowledged the concept is not for everyone, noting the numerous stakeholders whose buy in was needed, from coaching staff to the board of trustees, might be more of a task than some schools are willing to undertake. “We talked about the reasons not to do (the Amazon series), the time burden to our coaches, the proprietary nature of how we prepare,” Rogan said, “But the best conclusion for us and our fan base was to go forward with it.”
Clearly, one of the objectives for Michigan is to gain a recruiting advantage. By allowing the cameras to follow the team to Italy this past spring, Rogan said the program is hoping to show recruits that if they come to Michigan, they will become a global citizen. “Coach really wanted to share that educational experience, and show that he was putting the student back in student-athlete, and college back in college athletics,” Rogan said.
Harbaugh’s Amazon series is not the first attempt at behind-the-scenes look at the life of an FBS coach. Northwest Arkansas-based Sport and Story, in conjunction with JM Associates, is in its second season of the “Being” series. Beginning back in 2016 with “Being Bret Bielema,” the series follows a coach through everyday life, into the home, on speaking engagements, and around the football offices. The series includes four, 30-minute, reality-based shows which air on national networks which, as co-executive producer Bo Mattingly described, produces a “win-win” for the schools by exposing their coach to recruits in a positive manner.
“This is a TV show which goes beyond a PR piece on the coach,” Mattingly said. “This is a chance for the coach to tell their story. We are given intimate access to their life, but the coach has a say in the final edit. This allows them to behave more freely.”
The 2017 “Being” series featured four episodes with Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck which, according to Mattingly, has aired more than 100 times across ESPN2, ESPNU, and the Big Ten Network. Additionally, the show generated earned media in local Twin Cities media outlets.
These examples highlight three forward-thinking individuals who are, consciously or unconsciously, upsetting the status quo of college football programs. Perhaps not coincidentally, Bleacher Report’s Brian Pederson listed Bielema, Fleck, and Harbaugh among his top three “College football coaches who are social media geniuses” in 2016.
It is too early to evaluate what impact, if any, this transformation to personality-driven, social media engagement amongst coaches will have on recruiting, win-loss records, fundraising, and other metrics about which fan bases and athletic directors typically care. While perhaps not an entirely apples-to-apples comparison, as Mark Burns wrote in Sport Business Chronicle, East Mississippi Community College has certainly seen its brand change, both good and bad, by allowing Netflix access to produce “Last Chance U.”
Clearly, not all coaches and administrators are cut out for the type of attention, exposure, and scrutiny which comes with all access social media. Perhaps they don’t care about it. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst steers an undefeated, top 5 program without a Twitter account. And, in David Jones’s estimation, does not care. Chryst “does not belong behind a mic and you sense he knows that. The really great part is, it doesn’t matter a damn. His Badgers are great in spite of his lack of sales panache.”
While it is always difficult to predict the future, the guess here is that five years down the road, more coaches will adopt the strategies of Harbaugh and Fleck. Using Scout.com’s football recruiting team rankings as a metric, it appears the approach Michigan has taken works. Harbaugh’s 2017 class ranked 3rd nationally, up from 7th in 2016 and 35th in 2015, the year Harbaugh arrived. Similarly, Fleck’s first Gopher class ranked 38th, up from 46th in 2016 and 56th in 2015. This evidence also seems to support the conclusions regarding competitive advantages for coaches which Jensen, Ervin and I reached in our 2014 research.
Recruits want the attention which comes with personality-driven coaches, and every athletic department can be a media company. Social media allows those recruits to see an additional side of a coach, one which is not present during a pre-scripted official visit. Coaches which eschew the free publicity social media affords will likely find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.