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Experts’ Roundtable: Telling The Story Of A New Head Football Coach

By Tai M. Brown

We’ve all heard the saying, “Winning the Press Conference.” When the term is used, it most likely refers to making a big splash by hiring a popular person for a high profile position. The reality is, winning the press conference actually refers to the strategy and execution involved in presenting the story of an institution’s newest public face to fans, media, alumni, etc. In this Experts’ Roundtable, ADU reached out to four institutions that recently hired a new Head Football Coach to get insight on the process of preparing for the official announcement.

 

Describe the first team/staff meeting when you started the process of designing a strategy for announcing & introducing a new Head Football Coach. Who was in the room? What were your main objectives? Were there any data-driven goals for engagement levels?

 

Craig Pintens – Senior Associate Athletic Director/Marketing & Public Relations, University of Oregon

 

We were in a unique situation as we put together a very robust plan last year when we had a coach transition. We had mapped out a very extensive plan and executed it well. The only instructions that were given were, “We probably can’t do a great voice-over video again, but let’s stick with the plan.”

 

The main objective was/is for fans to get excited about the new hire. Hope is a great feeling, but not a strategy. Our primary goal is to create engaging content and the numbers will happen. We do not spend too much time trying to create benchmarks for engagement, as you end up creating content to drive numbers and not meaning.

 

Chris Freet – Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Operations and Strategic Communications, University of Arkansas

 

Our process was a unique cycle because we had openings for our Director of Athletics and Head Football Coach and there were parallel searches running at the same time. While I was in the loop on the details around our football-coaching search, we were on the outside looking into the search for a new Director of Athletics.

 

Near the start of Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz’s search for a new Director of Athletics, I prepared a two-page ‘rollout’ document with our thoughts and requests. I used that document to guide conversations for our staff – on both AD and football coach – and asked them to aggregate all ideas through our digital lead Taylor McGillis. We received ideas from every external area and used pieces of each on announcement day.

 

Our main objective for the AD announcement was to facilitate the desires of our University leadership. The message was crafted by Chancellor Steinmetz, and we assisted in executing that story. As we were holding that press conference introducing our new AD, Hunter Yurachek, we were inches away from completing the hiring of Chad Morris as our football coach.

 

In fact, we could have announced our football coach minutes after the Yurachek introductory press conference but we purposefully chose to put a couple hours between the press conference and the press release announcing Morris. Our intention there was to give the media time to cover the Yurachek story and complete the work attached to that press conference and secondly, we wanted to give each new leader their own moment in front of the masses.

 

Our ticket and marketing team worked tirelessly to launch football renewals on the day we announced Chad Morris. Our football season ticket renewal window usually begins on February 1, so we were nearly two months ahead of schedule, our goal was to drive six figures in revenue on the first day, and we achieved that goal.

 

Zach Lassiter – Deputy Athletics Director for External Operations, Oregon State University

 

We gathered as an External Leadership Team (Associate AD Athletic Communications, Associate AD Fan Experience & Revenue Generation,  Senior Associate AD Development, VP and GM Beaver Sports Properties, Associate AD Ideation, Assistant AD Annual Giving and Assistant AD Marketing and Fan Experience) and began the process of clarifying roles, building out our plan, and identifying possible timelines.

 

Since we experienced a transition with the Athletic Director in the last year, the team was familiar with executing a high level announcement but there are additional elements that come with a “tier one” event like a football head coach hire. We identified all the components and as a team agreed on the unit/individual responsible for developing the execution strategy. Each department head was able to provide insight on what they would like to see and given time to vet ideas with their teams. The main goal was to generate a list of needs and wants for day zero and the following 24-72 hours. I’ve attached a photo from our initial whiteboard session that gives you an idea of our thought process.

 

 

Scott Carr – Executive Associate AD, Chief Marketing Officer, University of Central Florida

 

Due to the sensitive nature of a coaching change, we did not have a staff meeting to discuss the process and strategy for the announcement. I was on the search committee which meant I had firsthand knowledge of the candidates and the timing. I kept in touch with Andy Seeley, our Associate AD for Strategic Communications, so he and his team could prepare, have initial information ready, and manage the announcement process. We also have a coaching change notebook we put together from previous experiences that we were able to reference to assist us in moving quickly. We’ve made some high-profile coaching hires at UCF over the years. After each one, we review the process, debrief, and utilize all that information for the next one.

 

It is critical to the process to have the trust of your Athletics Director so you have as much information as possible, as early as possible. These searches move very quickly so it’s imperative that the lines of communication are open to allow the external/communications team to be prepared for a successful announcement. That said, we kept the information very confidential and didn’t involve any other members on our team until we knew who the actual coach was going to be.

 

Once we knew the coach, Andy brought in other members of his communications team, as well as social/digital media, to delegate tasks in preparation for the official announcement and press conference. They built graphics for all our digital media platforms, prepared the official press release, put together an official timeline for the day to include the team meeting, media prep, press conference, one-on-one interviews with local media and interviews for our own internal media platforms.

 

We knew Josh Heupel was a great coach with a strong background as a player, assistant coach, and offensive coordinator. He is also a household name in the Midwest, but maybe not as much in the Southeast. Therefore, we wanted to get as much information out to our fanbase about him as possible. It was very important for us to give him the proper introduction to our fans. This was reflected in our press release and also through information displayed in graphics on all our digital platforms.

 

We also had a unique situation in that Coach Heupel quickly hired his defensive coordinator, Randy Shannon. Coach Shannon is a household name in the State of Florida as a former head coach and defensive coordinator at Miami, and most recently the defensive coordinator and interim head coach at Florida. We chose to announce Coach Heupel and shortly thereafter, Coach Heupel introduced Coach Shannon.

 

This strategy worked extremely well as our fans saw we hired the FootballScoop Offensive Coordinator of the Year as our leader to continue to build on our No. 1 ranked offense and that he had already hired one of the top defensive minds in the country to anchor our defense.

 

Our number-one objective during the process was to inform our players who their head coach was going to be prior to them hearing about it through the media. It was very important to us that our new head coach have the chance to meet with the team first. We are proud to say we achieved this goal as the story did not break prior to the team meeting with Coach Heupel, which is a real rarity in this day and age.

 

How did you and your team consider leveraging all available digital platforms? Was your strategy on any/all of these platforms different than your usual approach? If so, why?

 

Freet (Arkansas) – Our strategy on social was consistent with how we approach it on a daily basis. The content and tone matches the core audience on that platform. The one unique opportunity we had for both press conferences was to stream them to Facebook Live and the SEC Network simultaneously. It was a huge success as we had just shy of 160,000 viewers on Facebook combined for both press events.

 

Carr (UCF) – As stated, we have had the opportunity to introduce a number of high-level coaches at UCF over the past few years. Over the past two years alone, we have introduced the following:

 

  • Scott Frost, Football – Took an 0-12 team in 2015 to 12-0 in 2017
  • Johnny Dawkins, Men’s Basketball – Took a 12-win team in 2016 to a 24-win team in 2017
  • Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, Women’s Basketball – Took a 7-win team in 2016 to a 21-win team in 2017
  • Greg Lovelady, Baseball – Won the AAC Regular Season Championship and was Coach of the Year in his inaugural season
  • John Roddick, Men’s and Women’s Tennis – Took the men’s tennis team to the NCAA postseason for the first time since 2005 in his inaugural season and just had the No. 1 recruiting class
  • Scott Calabrese, Men’s Soccer – Finished second in the AAC Tournament
  • Josh Huepel, Football – Hired on December 5, 2017

 

We debrief and discuss every aspect of each of these announcements shortly afterward. Those sessions allow us to tweak and update our model where needed. But we’ve landed on a basic model that works pretty well for us over the past few coaching hires we’ve made.

 

Pintens (Oregon) – We wanted to utilize every platform available to us, but also rely on more old-school platforms that are very meaningful. With donors, it is important to keep them apprised of the hire via as personal of communication as possible. We have a checklist of key people we want to contact right before the announcement and have the coach call after the announcement. This is a very vital part of our strategy and it is certainly not digital.

 

We viewed digital in three key initial phases:

 

  1. The Announcement
  2. The Meeting with the Team
  3. The Press Conference

 

Within those three phases we were able to create a lot of content. We also created a Storify a few days after, compiling the coverage and sending out to key constituents so they understood all the positive publicity generated for the University.

 

Our approach didn’t change much. We are very fortunate to have a talented digital team led by Brandon Barca who can create content on a moment’s notice.

 

Lassiter (Oregon State) – The first step was the make sure all the fundamentals were in place for the announcement – social, website, advertising, etc. We made an intentional decision as a team to utilize every digital platform and created a customized plan to make it happen. Our Ideation team was built to maximize opportunities like this. They are talented content creators all pulling in the same direction with a common goal. With a fluid announcement, the ability to activate immediately in all your digital assets is a must.

 

While storytelling remained at the forefront, we took a much more intentional approach in creating content that asked our fans to act on their excitement through the purchase and renewal of season tickets. We were more aggressive on email than normal and will continue to be until the data and pulse of the fan base indicates we need to consider pulling back.

 

How did the personality and/or external skill set of your new Head Coach dictate your strategy? Was the new head coach involved with designing the strategy? How did the reason for the coaching change impact your strategy?

 

Lassiter (Oregon State) – We made the majority of our plans in advance to align with our brand first and foremost but during the planning process, we talked about how the personality of the head coach would drive exact strategy and content. Our theme of ‘The Return’ was created and customized after the hire of our former quarterback and Fiesta Bowl MVP, Jonathan Smith. ‘The Return’ was not just about Coach Smith coming back home, it was a return of former players reengaging with the program, the return of fans back to Reser Stadium in the fall, a return to who we are as an athletic department and University, and most importantly a return to a winning football program.

 

Here is a fun backstory behind our first piece of content for the announcement. Once we knew that Coach Smith was going to be our guy, I began watching YouTube clips of Coach Smith as a coach and as a player. I was watching the 2000 Civil War football game (Oregon State vs. Oregon) at 6:00am the morning of the announcement with the iconic Keith Jackson calling the game and he introduces the starting QB at Oregon St (Jonathan Smith) and shares the story of the former walk on and how he worked his way up to earn the starting QB spot. He then shares this tidbit about the coaches believing Jonathan would likely walk the sidelines one day as a coach. I had to listen to the clip a few times to make sure that I heard Keith Jackson correctly.

 

An opportunity to use the great Keith Jackson in your intro video- how can you pass up an opportunity like that? Here’s the video that includes the Keith Jackson voiceover that served as our official announcement of hiring Coach Smith via twitter (link). We certainly consulted with Coach Smith throughout the process and he was very supportive and provided great insight along the way.

 

Carr (UCF) – We knew Coach Heupel had never been a head coach before, but we also knew he was an All-American quarterback who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, so he was seasoned when it came to the media. We also knew he was confident, passionate and intense, which would come across on camera, so we wanted to get him on camera as soon as we could and get him to the press conference so our fans could see him like we saw him in the interview.

 

He did a great job in the press conference and really won over our fanbase with his personality and answers. Coach Heupel was not involved much in designing our strategy. None of the coaches we’ve hired over the last few years have been involved in much of the strategy of their introduction. We have a great team who instantly make new coaches feel at ease. When those coaches have had a chance to meet our team and see the preparation they’ve done, there generally aren’t too many concerns.

 

We were changing head coaches because we had a perfect season and the previous coach had an opportunity to return to his alma mater as their head coach. While our fans were disappointed the previous coach was leaving, they were also in a pretty good place knowing we were coming off an undefeated, championship season. We wanted to really emphasize Coach Heupel’s offensive credentials since we had the No. 1 scoring offense in the country and our fans didn’t want the offense to take a step backward with a new coach.  It was fairly easy for us to get that point across, simply because of Coach Heupel’s great credentials as a very successful offensive coordinator, assistant coach and student-athlete. Our fans quickly realized our offense would be in good hands.

 

Pintens (Oregon) – The personality of the coach is definitely a factor in creating content. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the creative team to get a jumpstart or have any face time with the coach prior to the announcement.

 

Although we wanted to keep the announcement confidential, it broke while we were on a plane back to Eugene. We were in a unique situation in that Coach Cristobal was already in Eugene, so our creative team went over and met with him briefly and ran through what we had planned and made sure Coach was okay with everything. There was already some equity in how we approach things because it was an internal hire. The reason for our change definitely factored into the strategy. The previous change was the result of us making a change. This was a coach leaving, which had the majority of our fan base upset.

 

Freet (Arkansas) – The old adage of winning the press conference has taken a fair amount of criticism in recent years… then we had a unique controversy in our own league. Like nearly every school in the cycle, those events were cause for concern and were a strong reminder about how diligent and proactive you have to be in the age of social media. Winning the press conference does not correlate to success down the line, but it is far better than the alternative.

 

As Coach Morris became a leading candidate for our position, we felt comfortable that his background as a Texas high school coach and Clemson offensive coordinator would be well received. We were concerned about the public perception of his head coaching record at SMU. To address this concern, our team began tracking online sentiment of media, former student-athletes and influencers in the state of Arkansas and throughout the SEC footprint. We looked for opinions on Twitter, Facebook and message boards to gather an understanding and found that the potential hire of Morris skewed very positive. That data held true after the fact, as the reception to Coach Morris has been better than we could have predicted.

 

I think the shift of strategy around hiring is fascinating. Before the formal press event, the strategy all falls on the institutional and the existing leadership. The second they step off the podium, they have decision-making power over all messaging and strategy. It’s an instantaneous passing of the guard.

 

When you separate ties with a coach, a key factor for that change is always around the opportunity to provide your fan base with renewed hope. Coach Bielema came to Arkansas with three Big 10 Championship under his belt. This time around we’re promoting a rising star in Coach Morris. The pillars around our narrative were, and continue to be pedigree (Clemson), innovation (offense), experience in the region (Texas high school coach) and cultural fit.

 

Did you & your team edit the marketing/PR strategy as it was being executed due to how your fan base and/or key constituents were engaging with the media(s)?

 

Pintens (Oregon) – We were in a somewhat fortunate situation in that our fan base on digital platforms really started to feed off the Student-Athletes who supported Coach Cristobal and began using the hashtag #Cristoballin. There was also a unique situation where our Student-Athletes signed a petition to have Coach Cristobal as our coach, but we were well down the road to having Coach Cristobal become the next head coach by the time this was delivered. It was great affirmation.

 

Lassiter (Oregon State) – Due to the unique mid-season transition in our football program, the length of our search created more opportunities for folks to weigh in on the process and give their advice both solicited and unsolicited. Our Vice President/Athletic Director, Scott Barnes, did a great job of being transparent throughout the process with the proper stakeholders while also doing his best to dispel inaccurate media reports along the way.

 

One we made the decision on who we were going to hire, the biggest adjustment we made was based on the outpouring of positive responses we were instantly receiving from former teammates and coaches. We recognized that these sentiments needed to be integrated into the announcement and our campaign because the voices of these former Beaver greats mean a great deal to Beaver Nation. We utilized their thoughts in our press release, digital content, and direct mail pieces to our season ticket holders and donors. Here’s a link to the announcement microsite we built: http://static.osubeavers.com/custompages/coachsmith/

 

Carr (UCF) – As mentioned earlier, we wanted to educate our fans on Coach Heupel, so we were prepared to do that. The initial fan reaction for the first 15-30 minutes was trying to learn more about him. As we talked more about his credentials on all our platforms, our fans quickly learned about his background. Josh has had a part in seven conference championships; four National Championship game appearances; coached the No. 1 offense in the SEC and No. 7 offense in the nation. As our fans began reading the information being disseminated by our communications/social and digital teams, they quickly realized what a great hire this was.

 

As Coach Heupel hires his assistant coaches, we are implementing similar strategies of using our different digital platforms to introduce the new staff members’ solid credentials. The rollout for Coach Heupel and his current assistants has gone very well. We have averaged selling 100 new 2018 season tickets per day for the past seven business days since his announcement.

 

For all of you, this process is still on-going. How have you & your team reviewed effectiveness and in hindsight, what are two things you would have done differently?

 

Carr (UCF) – I would have preferred to have Coach Heupel meet with the team the evening we hired him so we could put out the press release that night and set the press conference for the next day rather than announcing him as head coach at 11:00 a.m., with a 2:00 p.m. press conference. Logistically it’s much better to announce your new coach one day and have the press conference and other events the next day in my opinion. Otherwise, we’re still in the process of our debrief and discussion, while also preparing for a New Year’s Six bowl game and an early Signing Day.

 

Lassiter (Oregon State) – We believe in and spend as much time debriefing as we do planning in everything we do. This is a philosophy I learned after listening to a representative of the Blue Angels at a NACDA convention years ago. We will do a comprehensive event review similar to what we do after every home football game. We will solicit feedback from a wide range of stakeholders and create a document that categorizes the positives, negatives, areas of improvement, the TV/screen viewer experience, and general feedback. From a data perspective, we will analyze Year-Over-Year season tickets sales and digital media engagement.

 

I’m not sure we would do anything differently. We were able to execute all three of our day zero events – Press Conference, VIP Donor Meet & Greet, and Public Welcome Event. It was awesome to watch each external team unit have their time to shine and execute a well thought out strategy. While there are always little things to clean up, our ability to maintain the excitement level and convert it will ultimately be of critical importance leading up to the next football season. Go Beavs!

 

Pintens (Oregon) – We had a great understanding of what to expect this time as we went through this last year. We made a few slight adjustments to the plan this year. We would have loved for the press conference to not be at 4:00 p.m., on Friday, but we are in a time crunch with the early signing period and a bowl game this coming weekend.

 

 

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