Thursday, July 14, 2011

Investing In Football, Part 2: Visibility

Before you can invest in an asset, you’ve got to know about it. Before you build a culture, you’ve got to develop one.

Kevin Kelly is a bright individual-he knows football in and out, and he can make a strong case to recruits and their parents on the value of a Georgetown education. That can build a team, but it does not build visibility. For six years (and to be fair, much longer than that), Georgetown’s visibility in football outside McDonough Gymnasium has declined to the point where many fans either don’t know Georgetown has a program, or are ashamed to say that it does. Georgetown gets one article a year in the football preview of the Post, and that’s about it. No radio. No TV. No social media.

A skeptic might think it’s on purpose, as if it’s some modern twist on a Monty Python sketch. "In this film we hope to show how not to be seen," it begins. "[First], this is Mr. E.R. Bradshaw of Napier Court, Black Lion Road, London SE5. He cannot be seen. Now I am going to ask him to stand up. Mr. Bradshaw, will you stand up, please?"

The man stands up, and is promptly shot.

"This," intones John Cleese, "demonstrates the value of not being seen."

Thankfully, Georgetown does not hold such grudges, and should not be holding back any of its coaches from standing up for their program, literally or figuratively. More to the point, programs grow on talent, coaching, and success. None come without some basic visibility among recruits and the community at large, something Georgetown Football does not have and does not seem on the verge of embarking upon.

Well, what can Georgetown do to fix this? First and foremost (and I’ll say this without much further comment), it needs a public plan on the Multi-Sport Field. Ten years of hand-wringing and equivocation engender diminishing confidence in anything Georgetown says unless there is a firm commitment to move forward.

Second, football seeks visibility within its own community. The coaches and players have a story to tell, but first, it must tell it better—get the word out about mentoring, community service, leadership on campus. Coaches need to extend a hand at University events, be it orientation, parents weekends, reunion. A little extra effort? Sure, and it’s an hour coaches aren’t spending on the phone with recruits or studying film, but positive public relations pays off across the board. That alumnus in conversation could be the next  football parent, the next donor or benefactor. (On disclosure: this is how my modern interest in Georgetown football took off--in 1994, while at Chadwicks, I bumped into former coach Bob Benson and heard the sales talk, the "gold mine" speech. I bought it then, and continue to buy it now. I sent in a check for $50, got a Georgetown Football sweatshirt, and got connected with the program.)

They don’t give out sweatshirts anymore, but I digress.

Third, visibility in the community is essential. Georgetown’s long-held inability to sign local recruits is troublesome, but how do these kids hear of GU in the first place? How many local players see a Georgetown ad in a Metrorail station and say, "Yeah, I’d like to play football there." The University doesn’t have to erect a television tower or buy a radio station to get the word out, because modern communications makes it so much more simpler and cost effective.

Facebook? Yes, but just one post since Oct. 9, 2010.

Twitter? No.

YouTube? No.

Email? Even this could use a second look. Not too many years ago, Georgetown would send a fax out every Monday to fans with scores and stats of Saturday’s game. Sure, the fax machine is about as relevant as a telephone extension cord today, but how do you keep people informed that aren’t plugged into social media or who don’t scour (or What the cost of a blast e-mail or text message to alumni, to prospects (within the rules), or to high school coaches by 9:00 am for 11 Mondays in a row? What’s the cost of not doing so?

Visibility doesn’t bring wins, but it’s a prelude to taking advantage of them. People ask me if Georgetown is somehow anti-football as it puts seemingly so little effort into it. I tell them it’s not anti-football, it just lacks the knowledge of what winning football can mean to a community. Eleven straight football seasons will wear out the best of fans, not to mention those who are saturated with the bright lights of men’s basketball nine months of the year. Tell me what Georgetown would be like with eleven straight 20-loss seasons in hoops.

What does visibility bring? It can bring hope. Any coach will tell you that without hope, you start from nothing. I saw it 20 years ago when a former USFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner was hired at Duke and told a group of fans there he was going to build a winning football team there--a huge leap of faith for a school that routinely turned down recruits that got in at other schools, had the poorest facilities in its conference, had posted losing seasons in eight of the last 10 seasons and did not won more than six games in a season since 1962.

Year one, he won five.
Year two, seven.
Year three: eight wins, a win over Clemson to share the ACC title, and a bowl bid.

Yes, Steve Spurrier was then hired away by Florida and in the 21 years since Spurrier left, the Blue Devils have posted 20 losing seasons; yet, the program keeps fighting not because Ted Roof or Carl Franks or Fred Goldsmith or Barry Wilson couldn’t win, but that Steve Spurrier showed them they could.

So it is with Vanderbilt. One winning season since 1982, a combined 13-67 (.162) in SEC action in the last decade, and a stadium that you could place at LSU or Alabama and still be 50,000 seats short of what they have. Oh, and the academics too. What kind of football player would want to go there? Ask James Franklin.

Franklin, a long time coordinator at Maryland who was given the "coach in waiting" title under Ralph Friedgen left for Vanderbilt when officials in College Park looked to Randy Edsall instead. As coaching jobs go, a move from Maryland to Vanderbilt  was akin to an ESPN reporter packing up to join the Tennis Channel--a move towards anonymity. Can you name the last Vanderbilt head coach? Or any former Vanderbilt coach?

It’s early, and Franklin hasn’t coached a single game for the Commodores, but the visibility he has added to the Vanderbilt program in just six months should be a case study on how to jump-start a sleeping program.
He’s faced the academics issue first hand.  This excerpt from "Is it too hard? That's what people use against us," Franklin said. "Don't go to Vanderbilt. It's too hard academically. Well, what are they telling you? What are they saying to you when they say don't go to Vanderbilt because it's too hard academically?" The answer is obvious; in not so many words, Franklin has just convinced a recruit that a competing coach thinks the player is too stupid to succeed at Vandy."

"If you feel that you are the best and the brightest, come prove it with me week in and week out," Franklin said. "If you're afraid of competition, then you'd better not be playing [here]."

He’s already signed the top running back in the state of Tennessee as a junior. "Football is something that's not always promised to you. In the long run, being at a school with good academics is like a win-win situation," said RB Brian Kimbrow.

And he’s getting the visibility message out to donors and recruits. Take a look at this Vanderbilt-produced video and ask what kind of message this sends about getting motivated to play football at this school:

In the end, visibility takes investment. Videos and appearances and promotional materials aren’t free, but their cost is marginal in establishing interest and demand for a product that has atrophied over the last decade. As Georgetown’s budget for football has declined against the economic realities of the sport, it seems a stretch to expect Georgetown to plow large sums of money into a sport which has not moved forward in the public arena to make the case for it. The message and potential of the program has been under wraps for too long.