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Hot Reads: How’s the Huskers’ Brand?

February 12, 2018

A few years ago I read a book titled Brands Win Championships. I was torn after reading it. Not because I thought the author Jeremy Darlow, a former director of marketing for Adidas football and baseball, missed the mark, but because I was afraid he hit it. Maybe I'm idealistic, but I prefer to think of college football as more than a branding exercise even if more and more of the contemporary evidence contradicts that view.

You probably got the gist of the book from the title – spoiler the marketing guy espouses the importance of marketing – but if you didn't, here's the opening sentence: "The University of Oregon will win more games in the next 10 years than any other school in college football, and there isn’t a single program in America equipped to stop them…yet." 

This was in 2014, and things have changed for the Ducks. We're four seasons into the "next 10 years" mentioned, and Oregon is 33-20, tied for the 31st-most wins in the country. But the brand remains strong according to a survey of 224 recruits.

Mike Nowoswiat and James Moss of Pick Six Previews helmed that survey (and spoke to Darlow) for a story titled "How to Win in Recruiting." There's a lot packed in that story and it's well worth a read, but the thesis is essentially this: ". . . [T]he lifeblood of a college program lies in the minds of high school football players.  These rankings show us the critical hierarchy of schools within recruits’ minds.  This is the closest thing to the NCAA’s version of the NFL draft.  The teams at the top of these rankings will get the first picks and the teams at the bottom of the rankings will get the leftovers."

Clemson was at the top of those ratings. Oregon still rates very well at No. 5. Nebraska came in at No. 21, same place you'll find its 2018 recruiting class ranked.

The Huskers' spot felt about right to me. If anything, I was surprised it wasn't a notch or two lower, but not as surprised as I was to see Texas and Alabama just one and two spots higher on the list.

The Tide is a really interesting case. Alabama is on as good a run as the game has seen. It wins on the field and off. Prior to this year, the Tide had the top-ranked recruiting class in 247Sports' composite rankings for seven straight years. But if you think about it from a 17-year-old's perspective, Alabama isn't exactly sexy. Nick Saban is a great football coach, but he's not "cool." The Tide have one helmet, two jerseys and one pair of pants. Alabama doesn't play the uniform game. The Alabama football Twitter account is relatively no-nonsense, too. The brand is winning with machine-like efficiency, and few attempts seem to be made to craft the message into anything more easily shareable and consumable. 

Given that Alabama finished a lowly seventh in the 2018 recruiting rankings, I suppose you could take the brand ranking as a sign of cracks in the foundation. Or maybe the relative lack of curb appeal is part of the vaunted "Process" at Alabama.

One of the most interesting things Scott Frost said last Wednesday was in response to a question about common traits in his first recruiting class. 

"I want competitors. I want guys that like football," he said. "I am also really proud of who these kids are. I think our staff approached recruiting from the perspective that we are going to be genuine and we are not going to be used-car salesmen. Not lying, cheating, stealing and blowing kids phones up to get them. More than anything I think that helps us get the right kind of kid. The kid that doesn’t need to have all that happen to him to pick a school."

That's a heckuva mission statement if it's going to be Nebraska's approach going forward. Can how you recruit help you land on the recruits that fit your program? That's different than just raw talent accumulation, and of course the results on the field will be the only way to measure the effectiveness of that approach, but I'm very interested to watch it play out.

I'm also anxious to see how Nebraska's "brand" evolves under this new staff. Frost started to rocket up the coaching ladder while at Oregon, the poster child for the brands-win-championships approach. When he arrived at Central Florida, he took steps to increase the Knights' appeal. He had Nike redesign the uniforms. There's a section in the 2017 media guide devoted to the "Nike Threads," noting that the Knights had four different colors of helmets, jerseys and pants at their disposal. They could change uniforms as fast as they hoped to run their offense. It all fit together.

What will it be like at Nebraska, a program that has deeper roots and a reputation that's still more tractor than track meet? Is there a future where we consider the Huskers the "fastest" team in the country? Can that be Nebraska's brand?

I don't know. I don't even know if that's the plan for this program going forward. We'll have to wait and see.

But if you put any stock at all in the branding discussion – and I would say you should, even if you don't want to – 21st isn't a bad place to start. Go back and read through some of the numbers provided in that Pick Six Previews story as it pertains to recruiting.

I don't know when the survey was conducted, don't know if Nebraska is 21st because of Frost or if the "Frost effect" is yet to be represented in the ranking. But I do think the Huskers can get where they hope to go from there.

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