In college athletics, elite stars aren’t staying for years to get their degrees for the most part. The best and the brightest are gone before their anticipated graduation day; some return, some do not. The successful coach? He or in some cases she, more than the transitory athlete (especially given the marketing scrutiny still being bandied about as a result of the O’Bannon case) is the face of a program, and for better or for worse, is the face of the University. Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winner shave their spot, but in a star driven multi-billion dollar athletic world, the coach is the draw.
So that brings us to the University of Michigan football program, and head coach Jim Harbaugh’s push to stretch the limits to grow the UM brand, and in his words make it “cool.” So far, so good.
The latest example was the firestorm unleashed by competing schools when UM brought the spring practice road show not to Detroit, but to IMG Academy in Florida. It was the culmination of a few weeks of all things Harbaugh and Maize and Blue; starting with khaki pants, orchestrating an insiders “Signing of the Stars” event on National Signing Day with The Players Tribune, rolling on through coaching first base in Spring Training with the Detroit Tigers, and ending with a capacity fan event replete with a Dick Vitale sighting in Bradenton, Florida, in the heart of SEC and ACC Country. Harbaugh, so to speak, brought the Michigan Mountain to Muhammad, and brought all the press with it.
Over the top? Maybe? A circus? As Harbaugh himself said to Dan Wolken of USA Today, “Who doesn’t love a circus?” A controlled, strategic branding and awareness campaign? You bet. A success to raise the profile of a still-great school? For sure.
What’s ironic is this type of beyond the norm thinking was what helped get former Athletic Director Dave Brandon fired. What’s different is that Jim Harbaugh; NFL pedigree, celebrated alum, outgoing personality and winning football coach, is not Brady Hoke. Winning changes lots of things, and Michigan, on its way back to the biggest of the big, is riding the Harbaugh wave on and off the field, and is extending the UM brand, for better or worse, beyond its staid perceptions.
The use of an aggressive coach for attention far and wide is seen by unconventional by some, especially those critical of Ann Arbor. However much of that criticism is probably from people who didn’t think of it first, and the guess is that there were plenty of copycat calls and other planning now going on to create other Harbaugh-like experiences going forward, so long as the NCAA doesn’t shut off the creative faucet.
The difference will be in authenticity. The traveling to Florida, the digital experiences, all worked because they were genuine and not forced, and the buy0in came across the board. That’s why the last month worked for Michigan, Harbaugh and the brand. Replication always falls short when first to market is best. Where will it all go, not far if the results on the field don’t mirror the creativeness off it. However for Michigan, big budgets, bug ideas and big spends usually make sense in The Big House. The ultimate results will come on Saturdays this fall.
However for now, bravo Coach Harbaugh, keep waking the echoes and creating new ones. The creative noise is welcomed across the board.