Remaking The CU Brand: A Golden Opportunity

Branding is important to Colorado athletics.

And we’re not talking about putting a “4-Bar-H” on a 100 head of Black Angus here.

We’re talking about how Colorado presents itself to the public, the media … the fans.

The Pac-12 – the Conference of Champions – is struggling competitively in the two highest-profile sports, football and men’s basketball. In football, the conference may only have two teams finish in the Top 25 (Washington and Washington State, with Utah’s hold on No. 20 precarious after the Utes lost their bowl game). Meanwhile, in basketball, the conference is currently without a single team in the nation’s Top 25 (for the first time since 2011-12).

Rather than take advantage of the situation, however, the CU football and basketball programs are struggling to field anything more than mediocre teams in a mediocre conference.

Now – right now – there is a golden opportunity for Colorado to fill the void.

A little history …

Branding of a school and its athletic department may seem old hat now, but it is actually a relatively new concept.

It took Phil Knight and Nike to show the nation that there could be a direct correlation between branding and success on the field.

Knight did not invent corporate sponsorship, but Knight and Nike took the marriage between schools and their sponsors to a new – and arguably distorted – level.

Before Nike reinvented Oregon athletics, there were corporate invasions into the school systems across the nation. Coke and Pepsi would try to outbid one another to gain exclusive access for their vending machines at high schools and colleges. Shoe companies, like Adidas, Reebok, Converse, and yes, Nike, would try and land shoe contracts with basketball coaches, hoping to gain exposure and access to schools.

But that was small potatoes compared to what Phil Knight did to reboot – and rebrand – Oregon athletics.

And it’s CU and Rick Neuheisel, ironically enough, which played a part in the tectonic shift in collegiate athletics in the past twenty years.

Knight, an Oregon alumnus, had always been a supporter of his alma mater. After Colorado humbled Oregon, 38-6, in the 1996 Cotton Bowl, however, Knight determined to do more.

The day after Oregon’s drubbing in the Cotton Bowl, Knight met for drinks with (Oregon head coach Mike) Bellotti and his offensive coordinator, Al Borges.

“What would it take to get to the next level?”, Knight asked Bellotti. 

“Well”, the Ducks head coach said, “if we had an indoor facility that we could use to practice in the fall, we could raise ourselves considerably.”

Knight told Bellotti  he might be able to find a way to help him. 

(Excerpt taken from “University of Nike“, by Joshua Hunt. If you are interested, I strongly recommend this book. It’s both enlightening and frustrating to see how the infusion of money turned Oregon from a national afterthought to a national power. The Ducks went the entire 20th century without producing a 10-win season. Now, however, it is expected that the team perform at an 8-10 win level every season. There is a very straight line from Knight’s checkbook to Oregon’s new found success, and Hunt lays out how much of its soul Oregon had to sacrifice at the altar of Nike in order to obtain its national status).

The Pac-12 “brand” has taken some serious hits of late, with a noticeable lack of success on the field, on the court … and in the wallet. These problems have led to the conference hiring a new public relations firm.

From a story in the Oregonian this week, “Pac-12 Conference throws money at public relations firm to help repair broken brand“:

The Pac-12 Conference has hired one of the world’s top public relations and crisis management agencies.

Its mission?

Fixing the conference’s broken brand.

… Andrew Walker (Pac-12’s head of communication) wrote to the Pac-12 university presidents and chancellors: “Our shared interest in a strong Pac-12 brand is a strategic priority given the brand’s impact on the valuation of our collective media and sponsorship rights, recruitment efforts on campuses, impact on overall University brands, and NCAA selection processes in football and basketball, among other reasons.”

While the conference as a whole – and Colorado in particular – are struggling to put out a winning product, the University of Nike continues to march on. The football team finished 9-4, while the basketball team was picked to finish first in the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll. Both football and basketball programs signed Recruiting Classes ranked in the top 5 nationally in the past year.

The Oregon “brand” is alive and well.

Take the announcement posted by Oregon star wide receiver Dillon Mitchell this week.  Mitchell announced that he was opting to forego his senior season, declaring himself eligible for the NFL draft:

“I want to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation for the tremendous support and cheers I’ve received since coming to Oregon in 2016,” Mitchell wrote via social media. “It has been great living a childhood dream these last 3 years. Ever since 7th grade, I wanted to be an Oregon Duck. I fell in love with the uniforms, the players, the fast spread offense, and the Nike brand.”

I’m not sure if I am more troubled by the quote, or the complete lack of reaction to it.

We can shrug off the lack of mention of academics. We’ve long since been hardened to the idea that many star players only go to class long enough to maintain their eligibility.

But what about a 7th-grader “falling in love … with the Nike brand”?

That’s where we’re at today.

It takes a “brand” – a nationally recognized brand – to be successful.

So, what should Colorado do?

If I had the answers – or the checkbook – you’d be the first to know.

Rick George has done a masterful job in bringing the CU athletic department out of the 20th century. The concept for a Champions Center and an indoor practice facility had been discussed for over a decade, but George made it happen. The “Drive for 105”, raising $105 million in just a few years, is incredible for an athletic department which had never raised over $15 million in a single year – ever.

Colorado is now on an even par with most of its peers when it comes to facilities (at least for now). With other schools catching up to it in the facilities arms race, Oregon has upped the ante, becoming the first Pac-12 school to pay a coordinator over a $1 million per year (with Jim Leavitt leaving CU for Oregon, more than doubling his salary).

In terms of dollars spent, Colorado will never be able to keep up with the USC’s and the Oregon’s of the world (just as CSU will never be able to keep up with CU). So, in order to be successful, the Buffs need to strike while the iron is hot, and remake Colorado as a national player. (It’s easy to forget now, but the rise of CU football in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s came at the exact same time when traditional power Oklahoma was involved in a very rare down period in football).

A good first step came when new head coach Mel Tucker stated that Colorado is going to recruit nationally.

“A lot of the coaches we have on our staff are national recruiters”, said Tucker. “There’s really no secrets in college football in terms of prospects. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit and recruit, recruit, recruit.”

There are a number of recruits on CU’s radar for the February signing date who are outside of CU’s traditional recruiting footprint. There are a number of national prospects from the Class of 2020 who have been given offers by Colorado.

We’ll see if Tucker & Co. can land any of these big fish.

But its more than that.

Colorado needs to get people excited about CU football again. Remember Dillon Mitchell, above? When he was in the 7th grade, getting excited about Oregon and the Nike brand, Colorado was mired in a string of ten consecutive losing seasons. High school prospects of today weren’t even born the last time Colorado won a conference championship.

What will be CU’s “brand” under Mel Tucker?

“First and foremost, we will be best conditioned. In order to win big, you’ve got to play harder and longer,” said Tucker when he was introduced as CU’s 26th head coach. “We will be technically sound and fundamentally sound. It’s not just about the Xs and  Os. We’ll always be able to rely on our technique and fundamentals, on both sides of the ball and on special teams. We will play smart. We won’t beat ourselves. We’ll be able to come through in the clutch, in the red zone, short-yardage, goal line, two minute, all of those critical areas. We’ll play fast. How do you play fast? You recruit fast players, first and foremost. Players play fastest when they know what to do. Our players will know what to do and they will play fast.”

Sounds good. You also have to like how Tucker is embracing the expectations for the program:

“As you walk through the facilities and you meet the people here, the leadership in place here, the question that comes to mind is: why not us? Why not the University of Colorado? Why not the Buffs? Why not CU?”, Tucker said. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to compete at a championship level and win championships. It’s been done here before. This is a great place. It’s a great University, great tradition, great facilities. The time is now.”

The time is definitely now.

The traditional powers of the Pac-12 South, USC and UCLA, are struggling … but they won’t be for long. The Arizona schools have new coaches, who, in their first year, failed to produce significantly better results than their predecessors. Utah, while solid under Kyle Whittingham, is in no better position than is Colorado to become a national force.

The door is open.

The opportunity for greatness is there for the taking.

Will – can – CU take advantage?


6 Replies to “Remaking The CU Brand: A Golden Opportunity”

  1. Luckyprof, those are some facts most of us (let’s admit it… 98to 99% of us) would never know if it weren’t for the attention to detail that you, Stuart and VK prescribe to. It enriches my superficial knowledge of the “ins and outs” of CU history and minutia. Hats off to you. Thanks.


    1. You’re most welcome, Bufftrax.

      My C.U. student experience began in January of 1982, and the doctoral studies that followed coincided with the hire and initial efforts of Coach Bill McCartney.

      Although I played college football at a small private California school, I realized in the summer of 1982 that he was a very special coach, and that C.U. was so fortunate to hire him. Really, how many people coach Michigan high school state championship teams in both football and basketball? Answer, just Coach Mac. My most vivid memory of Coach McCartney came from attending a Thursday evening scheduled bonfire on October 20, 1983. Coach asked via the student newspaper for 10,000 to attend. On the night of the event, there was the team, the band, cheerleaders, and, maybe, 30 individuals from the community. He went to the podium and spoke as if there were 10,000 in attendance. He told us that we were a part of the beginning of something very special because the team would get on the plane the next day and come back to Boulder with a victory. I left the event that evening CONVINCED of two things. One, I would run through a brick wall for that individual. Two, C.U. would definitely beat Nebraska that Saturday.

      When C.U. trailed 14-12 at halftime, and played Nebraska even for the first 30 minutes, I knew that I had, indeed, been a part of something very special a few days before (and remained with that belief even after the 69-19 final result).

      Here’s hoping that Coach Tucker can bring the same level of ability, resolve, commitment, and enthusiasm to his new role!

      1. Great story!!
        I have absolutely no doubt that your recollections are accurate, because I had the same experience with Coach Mac the year before, also during Nebraska week.
        From “No. 7 Nebraska – In Search of a Rival – Meeting coach Bill McCartney

        By the end of the short talk, though, head coach Bill McCartney had demonstrated why he had been hired to coach at Colorado. In just a few minutes, McCartney had us so fired up that he had us believing that we – not the Buff football team “we” – but the “we” in the room – could go out and lay waste to the hated Cornhuskers. He had us convinced that if we all believed in and supported the team, that this would be the year that the red hoard from Nebraska would at long last go home with an “L”.

        Thanks for the great memory – I share your hope that Coach Tucker can bring the same enthusiasm to his tenure in Boulder!

        1. Your 1982 encounter with Coach Mac is a great story as well! Having attended the 1982 Nebraska game (and all home games in 1982, 1983, and 1984), my memory of that contest (in addition to the 20-14 score at the end of the third quarter) is the sound of the C.U. defensive players hitting the Nebraska players each on every play (particularly 1983 Heisman winner Rozier). 100% certain that the Nebraska players woke up that Sunday morning quite sore. In a way, although not victorious, on that day, the “Davids on C.U. were really putting it to Goliath.”

  2. Add Texas to the list (having officially finished in the Top Ten to close out this season). Now, only Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, and Texas have been ranked in the Top Ten to close out a season at least once during the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s, 2000’s, and 2010’s. Colorado and Nebraska have that accomplishment for the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, but are still missing for the 10’s.

    We can hope the Buffs can pull off the unexpected for 2019 to remain a part of this exclusive group, and put a stamp on the brand of “sustained success over time.”

  3. It is great to look at history when looking at the Colorado “brand.”

    The following schools have completed a football season ranked in the “Top Ten” at least once in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s, and 10’s – Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame Ohio State, and Penn State. Three schools will fall off this exclusive list, if not ranked in the Top Ten at the end of the 2019 season – Colorado, Nebraska, and Texas will have missed out on the 2010’s. Colorado is one of only 10 schools to have closed a season ranked in the Top Ten of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s. Colorado could have continued to be a member of this very exclusive club if the Buffs had won either the Pac 12 Title game or the bowl game a few seasons ago.

    That’s right, Florida (60’s and 70’s), Florida State (60’s), LSU (90’s), Miami (70’s), Oklahoma (90’s), and USC (90’s) have all fallen short.

    Colorado does, indeed, have a history of success that should serve as a foundation for this “Golden Opportunity.”

    Thank you, Stuart, for all that you do!!

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