Building The Winner Brand
Most of us who convene here daily like to think we’re galloping towards being branded “a football school”. By that, we mean, a sports fan’s first reaction to hearing “Northwestern” is “great football team”. We’ve got a long way to go to be in that department, and yes, I realize this is an exaggeration as many of us actually care about the academic reputation of the school which is by far the dominant knee-jerk positive reaction to those that care about that sort of thing. However, to date, we’re a “women’s lacrosse school”. Memorial Day weekend has become an annual coronation about Kelly Amonte-Hiller and the little school that could – and did – build a national power defying geographical odds in record time. The “which one of these schools is not like the other” (best sung to Sesame Street lyrics) factor of today’s Final Four is rather obvious. North Carolina faces Northwestern in the semifinals and Maryland and Duke are in the other bracket. All three other teams are ACC schools. Kelly, a Maryland grad, is looking to again win this one for all the non eastern seaboard programs. We’re going for our sixth national championship in seven years. Wow.
Even the most jaded Northwestern Wildcat fan goes to the women’s lacrosse program with pride pretty early in the conversation with others. We all know the national title stats and more importantly, we say it proudly with our chest puffing when we mention it. We’ve become a women’s lacrosse school. Just like Trinity has squash, Kenyon has swimming, UCONN has women’s hoops, UCLA had hoops, Johns Hopkins has men’s lacrosse, our school name is becoming embedded with one particular sport of dominance. This, I would argue is a good thing. The women’s programs benefit as they are so rock solid across the board, getting a women’s program to become synonymous with a sport exposes other prospects to take notice. “Hey, if they’re so prominent in lacrosse, I wonder what their other programs are like” kind of thing.
Kelly Amonte Hiller is a pioneer of epic proportions. She has already cemented her legacy not only at Northwestern, but on the future Mt. Rushmore of the sport. It is no exaggeration to say she has done more to help spread the game to the Midwest than anything in the history of the sport at the collegiate level. Considering the relative obscurity (yes, I know it is one of the fastest rising sports in America) of women’s lacrosse compared to other sports, it is pretty cool how much the reputation of the program has ascended to mainstream status. Of course, one Rose Bowl run or Final Four run for football and basketball and you’ll see a media phenomenon that only Butler can likely explain. In the meantime, this is quite a fun badge of honor for all of us to be witnessing such dominance over a sustained period of time. The ripple effect is one of setting the bar at a school who is still best known for its infamy in football for so many years and its current men’s basketball infamy. Just like we talk about the need for the killer instinct in football, Kelly has instilled a winner’s attitude of the highest order that permeates the entire athletic department.
National championships are now the bar within the walls of Northwestern. Our dominance in women’s tennis at the Big Ten level is great as is individual accomplishments within so many Olympic sports. However, if you really want to be on the same section of the wall of fame, it is team national championships. Winners evoke positive attitudes and relentless competitive spirit. Kelly built a program from scratch, with few resources and has shown what the power of will, good coaching, great attitude and group belief can do. If I were a coach at say Indiana football, I’d be on her doorstep sipping from her cup of wisdom. How did she do it? What was the turning point? What one takeaway can I bring to my program?
We have talked the talk at NU in football and basketball and no one does that better than Fitz. However, translating that to superior on field performance is the key to getting to the next level. As we build our brand, I hope we’re all ears to the one who has done it the best.
Yesterday’s stat pack about Northwestern and our relative performance in five year chunks illuminated how poor the Illini have been. I came across this stat on a Rivals article that Louie Vaccher linked to on Indiana’s woes that further illustrates it was even worse than that. Illinois is the sixth worst performing team in the past 10 years in all of Division I. Note the number of NU opponents that are on this list – obviously the pair of Big Ten foes, but also non-conference opponents we’ve had during that timeframe – Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Duke.
I also found it interesting to see the fewest bowl appearances since 1990 among major power conference teams (thank God we’re finally off these lists!) below. As you know, Northwestern has eight appearances during this time frame.
- 1 appearance – Duke, Vanderbilt
- 4 appearances – Baylor, Indiana
- 5 appearances – Rutgers, UCONN (began FBS play in 2000), Kansas, Iowa State, Wake Forest
- 6 appearances – Washington State