Navy Seals surprise summer training visits. Practices at Great Lakes Naval Base. Military tribute uniforms. Lockerroom pregame speeches honoring military. Early morning workouts. Wounded Warrior partnerships honoring soldiers at every game. Everywhere you look Pat Fitzgerald has tapped in to military themes in developing the Wildcat football brand.
When it comes to brand integrity, it is pretty hard to argue against borrowing the best characteristics of the brave folks who honor our country. Military analogies with football are so ingrained in the sport you sometimes can forget where the terminology began. From “winning the trenches” to being “loaded with offensive weapons” the belicose nature of the rough sport make for natural ties, especially when it comes to linguistics.
Fitz has borrowed the best of the brand equity of the military theme. Heck, he’s had it plastered on the back of uniforms on game day – honor, courage, integrity. You get the gist. Who doesn’t want to aspire to those ideals?
Yet, when it comes to Northwestern football, I’d suggest there is a better brand that ties directly in to the essence of what has helped Pat Fitzgerald elevate recruiting to a whole new level.
Fitz has done a masterful job of attracting a much higher level of athlete by embracing the perceived limits of Northwestern – the academic restrictions – and flipping it as the school’s differentiator. You won’t find a recruit who after committing doesn’t at some point mention the version of the phrase “it’s more than a 4-year decision, it is one that will help me for the next 40 years.” The message from NU’s staff is consistent and their care for the whole person, not just the athlete portion on Saturdays is authentic.
Just this week, thanks to the LTP eulogy tour, I’ve heard from former players and parents of former players echoing this sentiment. Sure, they’re as pissed off as you and I are about the on-field results in 2013 and 2014, but to a person they talk about how grateful they are for the experience and how Fitz in particular was true to that recruiting pitch all the way through.
However, I believe the Northwestern football brand should be the Moneyball brand of college football. An intentional branding effort that leverages the very key differentiation NU has against all but a few of its competitors – smart players. Before you lash out with a “I’d rather have less smarts and more wins” guffaw, hear me out.
I’m assuming most of you are familiar with the concept. Moneyball was a popular film starring Brad Pitt in 2011 based on a 2003 Michael Lewis book of the same name. It chronicled Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, and his radical approach to using hard core statistical analysis, better known as saberemetrics, to take the under-resourced small budget team to the MLB playoffs. The sabermetrics explosion is what has made non-baseball playing nerds the most valuable assets to teams. It is how Theo Epstein ended the drought in Boston and why so many people are banking on the Cubs brass to do the same. In the “Big Data” era we’re now in, sports has been one of the first industries to totally embrace this as a part of their brand.
And Northwestern is right in the epicenter of this movement. Look to the NBA and there is Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey (NU, ’94) held up as the new world order of basketball success – using statistical analysis to lead the way. Morey was a career statistical analyst who loved sports and took a road less traveled that is becoming mold for today’s major sports brass path.
You look at the New England Patriots and the mystery man and secret sauce behind their success? Ernie Adams, a Northwestern grad who many believe is the black box behind the Pats success. The former Wildcat football manager and “Director of Research” for the Pats is so behind the scenes, he’s granted all of two interviews in his time with the Pats – with one being to Northwestern’s alumni magazine because of his love for the ‘Cats. I’m not exactly sure what level of statistical analysis he uses for the Pats, but let’s hazard a guess that Bill Belichick’s seemingly aggressive, borderline gambler mentality go-for-it moves aren’t spontaneous.
You look at the most revolutionary move in collegiate sports ticket pricing since schools adopted the resale market (instead of fighting it) – real time adaptable ticket pricing based on marketplace demand and NU is at the center of it. Two NU professors were leaned on by Northwestern Athletics marketing to solve an age-old problem of market fluctuation and an outdated one price cures all system. The result? Jeff Ely and Sandeep Baliga, two brainiac NU profs created Purple Pricing which has become the model in the industry.
Heck, the father of current basketball star, Tre Demps, is even in on this movement. Dell Demps, the GM of the New Orleans Pelicans has created the first known data-driven analysis of injury archetypes so he can try to find the best undervalued free agent players to compete (ex – better chance of player “X” recovering from ACL vs player “Y” recovering from ankle injury “X”). Oh by the way, the doc in charge of this project – an NU graduate circa 1995.
So, if NU-related folks are solving problems using statistical analysis in other sports at the highest level and in the very stands to maximize revenue for the football program, why wouldn’t we go all-in on a Morey-like approach on the field? Just imagine the possibilities. Here’s a fictitious game call in future years with this in place:
“Well Jim, it’s 4th and 4 for Northwestern at the Michigan State 43 and you and I don’t have to even guess whether or not Fitz will decide to go for it. We know he is.
That’s right Bob, as the graphic shows, the ‘Cats know the probability in this situation is that they’re 62% more likely to get a first down than to hold the opposing team to a scoreless ensuing drive. You wonder how much of a psychological toll this takes on opposing coaches knowing that NU is using math on there side.
Well, it sure makes sense for this program which goes out of its way to find that balance between big time athletics and being true to the academic mission.
(Forced laugh) Ha, ha Bob. Let’s not kid ourselves. The 48 points per game average and the go-for-it mentality to a 17-year-0ld watching on TV are a lot more likely to be the reason to don the purple.”
Can’t you just see it? I’d be going all-in if I were Northwestern. Hire full-time staff dedicated to analytics. Embrace it, run with it and permeate it throughout the entire organization. You can still honor the military and leverage all sorts of tools for motivation, but this approach will have measurable results on the field.
There is one major flaw with this approach. The successful pioneers have been in pro sports where players are the commodity and the source of underutilized value. Obviously, in college, you can’t drop players and trade for other ones or pick up players on the free agent market (yet?). I still believe adopting an in-game statistical model. Several of you have pointed out to the Kansas high school football coach who never punts (Kevin Kelly) and used statistical analysis to his benefit to turnaround a losing program. It’s based on research done by a Cal economist who posits that NFL teams should not punt – ever – on 4th and 4 or less. There is all kind of data out there to support going all-in on some of things, and not one college team has fully embraced it. Why not us?
It is important to note that the Northwestern football brand and leadership style of Fitz are two different things. Fitz relates to players, but is admittedly old school. He’s a tough it out, and let’s outwork people. He embodies and leads by example when it comes to character, personal development and all the things that you’ve read and love about him as the positive brand ambassador. But, he’s also very conservative when it comes to on-field decisions as is his staff. This change in philosophy may not be core to who he is, but it wouldn’t preclude him from doing every other thing he’s done successfully to co-exist. Put another way, Daryl Morey isn’t coaching the Rockets, he’s just set the framework for the Houston Rockets “way”. This would be on other to-be-hired Wildcat administrators to create the system for Fitz to use.
Of course, there are no guarantees the Moneyball approach would work, but necessity is the mother of all invention. Just ask Northwestern marketing how they’re feeling after exploring the Purple Pricing. It’s rocked their world adding millions of dollars and while still not solving the too-much-opposing-school-presence problem, it has put a dent towards solving the problem while maximizing revenue.
Good for them for trying and experimenting. I’d love for Daryl Morey to run point on convening a forum at NU pulling in his MIT (Sloan is truly the epicenter of sports statistical nerds) posse and helping to lay the tracks for the Moneyball ‘Cats. Heck, he’s on my “regret list” for LTP as we’ve exchanged emails to setup a Purple Mafia Profile to talk about this very topic.
Northwestern football rides that delicate rail between trying to be #1 in APR and GPA rankings and compete for the College Football Playoff, seemingly in that order. While Fitz and company aren’t prone to making excuses about shortcomings there is always this underlying crutch among fans that “at least we’re doing it the right way and not compromising the program.” I’m pretty sure most of you believe one of the things that makes NU different is the earnest quest to do both.
My favorite quote on this comes from my good buddy Mike Falk who always says “Let’s be elite, not elitist.” It’s not about flaunting smarts. That part of the NU stereotype that still exists in the Chicago marketplace from non-alums is still there. I hate that. It’s why I think “state school” is the dumbest chant of all-time and if I hear it come from the student section I personally STILL go out of my way to shut them up. I have countless friends who are a hell of a lot smarter than I am who went to state schools. I was blessed to have my parents go all-in on my education and find a way to pay for most of my school. Chanting something that flaunts that opportunity is a joke. That’s being elitist.
This approach is about using something that could give you an on-field advantage based on bottom line results AND makes sense for the brand. It all fits together like a perfect puzzle in my mind.
I look forward to your feedback.