I am not going to discuss Mizzou’s move to the SEC, because frankly, that topic has been beaten like a dead hooker. I will actually discuss Mizzou’s branding strategy and how it has helped the football program garner success over the last decade.
Here’s how college football works. You either have tradition, or you don’t. Teams that have rich traditions already have their recruiting work done before a kid even reaches high school. That’s just the way it is. These teams had great success in the 20th century and they are cemented as powerhouses in anyone’s mind who is at least 30 years old. Even more so for the nostalgic 50 year old white sports writers who worship the idea of Notre Dame and just “don’t get kids today”. These teams include the following list of “untouchables”; Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, USC, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Florida State. Ever notice how over the last decade Florida State, Penn State, and Notre Dame always start in the top 25 with a lot of hype, only to finish the season in the 5-7 win range? They have been drilled in people’s minds as traditional powerhouses despite their current state.
So what does a team like Mizzou do? They certainly don’t have the football tradition that those other schools have. Hell, if you polled American sports fans in terms of overall football program traditional success, Mizzou would probably land in the 40-50 range. Mizzou had great teams in the 60s (some diehards claim a right to the 1960 National Championship. Mizzou’s only loss that year was to Kansas team that had an ineligible player) and 70s, but the 80s were harder on Mizzou than Bender’s dad was on him. Damn paint cans. The 90s didn’t get much better with the exception of the Corby Jones years. Throw in a little 5th down and a kick from a Husker, and being a Mizzou football fan was pretty rough in those days.
Luckily for Mizzou, they hired a gentle, earnest, and ballsy man by the name of Mike Alden. Alden made his first big hire by nabbing Gary Robin Pinkel (when Pinkel is done, it will be Faurot Field-Pinkel Stadium). Alden and Pinkel knew that Mizzou couldn’t just create tradition and become a Notre Dame or a Texas by continuing with the status quoi. They employed the ‘Oregon Strategy’. Mizzou is quickly becoming the Oregon of the Midwest/South (wherever you want to put them). Mizzou got new uniforms from Nike in the early 2000s and added a new “power tiger” logo. Later, they added a new scoreboard and the uniforms got even flashier as the years passed. This April, the Tigers made a complete overhaul of their uniforms to be at least in the top 5 of flashy uniforms in college football. On top of that, the Tigers launched the Mizzou Network. They also put billboards in new markets in the south such as Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa Bay, and Birmingham. The Tigers have even put advertising on the XBOX Live network. Oh, and just recently they put down a brand new field design and announced plans for 100 million dollars worth of stadium renovations.
Today’s recruits have changed. Kids are looking to be wowed and they want something ‘cool’, flashy, and most of all, ‘swag’. Pop culture has taken over sports. It is cool to look good. Kids love it and universities are starting to catch on. This ain’t your abusive grandfather’s NCAA anymore.
It has gotten to a point in college athletics where your athletic department’s marketing team is just as important as the head football coach. If ‘Mad Men’ runs for another 30 seasons, we might see a salty vet Jon Hamm run a new sexy campaign for the Syracuse Orange lacrosse team. The best way for non traditional programs to reach kids today is with a forward thinking marketing strategy, and Alden has done just that.
As I said earlier, I call this strategy the ‘Oregon Strategy’. Let’s take a look at some Duck history. For starters, the Ducks were by no means a powerhouse in the 20th century. From 1950 to 2000, the Ducks won their conference twice. Also, during that time the Ducks had 25 losing seasons. That is far from a powerhouse. However, since 2000, the Ducks have 5 conference championships and made 4 BCS games (including a national championship game).By comparison, Mizzou had 23 losing seasons and 2 conference championships during that time. Since the Pinkel era began in 2001, the Tigers won the Big 12(-2+2-2) North 3 times and made 8 bowl games. So, historically, during the 20th century, these schools were nearly identical. Furthermore, both schools saw increased success in the 21st century, Oregen more so than Mizzou obviously.
So how did Oregon blow up so fast? Well, Nike began making the Duck uniforms in 1996, and personally I don’t think it is a coincidence that the program took off with the branding, marketing, and ‘cool’ factor from Nike. Kids today eat that stuff up and it is giving a chance to non-traditional programs to make moves to impress the new brand of recruits. Mizzou is simply doing what Oregon did, and I think it will be very interesting to see how the branding success mixes with the SEC publicity.
P.S. – I am a recent graduate of Mizzou and we had a friend on the football team. He told us recently that there is in fact another uniform that Mizzou did not show the public that WILL be worn at a game this year. Georgia? That’s what I am thinking. Either way, the 16 year old kids will love it.