Branding in college football: Identity goes beyond just uniforms and logos
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As Royce Freeman entered his sophomore year at Imperial (Calif.) High in 2011, he began to get recruiting letters, so he figured he should begin paying attention to college football. The biggest game the first Saturday of that season featured a team in white jerseys with purple-and-gold trim (LSU) against a team wearing black uniforms with neon-yellow highlights and a matching O on the side of the helmet. “I wanted to see who would win,” says Freeman, now a sophomore tailback at Oregon. “The neon team or the regular-colored team.” The neon team did not win, but a seed was planted.
Four years earlier a different sort of seed had been planted when 15-year-old Derrick Malone Jr. sat in Colton, Calif., and watched Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon pilot an offense unlike any Malone had ever seen. When each play ended, Dixon’s team hustled to the line of scrimmage and ran the next. Sometimes they ran the same play again and again. “I saw how fast everyone was,” says Malone, a linebacker whose last game as a Duck was January’s national title loss to Ohio State. “I just said, ‘I’ve got to get a piece of this.’”
It was something else entirely that grabbed Hroniss Grasu, a senior lineman at Crespi Carmelite High in Encino, Calif., when he hit the instructional-camp circuit in California and the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2009. As coaches evaluated the 6'3", 260-pounder, he evaluated them: Under which one would he learn the most? For Grasu, Steve Greatwood, a former Duck who had already logged 17 years in two separate stints coaching Oregon’s offensive line, felt like the ideal teacher of reach blocks and protection slides. Grasu also noticed that several other assistants had started at Eugene before he was born. “It wasn’t that they were winning,” says Grasu, who also finished his Oregon career in January. “It wasn’t the jerseys or the facilities. It was the coaching staff.”
How did Oregon build a perennial national title contender in a remote, sparsely populated state? By building a readily identifiable brand of football that draws 18-year-old athletes like moths to light reflected off a “liquid metal” helmet. But this brand wasn’t built by the marketing department or by a consultant. The staff at Nike, one of the best brand-building companies in America, had a hand in the process, but the people most responsible were the coaches and the players. Like anything else, a football team’s brand is mostly defined—for better or for worse—by the quality of the product. Honda could advertise that its cars were reliable, but that wouldn’t mean anything if Accords and Civics didn't keep rolling past 150,000 miles with minimal issues. Coca-Cola could have actors sing about buying the world a Coke, but the world wouldn’t have bought many if those Cokes had tasted terrible. With apologies to Bill Parcells, a football program's brand is what its record says its brand is.
In Oregon’s case, Nike’s uniform designs and technological advances are vital components. But so is the blur offense created by former coach Chip Kelly and refined by successor Mark Helfrich and coordinator Scott Frost. And the most important factor is a culture that has remained intact through three coaching changes over 20 years. Those three pieces—flash, speed and continuity—turned Oregon football from a quaint operation on the edge of the country to America’s coolest program. How strong is Oregon’s brand? All it takes is one glimpse of the signature O and a fan or recruit knows exactly how the team looks and plays.
Programs across the country have spent plenty of money and hours trying to establish similarly strong brands with varying degrees of success. At Tennessee, where Nike is taking over for Adidas as the apparel sponsor on July 1, coach Butch Jones wants to develop a signature style that freights the Volunteers’ Power T logo with as much meaning as Oregon’s O. At the height of the Phillip Fulmer era, the Tennessee brand was obvious. A pro-style quarterback would run an offense bolstered by an elite tailback. Meanwhile, coordinator John Chavis’s defenses would play man coverage on the outside and bring pressure from everywhere. But Jones is Tennessee’s third coach since Fulmer’s firing in 2008. He must rebuild a brand diluted by Lane Kiffin’s brief stay and Derek Dooley’s abysmal recruiting.
Jones has incorporated the difficulty of the task into his branding effort. His “Brick by Brick” recruiting motto—Jones or one of his assistants tweets about a brick every time a recruit commits to the Vols—acknowledges that Tennessee’s program had to be torn down to the foundation and rebuilt. But now that bricks such as sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett and tailback Jalen Hurd are in place, Jones can craft the on-field brand. “We talk every day about our football identity,” Jones says. “When you talk about our style of play, it’s a team that has great chemistry, great passion, great energy in the way they play the game. And it has both mental and physical toughness.” These may sound like the generic traits of any good team, but Jones has very specific ideas about how these concepts should look on the field. He wants chest bumps and high-fives to celebrate successful plays. He wants players buzzing around the field at all times. If Jones can recruit the necessary players and train them the way he hopes, the Power T would symbolize a frenetic Tennessee team overwhelming an exhausted opponent.
Jones routinely has his video team cut up practice and game clips to provide examples of how defenders should swarm to the ball, how players should pop up when they get knocked down and how defenders should raise their fists on third down to let the opposing offense know fourth down is coming. The Vols even have an end zone policy. Jones calls it “the score standard,” and he expects each player who reaches the end zone to grip the ball tight before flipping it to the nearest official. Then, he can celebrate with teammates. An individual celebration, Jones surmises, takes away from the efforts of the other 10 guys who helped the scorer reach the end zone. Jones and his coaches are constantly on the lookout for good and poor examples of their preferred style of play at every practice and quickly correct those who don’t follow it. “We grade it each and every day,” Jones says.
Tennessee has the misfortune of playing in a conference with some very clearly established brands, which makes reestablishing an identity even tougher. But it isn’t impossible. When Nick Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, the Crimson Tide had a powerful legacy brand that didn’t exactly resonate with top recruits. Using what he learned while leading LSU to a national title during his tenure in Baton Rouge, Saban wasted little time in building a program that connected with a fan base that wants numbers on the helmet and an iconic coach on the sideline and with 17-year-olds who want cutting-edge football instruction and preparation for the NFL. Though he would never characterize himself this way, Saban is a master of branding. How many coaches preach embracing each step of the journey rather than focusing on the ultimate destination? Pretty much every one, in pretty much every sport. But Saban calls it The Process, and when combined with the results Saban gets in the win-loss column and on draft day, it’s a powerful concoction.
But what about programs with no real tradition? How do they build a brand from scratch? That’s the challenge for Tony Sanchez at UNLV. Sanchez was hired from Las Vegas high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman in December to breathe life into a Rebels program that has gone 31-91 since 2005. “We need to rebrand ourselves,” Sanchez says. “We need to get the community to invest.” Even before his team can play games and form an on-field identity, Sanchez is trying to use that community to help attract prospects. Because while UNLV football has no brand of which to speak, Las Vegas has a powerful, readily identifiable brand. And while previous coaches—former hoops coach Jerry Tarkanian notably excluded—may have tried to minimize the Rebels’ association with the city, Sanchez embraces it. Obviously, the Rebels won’t take recruits gambling on the Strip, but they will attempt to tap into the vibe of the city as they build the program. That won’t appeal to every recruit (or every recruit’s parents), but it will appeal mightily to some. Plus, by piggybacking on a brand those recruits and their parents already know, Sanchez should have an easier time making a connection. “It’s going to be Vegas,” Sanchez says of his program. “It’s going to be energy. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be entertaining.”
Oregon had even less to work with when it began building its brand. Given all the factors working against them, the Ducks should not have been able to do what they did. In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Sports Economics, researchers found that the best predictor of which college a blue-chip football recruit will attend is proximity to the recruit’s hometown. And how many such players did the state of Oregon produce between ’10 and ’14? Twenty-six. Florida yielded 810 in that span. Yes, Oregon borders California (481 signees between ’10 and ’14). But Eugene is an eight-hour drive from the Bay Area; Californians have much closer options. “Three things, when you look at why prospective student-athletes choose a place, are distance from home—which is a challenge for us—winning and having a platform,” Helfrich says. “We think we have a pretty good hold on two of those three. The first one you can’t affect. We’re not going to move the campus.”
So Oregon had to create a program that players wanted to fly over other schools to reach. Running backs coach Gary Campbell, who joined Rich Brooks’s staff in 1983 and never left, believes the rebranding truly began in the late ’80s, when Brooks and his staff began recruiting the players who would win the 1994 Pac‑10 title, Oregon’s first since 1957. A taste of winning helped. So did acting athletic director Dan Williams, who promoted offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti to coach when Brooks left to lead the St. Louis Rams in ’95. Bellotti kept assistants such as Campbell, linebackers coach Don Pellum and strength coach Jim Radcliffe.
A few months later Bill Moos took over as the full-time AD and made a fateful drive up I-5 to see a famous alumnus who hadn’t been very involved with the school’s athletic program. After the meeting Phil Knight—a former Ducks middle-distance runner who started a little shoe company with Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman that became the world’s largest athletic apparel brand—gave Moos a $2 million donation to help build an indoor practice facility for football. Nike’s relationship with Oregon would only deepen. To date it’s estimated that Knight, who announced Tuesday that he will step down as Nike's chairman, has plowed hundreds of millions in Oregon athletics. The results have been spectacular for each.
In 1997, a Nike team redesigned the Denver Broncos uniforms, creating the modern look that John Elway & Co. wore in two Super Bowl wins. Knight liked the look so much that he asked the same team to rebrand Oregon. Tinker Hatfield, a former Oregon pole vaulter who had designed several iconic pairs of Air Jordan basketball shoes, replaced the stodgy interlocking UO logo with a simple O. Todd Van Horne, another member of the team who is now Nike’s creative director for football and baseball, says the Nike designers took the then-unusual step of soliciting advice from the players, who wanted to look cool and weren’t concerned with tradition.
While the dark green uniforms that debuted in 1999 represented a dramatic shift, the outfits didn’t get truly wild until 2003, when Oregon opened the season at Mississippi State wearing highlighter-yellow jerseys and pants “that made its unfortunate players look like rubber ducks rather than mighty ducks,” Elliott Teaford wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
But the players loved the variety, and eventually asked if Nike could tweak the uniforms each week. “They said, ‘We dress up for a party every weekend,’” Van Horne says. “They’re looking at me, and they say, ‘Do you wear the same thing to a party every weekend? I don’t think so.’” Meanwhile, physiologists at Nike’s research center suggested a quarterback looking downfield for receivers might have an added advantage if the Ducks altered their uniforms from game to game to create maximum contrast with their opponent’s. Style and science agreed, and toward the end of the last decade, Oregon started its weekly mixing and matching of bright colors and daring designs. Others with less-than-iconic traditional uniforms followed suit. Now Baylor, Maryland, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech break out a new uniform combination for practically every game.
While the ever-changing uniforms may have been an affront to fans of more established programs who freak out when Nike or Adidas widens a jersey stripe, recruits loved them. Campbell, who remembers when the Ducks were “fourth or fifth in line” for players who weren’t even sure where Eugene was, will never forget walking into Miami’s Booker T. Washington High during the Chip Kelly era with the O logo pinned to his lapel. Students saw it and began yelling, “Oregon!” That moment represented a victory for everyone who worked on the Oregon brand. Van Horne remembers the early struggles to differentiate Oregon. “All those years ago, no one really knew who Oregon was or the difference between Oregon and Oregon State,” he says. “I always say that east of the Cascades, they didn’t really know the state. ‘Is that the place above California?’”
No uniform design ever won a game, though. “If you put a dog in a shiny helmet, he’s still a dog,” Helfrich says. The Ducks began to play as stylishly as they dressed in 2006 when Bellotti asked offensive coordinator Gary Crowton to experiment with the spread. That spring Crowton invited Kelly to share some of the innovative schemes he had come up with while working as New Hampshire’s offensive coordinator. The Oregon staff liked Kelly so much that when Crowton left for LSU after the ’06 season, Bellotti hired Kelly to run the Ducks’ offense.
That Kelly-coordinated attack a young Malone watched in 2007 was only the beginning. After Bellotti stepped aside and Kelly became coach in ’09, the Ducks took flight. They pumped music into hyper-speed practices that allowed the offense to play on Saturdays at a tempo few defenses could match. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti modeled his substitution patterns after hockey line changes—because his players faced more plays in practice—and stressed creating turnovers that Oregon’s offense could quickly turn into backbreaking points. Kelly’s Ducks abjectly refused to discuss injuries, both to keep them secret and to instill an attitude among players that no matter who went down, someone could fill his role. Pellum has continued using Aliotti’s preferred style since taking over as defensive coordinator in ’13. Meanwhile, Helfrich has kept Kelly’s iron-clad injury policy intact. These concepts have become as much a part of Oregon’s brand as the ever-changing uniforms.
As Oregon has shown, a successful college football brand has to be about more than the logo or the uniforms. Baylor’s willingness to experiment with different looks has drawn attention, but the Bears are considered playoff contenders because Art Briles built a winner running an offense most coaches would have considered crazy before they saw it work. Maryland, the alma mater of Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, can certainly compete with Oregon or Baylor in terms of brainpower working on the team’s look. But the Terrapins won’t be in the same echelon as the Ducks and Bears until they start winning more consistently. That remains the biggest challenge for college football’s brand-builders. It’s easy to change a program’s logos or design. It’s incredibly difficult to build a winner.
Oregon built a strong one by dressing fresh, playing fast and overcoming injuries, and now everyone wants to copy the Ducks. “I do find it fascinating that what was once ridiculed is now imitated,” current Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens says. “It’s hard to turn on a college football game and not see the Nike-Oregon influence in some way shape or form, which is pretty cool.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Jones hopes to follow that model to a (Power) T. “We get to create our identity,” Jones says, “by our overall body of work.”