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  • The Ohio State Buckeyes and Clemson Tigers are not only powerhouses on the field. The two programs are changing recruiting with their growing investments in digital media.
By Pete Thamel
December 28, 2016

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — At 6:58 a.m. on a Friday morning in early December, coffee cups steam on the desks of the defensive staff room at Ohio State. A dozen Ohio State football graduate assistants, recruiting assistants and interns convene at the program’s daily creativity meeting. Amid the wisecracks and stifled yawns, a persistent soundtrack of the electronic typing of iPhone keyboards echoes through the room. The daily meeting, led by director of player personnel Mark Pantoni, is focused on providing ideas for graphics, short videos and GIFs to send to recruits.

At 12:30 on a recent overcast afternoon at Scottsdale Community College, there’s a palpable bustle around the perimeter of Clemson football practice. A Clemson house photographer is taking pictures. Two student videographers, who chartered with the team, are compiling behind-the-scenes images. A former student holds his iPhone up to capture a defensive lineman drill.

The two scenes offer a window into the frontlines of the latest arms race in college sports. In the past few decades, schools have competed not-so-subtly off the field in areas like stadium capacity, weight room size and locker room décor as ways to showcase their superiority and lure recruits. Now they are competing with Snapchat goggles and Mannequin challenges.

The latest frontier comes in the form of creative content—graphics, video and social media tools that programs use to vie for the hearts, eyeballs and shrinking attention spans of teenage recruits. It’s fitting that No. 3 Ohio State ended up playing No. 2 Clemson in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff on Saturday. There’s a captivating matchup off the field, too, as both programs have been at the forefront of creative content to attempt to lure recruits, fans and new audiences. “Clemson is the reason,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of the uptick in resources Ohio State has spent in content creation. “They’re good. I’m not ashamed to say it. A lot of what we do around here, we studied them.”

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It’s tricky to rank, quantify or even compare the content creation of the two programs. But it’s clear that Ohio State and Clemson are among the best in college football. Since 2013, Clemson has added about $167,000 annually to its payroll for creative content in its football program. In the past two years, Ohio State officials estimate they’ve added $100,000. The money is used for staff, equipment and ancillary costs in competing digitally at the highest level.

Athlon just ranked Ohio State’s Twitter feed No. 1 in the country. Clemson topped the list last year. In the past two years, Ohio State has tried to hire two people from Clemson’s creative team. Both stayed. More important, perhaps, than where the schools rank is what the dedication of time, funds and energy toward this area says both about the evolution of college football, media and even society.

It's Gotta Be 'The Shoe'

The most telling part of Zach Swartz’s role at Ohio State doesn’t come from his title, Director of New and Creative Media. It’s the location of his office in the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex in Ohio State’s football facility. Veteran staffers there refer to the assistant coaches area of The Woody as “The Longest Hallway in Footaball.” Swartz’s office is across from the weight room and in the same corridor where the nine Buckeyes assistants reside. Swartz is ensconced in the Buckeye football complex, reports to Pantoni and on his interview at Ohio State this spring got a clear idea of his directive. He came from Arkansas, where he fell under the general athletic department umbrella. But his interview at Ohio State included visits with Meyer and co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. This spring, Ohio State’s football program didn’t even have a dedicated football Twitter feed. When Swartz handed his binder with his plan on how to help Ohio State catch up, Meyer brushed it aside and offered two simple questions. “Are you the best in the country? Can we be the best in the country?”

One of Meyer’s constant fears, which drives the program daily, is complacency. “If someone has something better, we have to ask the question, ‘Why?’ They shouldn’t.”

That led to the creation of Swartz’s job this spring. It includes much more than running social media, as he’s tasked with capturing moments, telling stories and giving recruits and fans a daily behind-the-scenes peek at the Buckeyes. “My job isn’t making this program look good,” he says, “but being just the conduit to put it out there.”

That could mean Instagram pictures or video, Snapchat, Periscope or Facebook. It could be his department putting together an Ohio State recreation of the famous Mars Blackmon commercial, starring Brooklyn native Curtis Samuel and Buckeye lineman Michael Jordan. (Instead of “It’s gotta be the shoes,” the Buckeyes altered it to “The Shoe” in honor of their stadium’s nickname.)

Swartz reports to Pantoni in the recruiting office because everything he and his team created is aimed ultimately at recruits. Fans consume it, but recruits are the target. “That’s all he cared about,” Swartz said of Meyer. “It was making this recruiting department the best in the country and having someone in here on a daily basis produce the content and get it out to the recruits. That’s the No. 1 goal.”

One of the endearing parts of this creative content evolution in college sports is that it has ushered a youth movement in football offices and athletic departments. Swartz, 28, looks young enough that he’d still get carded on High Street. (Buckeye defensive end Sam Hubbard nicknamed him “Snapchat.”) At 28, he’s a veteran.

As Ohio State’s football program attempts to capture fleeting attention spans of teenagers, it has turned to young talent like Sam Silverman, 26, and Kenton Stufflebeam-Hessler, 19, to join their graphics department. Silverman started as a volunteer with the Buckeyes in 2012 working at a pizza shop to supplement his income. He served a two-year internship and now is a full-time graphic designer for the football program. (He went to Ohio State with dreams of designing shoes for Nike.) He encapsulated his job interview with Meyer this way: “He said, ‘There’s three things I care about,’” Silverman recalled. “One is recruiting. Two is recruiting. And the third is recruiting.”

Courtesy of Ohio State football

Meyer often speaks of investment, and few can offer a more tangible sign that Stufflebeam-Hessler. He has tattooed on his arm a handful of the core tenets of Meyer’s program including, “4-6 A-B, E+R = O” and “Take Care of Yourself” (Four to six seconds from point A to point B and Event + Response = Outcome are points of emphasis in the Buckeye program). Stufflebeam-Hessler is not a student at Ohio State, just a fan whose vast design talent landed him a dream gig helping the program he grew up rooting for. He beams with pride when showing how one of the Buckeyes’ top recruiting targets used a graphic he created as his Twitter background. “They’re young pups,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. “It has happened so fast and just evolved. It’s important. And they get after it.”

During the week, Silverman and Stufflebeam-Hessler create graphics that tell Ohio State’s stories. For example, a graphic detailing the number of NFL wide receivers Meyer has coached compared to coaches going after a recruit goes to top receiver prospect. A blue chipper may have his name Photoshopped onto the Heisman or his face cropped into a College Football Playoff interview session. On game day, all of the creativity team has one task they execute through Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. Says Silverman: “(Pantoni) wants it to be where a recruit in Florida can experience the entire gameday experience without having to come here.”

Access, Access, Access

The vast reach of Clemson’s creative team showed through last year when an official from Manchester United was so impressed by Clemson’s work on the Vine app that he reached out to the school. Clemson creative gurus Jonathan Gantt and Nik Conklin chatted up the Man U official on how they use Vine for more than just highlights. Gantt and Conklin’s titles are a nod to the new world. Gantt, who came from the Tampa Bay Rays, is the athletic department’s director of new and creative media. Conklin, who got hired because of the caliber of videos he produced as a student at LIU Brooklyn, is the coordinator of digital content.

“That’s a very cool compliment from the world’s most famous sports brand,” says Joe Galbraith, Clemson’s associate athletic director of communications.

When Galbraith arrived at Clemson in 2013, athletic director Dan Radakovich charged him with exploiting new media to help the school get their message out directly. The best clue of how to do that came from the school’s Twitter following. The football program’s equipment Twitter handle had more Twitter followers than the actual football program.

That offered a glimpse to what fans crave—access, behind-the-scene snapshots and insight to things like what uniform the team would wear. “The central tenet of what’s it like to be a Clemson Tiger, that drives our creative team,” Galbraith said. “What’s it like going to Media Day? Or going to class? Or hanging out in the locker room?

“All those things we have access to and can tell the fans and recruits directly.”

As part of its $167,000 annual investment, Clemson added Jordan Sorrells as the program’s coordinator of football recruiting communications. D.J. Gordon, who once ran the equipment Twitter feed, now holds the title of assistant director of football operations & creative media. (Gantt, Conklin and Gordon are nicknamed “The Avengers.”) These aren’t titles that existed during Danny Ford’s tenure.

Sorrells said that social media is a premium for reaching recruits, as their directive is to find the recruits on their phones and not make the recruits come looking for them. “Our motto and method and mission in the recruiting office is we want our coaches to recruit as effectively and efficiently as possible,” Sorrells said. “The rest of their time we want them on coaching football.”

Sorrells estimates there’s seven Clemson students and workers out in Arizona providing content that’s being parsed through different social platforms. Max Huggins, a Clemson senior, wore Snapchat goggles around Clemson’s media availability on Wednesday. Andy Turner, a sophomore, carried a $3,000 camera and talked giddily about the genesis of Clemson’s Mannequin Challenge. A recent Clemson graduate, David Platt, spoke of the “temporal” nature of trying to creatively display mundane things like a team leaving on a flight. Most tellingly of Clemson’s commitment to creative content is that all three said they flew out on the team charter. “I’d do it for free,” Turner says, admitting he’s paid a modest wage for his contributions.

Overall, Sorrells estimates that Gantt oversees 30–40 students. In reaching teenage recruits, Clemson has found energy and creativity from students who are near the recruits in age. And it’s not lost on the Clemson creative team that there’s going to be a digital competition that accompanies the actual game on Saturday night.

“It’s a competition (off the field),” said Turner. “Who can make the most engaging content or powerful shots.”

And amid the flood of quality content, a snapshot of a new era in communicating recruiting emerges.

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