Oklahoma State's Design Duo that Recruits in a Very Graphic Way
STILLWATER – It’s signing day, Dec. 18, 2019 and schools are collecting emails of signatures that will make up the majority of their 2020 football recruiting classes. Oklahoma State is seeing a steady influx of the emails with scanned Letters of Intent, signed and confirming the 19 new members of the Cowboys football family. Up and down the hallway of the West End Zone football offices there are handshakes, high fives, and smiles. As the morning turned seven a.m. in the Mountain time zone, the emails from Salt Lake City East High School safety Nick Session and Utah High School Defensive Player of the Year and Provo linebacker Mason Cobb. An hour later, came the scanned signed letter from four-star quarterback Shane Illingworth of Norco, Calf. Okay, where does the credit go?
Head coach Mike Gundy has a healthy role. All the assistant coaches are on the front line, evaluating and recruiting in person. Back in Stillwater, new recruiting coordinator Todd Bradford and director of football recruiting Mike Groce have an impact. At the far south end of the football offices, next to the training table in a room with five desks crammed inside, the football prospect analysts are often the fire starters of evaluation and information gathering. Then way down on the opposite end of the hall that houses most of the coaching and support staff, is a large room with two desks, plenty of computer equipment, and the not so new creative connection to football prospects. Peyton Aufill is the lead graphic designer and Olivia Ramirez, on the job for less than a month before signing day, are also feeling good. Their creativity in digital graphics played a role in the recruitment of every single signee that day. They never said a word to a recruit, didn’t evaluate a frame of video, but they are a valuable part of the recruiting team and they take pride in it. It is a team effort and in today’s recruiting, computer generated graphics are a huge part of the team effort.
“When you get a kid, and you particularly get a kid to flip, it's hard not to feel a certain amount of involvement,” expressed Aufill. “When you know the goal is to load this kid up with a lot of love on the digital side and you send them that and that turn around is, ‘yeah I want to go there.’ Now, they can see themselves wearing the black and orange and playing inside of Boone Pickens stadium and you helped them envision that. It's hard not to feel, even if you've never necessarily spoken with that recruit, some involvement with that.”
The silent, but maybe, most visibly loud recruiting force out there today, digital graphics have become a major asset and force in college recruiting, and especially in college football recruiting. Oklahoma State is ahead of the game, so much so that other schools, even the powerhouse bluebloods of the sport like Alabama, LSU, Oregon, Oklahoma, Texas, and more are constantly checking what other schools do, but especially Oklahoma State. The graphics help, but they are magnified by their exposure on social media.
“It's a huge factor in recruiting right now,” said Oklahoma State recruiting coordinator Todd Bradford. “Because it's all social media, like the kids all want. They all want custom graphics. They all want things that they can post. Our guys do an unbelievable great job of doing that, so that the kids have unique things to post.”
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WeChat, and more along with massive text messages and emails pass around these graphics, almost like modern day trading cards. Recruits and recruiters alike take notice. In fact, alumni of the Oklahoma State football office are now pushing out graphics for the likes of Texas A&M (Drew Schlosser), South Carolina (Joe Johnson) and recent Cowboys graphics designer Forrest Buckner will be receiving a national championship ring as he is now the Recruiting Creative Coordinator for recent CFP champion LSU.
Over the years, the history of college football recruiting the major factors have always been success and prestige of the program, ability to build strong relationships and bonds, and the glamour and comforts of the facilities. Now you can add the ability to make a recruit look like a football superhero. Digital graphics can transport a recruit into a future hero in orange and black. They create such a real and vivid image that recruits can feel the future.
“It does have an influence,” said recent Cowboy signee and standout DeSoto, Texas corner Jabbar Muhammad. “To known somebody is spending that time working on that graphic makes you feel wanted. You see yourself as a Cowboy and it makes you feel a part of it.”
Todd Bradford has recruited for a variety of schools. He has constantly adapted to what is new in attracting players to the school he’s worked for.
“It's amazing what those kids are doing over there,” Bradford said of Aufill, Ramirez and the students that assist in graphic design. “They’re kids to me. It's really unique to Oklahoma State what a good job we're doing. You know, we obviously follow all of this as we watch it online, and we're consistently the very best at it. It's helping us in recruiting, helps us getting on kids, helps us stay on kids, helps us keep kids happy. And there is more that we can do. We're continuing to try to push the envelope and find what those things are that we can do.”
Here is where compliance comes into the picture and Oklahoma State keeps assistant athletic director for compliance Ben Dyson in the West End Zone. His office is two doors down from Aufill and Ramirez. Dyson told me he spends a decent amount of time with Aufill and Chris Deal, who as the coordinator for digital media for Cowboy football oversees the digital graphics. While, Gundy, Bradford, and the entire recruiting operation is looking for cutting edge designs and everybody is dealing with an NCAA Division I Rule Book that was first written well before the advent of computers, extreme graphics, and everything offered in technology in the year 2020 the black and white of rules can get fuzzy in gray.
“All the time it is talking about how we can use the rules to our advantage without crossing the line,” Dyson said of his communication with Aufill and Deal. “That office does a tremendous job of churning out new and creative content. Not only do we use it on the recruiting side, but we use it to promote the current student-athletes that we have here. They are working all the time, 24/7, to pump out new content that our fans can appreciate, our student-athletes can appreciate, and our prospects can see as well. It is a full-time job to keep up with the rules and make sure we are doing the most that we can without crossing that line.”
Like Dyson said, the recruiting is just a part of it. Every time Oklahoma State football or head coach Mike Gundy salutes a former player in the NFL or more recently, XFL, wishes the Cowboy fans a happy holiday, or congratulations to another Oklahoma State team, it is Aufill and Ramirez at work. While we were interviewing the two, I looked up at the white board in the office and there was a solid list, Aufill told us it was a “to do” list.
“That is a very short to do list because I actually have found more sitting on my plate right now,” Aufill amended. “So estimated if nobody walked into my office right now and asked for anything, I have enough stuff to do for two weeks.”
Deal admits that much is asked from his dynamic digital duo, but he also feels it benefits Aufill and Ramirez with the kind of experience that makes them valuable enough that plenty of operations will find them attractive like other alumni from that office. It also brings Oklahoma State football a consistency in look and brand that Deal feels is important.
“No question, we handle all the recruiting needs, all the social media needs, our facility art, and pretty much anything that has to do with the digital footprint of Cowboy football,” Deal said. “It's a big job. It's two full-time designers, and it could be 12 full-time designers, and everybody would have work to do. What I feel like helps us the most, is that by having that workload and being able to take on so many projects, it really helps build the overall football brand, not just in recruiting, but the overall brand for football on a national level. “We've been trying to add more elements to expand the footprint of OSU football, not stay always behind the curtain with recruiting, and let marketing take care of the football stuff publicly.”
So how did Peyton Aufill and Olivia Ramirez find their way to Oklahoma State where they are using their talent and creativity on the computer to help mold the images for future Cowboy football players?
Aufill played baseball in high school growing up in Lubbock, he got his degree from Texas Tech University, and then went to work in an “old school” job as the sports editor of the Canadian Record newspaper. Canadian is a town that loves its’ high school sports, all of them but especially football. Aufill was able to see that while being a reporter. He also saw where the paper could be a tool to create excitement and energy for the home team Wildcats
“Our demographic were Wildcat fans. It was the hometown,” Aufill said of his realization. “So, my suggestion was, we needed to kind of take that in a direction that was more like a collegiate or professional brand, and kind of get behind the team. It didn't mean our reporting wasn't neutral anymore, but we weren't afraid to just kind of lean in that direction. That included things like media days and online graphics and video pieces, you know, hot sizzle reels and all that sort of stuff. And so that just kind of, that's what branched me into this role.”
Aufill was feeling on the outside as a reporter and editor at the newspaper and on the inside as a supporter with some of the spirit they were producing with video and graphics. He was now helping to create the identity of Canadian High School athletics. He realized he liked being on the inside much more. The opportunity came up at Oklahoma State and Aufill had also been teaching some graphic design. While he wasn’t as accomplished as he is now, he was eager and wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to be inside at a school like Oklahoma State.
Since arriving, Peyton's been with us about, you know, eight or nine months. He has a work ethic like none other,” Deal said bragging on Aufill. “I mean, he is a grinder, he gets in there and gets after it. When he came here, he was not an OSU guy, but he has become an OSU guy, if that makes sense? He's from Texas, came in here, and has been an OSU guy through and through. He works hard. He's blue collar, he does all the things right.
Ramirez has the background of being a college athlete having come out of Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas to play softball at Arkansas. A road trip to LSU showed her a campus and atmosphere that she decided fit her better, so she transferred to Baton Rouge. Interning and doing photography at LSU pointed her in the direction she is now on at Oklahoma State.
“This is actually like my first time being specifically with football. So, I joined the team, like the very last leg of the season,” Ramirez said of her short time in Stillwater. “It's a totally different perspective from doing photography and then graphic design. I studied photography while I was at LSU, and then I wanted something more of a challenge creatively. That's kind of when I picked up on graphic design and wanted to make that a career.”
She’s proven to be a natural and has gained a lot from letting Aufill guide and point her in the right direction.
“Olivia just got here, so I'm excited to see where she is, say a year from now, when she continues to grow and continues to have an impact,” Deal said of Ramirez. “Right now she's doing a lot of recruiting stuff, where I think in the future she's going to be able to branch out just like Peyton for us, and beforehand Joe and Andrew, and all those guys that have come through in the last five years that have been able to expand our brand.”
What is so interesting about this field, about what Aufill and Ramirez do is while there are rules and guidelines, the imagination and creativity is still almost without limits. Reading that doesn’t make sense, it is a contradiction, but it makes it fun to go to work everyday even if there is a lengthy “to do” list.
“One week, you know, I'll try to make a graphic based off a song lyric that I heard and then the next week, you know, it's already outdated,” Ramirez gave as an example. “It's definitely just trying to keep up with the trends.
“If a bunch of teams are using tons of black in their graphics, let's use orange. And right now, everything we're doing is orange, because most teams are straying away from that,” Aufill offered up as another example.
The goal is to stay ahead of the competition, be the graphics that everybody else is looking at, talking about, admiring, and trying to emulate. Ramirez has said she takes her lead from Aufill and is proud to do so.
“I definitely admire his work,” she said. “You know, when I came into taking this job, he was somebody that I wanted to work with for sure. That's basically why I ended up here.”
It’s still new and they just came through their first recruiting cycle and are heading into another and into potentially, one of the most anticipated football seasons ever at Oklahoma State. It is fun to make graphics that spotlight the accomplishments and the exploits of players like Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace. They have a lot of input from Mike Gundy to Todd Bradford, the entire staff, and of course, Chris Deal. Right now, they seem to have all of them pleased and that is as impressive as grabbing the attention of that running back every school is trying to recruit just like Oklahoma State.
“I'm sure that whatever's hot today in two months from now something else is going to be hot, and we're going to have to go at it a different way,” Bradford added. “They are keeping us out in front, so that people are chasing us, rather than we're chasing them.”
“Every day they come in here and work hard to make that happen,” Deal said. “And whatever our impact is, in recruiting, whatever our impact is in a national footprint. I mean, it's a big deal. And I'm glad that they take a lot of pride in that because they have a big part of the process.”