When Nebraska joined the Big Ten, we were consumed by two important messages: (1) football matters more than everything else put together and (2) the importance of a positive brand can’t be overstated.
As SEC commissioner Mike Slive pointed out this past week, time has allowed for institutions to become established in terms of resources, fan interest, winning tradition, facilities and stadium size. Brands, good and bad, become firmly entrenched.
Illinois does not stack up with the top half-dozen teams in the Big Ten in these areas. Memorial Stadium drew more than 78,000 fans to games in the mid-1980s, and now has a capacity of barely over 60,000, not all of which are used. UI spring games draw a fraction of the numbers that turn out for perennial Top 25 teams. Only Indiana had a worse conference football record during the past decade. Even after performing well in the Texas Bowl last year, we are moving within two weeks of a new season, and conversations within the Illini fan base seem overwhelmingly more concerned with basketball recruiting, the status of Bruce Weber and the quintet’s starting lineup.
Where did the UI get off track? What happened for the Illini football brand to fall so far behind the once-dragging Iowas and Wisconsins? What would it take to attract athletes in Rivals’ Top 150, an elite group of teenagers who annually rebuff the UI?
It would, obviously, take a bombshell. In analyzing modern history, there is a recurrent thread whereby the UI “went cheap” in hiring assistant coaches like Jim Valek, Gary Moeller, Lou Tepper and Ron Turner. These, in hindsight, now appear to be opportunities lost. John Mackovic earned four straight bowl bids before he departed for Texas after the 1991 season. In a bowl system that requires six wins, Illinois has reached six bowls in the last 19 years and three in the last 11. Meanwhile, the UI is surrounded by programs getting noticeably stronger ... Missouri to the south, Iowa to the west, Wisconsin to the north. Even Purdue, clearly weakened last year, has gone 8-3 vs. Illinois since 1994. And we all know what’s going on in Ohio and Michigan (the Wolverines are even now on a magical recruiting roll).
In the market
What we need in today’s column is an out-of box thinker. So I’m calling on Chris Hanna, who stepped down this past week as DIA marketing director. It was a Hanna brainstorm that led to doubling UI season ticket revenue after sales dipped to the mid-20,000s after the 2-10 season in 2006.
“We needed to do something about the season ticket base and put more pressure on people to buy the sideline single-season tickets,” Hanna said. “We sold out the horseshoe by reducing the price from $149 to $60 (for six games), and then we went to $77 the year after the Rose Bowl season of 2007 (it is now $99 for eight games).
“We only sold about 500 tickets at $149, and we quickly went to 12,000. We never quite reached 50,000 overall but we took season tickets into the mid-40s. We more than doubled our season ticket revenue. We priced the horseshoe where it was attractive. I had spreadsheets showing that if we sold them all, we’d be selling more sideline tickets at a higher price, and that combined to generate more revenue and the kind of crowds that our coaches and athletes deserve.
“The $60 price had shock value.”
Shock value. You know, like those JoS. A. Bank commercials. Buy a suit and they’ll throw in the whole store! You see where I’m headed. Sometimes it pays to go real low, and sometimes it’s the opposite. If a Cadillac costs that much, it must be special. Better buy one.
The point of today’s column is whether the “big splash” approach, long frowned upon by campus leaders, would have brought about a better outcome. Has the unwillingness of Illinois to overpay had a long-term detrimental impact in performance and attendance?
Taking the high route
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Illinois went on a $4 million salary binge. In the modern market, that would be the eye-popping number. Outrageous, huh? Well, don’t tell that to Alabama. The Crimson Tide is paying more than that to Nick Saban. This is the same Saban whose early seasons at Michigan State were nothing special. Oh, sure, he went 5-0 against Illinois. But Saban’s Spartans were mediocre (6-5-1, 6-6, 7-5 and 6-6) before he turned a 9-2 season into the preferred job at LSU. He reached 13-1 in his fourth year at LSU and was 14-0 in his third year at Alabama. So none of it happened overnight. He worked his way into an elite class and now would be a difference-maker if he chose to go elsewhere. In other words, if a coach of Saban’s stature came to Illinois, he would at the very least be able to attract the interest of athletes who would otherwise not consider the UI.
The point with Saban or Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops is that they have glistening personal brands that enhance the established school brand. As with Urban Meyer when he was at Florida. Or like John Calipari at Kentucky and Coach K at Duke. These represent the meshing of mutual coach-school brands. It is the proverbial 1-2 punch, as opposed to the 0-0 punch as presented by so many others.
I’ve always considered some of these salaries obscene but ... yes, there can be benefits to overpaying. That’s because, regardless of which season or decade we’re talking about, Illinois has faced the ever-tougher task of reversing a trend whereby the best football recruits migrate to the most successful institutions.
I once quoted an Illini coach saying how tough this UI job is, and he denied that he said it. He had to. Such an admission is a no-no. Like, the fans don’t know.
You see, this isn’t the NFL where the worst teams get the highest draft choices. This is college where the best players routinely pick the traditional schools, and Illinois is not part of that perceived elite.
For the coming paragraphs, forget the upcoming eight-game season, disregard the immediate prospects for success or failure, and ponder a universal question: Are these bombshell salaries worth it?
Pay the piper
With Hanna, it’s all about supply and demand. It is his way of analyzing situations.
“When we priced the horseshoe the way we did, we changed the equation,” he said. “If you pay the right guy, the coach who took LSU to the national championship level and is now doing it at Alabama, and he had shown that he could bring in great players, it might be worth the cost.
“And if you can’t get the top three, you’d need to get as close as you can. If you’ve done the math, if you invest at that level, then later on you can re-evaluate the size of the stadium. You can’t do it at one point in time.”
Many leaders of this community, liberal and conservative, would reject the idea of a “splash” payment. Some would be aghast. But the bulk of fans, feeling no financial constraints, would rejoice in a higher-paid and higher-profile coach. There would be an automatic bump in ticket sales (at higher prices) and presumably an uplift in recruiting.
In my time, only two UI coaches have, for brief periods, truly changed the look of out-of-state recruiting. Mike White did it with California transfers, a system that was bound to falter due to geography. And Ron Zook did it with a run of early talent from the Washington, D.C., area, a plan that began to slip when Mike Locksley departed.
Bill Self did it in basketball. Under Self, the UI drew the attention of more blue-chip, out-of-state talent than ever before, but his sudden departure left that expansion unfulfilled. The point is: One man can make a difference. If the program brand is weak, you need a strong coach’s brand to lift it.
“I know how that can work,” Hanna said. “It is a choice. Of course, there are all kinds of details that we don’t know on the outside, and it is easy to oversimplify when not working with all the facts.
“For example, a stronger presence in Chicago would be good, but it is very expensive to advertise there. You’d have to be certain that your investment of hundreds of thousands would come back to you, and you couldn’t sell enough tickets to do that. It would have to be donor-driven, and you would need consistent football success first. I wanted a bigger presence in Chicago, but I knew what my budget limitations were. It wasn’t a close decision.
“There are always budget considerations when we make radio decisions, when we hire a coach, when we look at marketing. Ron Guenther’s strengths were that we would be compliant and fiscally sound in budget and facility improvements. That isn’t easy. Ohio State has been dramatically over budget. And Michigan fell behind millions of dollars at one point.”
Another aspect of Guenther’s term was his intense loyalty to those he worked with. That has been simultaneously termed a strength and a weakness.
Addition by subtraction
At this point, the Illini have reached another fork in the road. They’ll have a new athletic director within weeks, and they have 15 home games in the next two seasons. If seats go empty, there’ll be no push to increase seating that is the lowest since the stadium was built (the UI drew 67,866 for the 1924 dedication).
And the same Hanna who favors “overpaying” head coaches takes what seems to be a contradictory position on stadium size.
“As long as you’re meeting public demand in terms of seating, that’s fine,” he said. “You don’t want to be in excess of whatever public demand is at the time. In basketball, there is talk of decreasing Assembly Hall capacity, but you don’t want to squeeze it much because Illinois is a terrific basketball school and
has had some long runs of sellouts.
“We’ve already squeezed football. The suites and the club seats allowed that project to be funded. Something like that takes major, major gifts. That took out some capacity, as did the unsafe seats high in the south end zone. The cost of work to repair those temporary seats was too great. Another case of supply and demand.
”It is asking too much to put the horseshoe on the renovation docket at the same time as the Assembly Hall. If we’re going to do the horseshoe, do it right, and time will tell if the demand is there.”
So, on the football side, Illinois has decreased seats while all the major football powers in the Big Ten are growing as they anticipate huge followings.
“If Illinois performs at a level over time ... an extended period and not the Sugar Bowl followed by a gap, then seat additions can be considered. We appear to be in a run like that when you look at the Rose Bowl, Texas Bowl and two upcoming schedules, and our recruiting and coaching upgrades.”
When a new director arrives, he may encounter restrictions and limitations that none of us understand. He will inherit a system in which the UI has invested deeply in two coordinators who, on the negative side, may soon be considered for head jobs elsewhere. That is the long-term risk in taking that approach.
So, no easy answers exist. And remember, there is no guarantee that a $4 million coach would be successful, either.
— Hanna’s marketing department was first in the Big Ten in four of five years, according to the National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administrators ... based on revenue increases and specialties like the Night of Legends, Illinois Renaissance game, Pink Shirt Madness, the outdoor basketball practice, Pack Huff and various reunions.
— Dave Leitao, former DePaul and Virginia head coach, has been named to lead the Maine Red Claws in the NBA Development League. Former Illini Jamar Smith played for the Claws last season, averaging 13.6 points and making 105 treys while shooting 43 percent from the arc in 48 games. Smith indicated last week that he isn’t sure where he’ll play this season.
— J.C. Caroline’s name always came first in the Caroline-and-Bates explosion of sophomores on the collegiate scene in 1953. But Mickey Bates, who died last weekend in Rock Island, scored a team-high 66 points as he offset Caroline’s outside speed with inside punch. Bates topped
100 yards once, rushing for 152 in the stunning 41-20 upset of No. 3 Ohio State (J.C. had 192 that special day) as the Illini finished 7-1-1 that season.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Why I Feel Old ...
Big Ten meetings will keep us busy in Chicago late this week. My first recollection of attending one of these affairs was when Harry Combes invited me to fly in a white-knuckle four-seater. Harry prepared for the landing by grabbing the seat in front and burying his head. I learned. That was a million years ago.
Why I Feel Young ...
Back to work. After writing only Sunday columns throughout the summer, I’ll return Tuesday to a schedule of four per week. I may make some bogeys with my spelling, but not as many as I make on the golf course. And I’ll be joining Jim Turpin again soon on Monday morning. I enjoy this time of year the best of all.