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Making Rutgers....er, better: a lurker's point of view

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My post on building the brand brought out a guest from Badgerland who offered a very salient comment. Actually several. Let us explore.

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In 1989, Wisconsin went 2-9.  They won one game in the Big Ten, a 35-31 Homecoming victory over Northwestern.  Northwestern went 0-11 that year.  The Badgers sucked.

The next season, there was a new coach on the sidelines in Madison with the hiring of Notre Dame's Associate Head Coach, Barry Alvarez.  Now, before I go off into more Alvarez lore and mythology, let's go back to my post on the Rutgers "brand".

That post drew a lot of attention and a lot of comments.  The premise was that Rutgers has had - and has this academic year - some successful teams, most notably women's soccer and wrestling.  But it has also had a slew of poor teams, not to mention the Flood-football spectacle this year.  The post said we should not accept mediocrity, should not accept perennial last place finishes.  We should strive for excellence across the board.

And no one was arguing against that, but they were putting forth a lot of ideas about what we should be doing to build the brand.

The "brand": who should we be?

Over the last 18 months or so that Rutgers has been in the Big Ten, people have looked at a few schools and said "that's what we should use as a model for athletics", and they weren't looking at the 800-pound gorilla in Columbus.  Rather, they were often citing Michigan State.  But what also comes up is a school that the Rutgers Strategic Plan referred to as one of our "aspirational peers".  They looked to Wisconsin.

As is often the case with my writing, there's a history lesson involved.  But this time, I'm going to allow a commenter from that branding post to take the lead.  A "lurker", as he termed himself.  I give you ChiBadger and his [edited] comment:

I went to Wisconsin in the early 1990's. At that time our main sports were really, really bad. Not that we're a big time program now, but I think Rutgers would want to be realistic and shoot for a mid-range program (athletically) like ours, at least initially. So what changed? Attitude .

Let's pause the tape.  "Attitude".  Let's look at some synonyms for attitude: mindset, stance, perspective.  Could we add culture?  And where have we seen that recently?  Okay, back to the tape:

When I started there Madison was about a good school and an awesome party. Athletics were, well, there. By the time I left and as a young alum it was ingrained that part of the experience meant giving back some money (or time if people could). They also tied it to professional networking in a lot of cities. Overall, it went like this:
1. They hired a strong AD who came in and said there's no reason athletics couldn't match up with academic reputation.
2. The AD demanded the ability to hire a ‘rising star' coaches, and to pay them as a condition of taking the job, and reminded everyone of what was promised.
3. He hired the top coordinator from a national championship team, Barry Alvarez from Notre Dame. Alvarez shows up and tells people they better start buying season tickets or they won't be able to get them. Whatever. Promptly wins one game that year, but is everywhere promoting his program. People start buying in.

Pause. Let's put that next to Rutgers right now.  Hired a strong AD....check.  AD made demands....we're all guessing check.  Hired the top coordinator from a national championship team.....(I'm getting goose bumps) CHECK!

This doesn't look too bad so far.  Let's go back to the beginning of this post.

In 1989, Wisconsin went 2-9.  They won one game in the Big Ten, a 35-31 Homecoming victory over Northwestern.  Northwestern went 0-11 that year.

And the next year a brash Barry Alvarez is hired.  As ChiBadger wrote, Alvarez runs around "...and tells people they better start buying season tickets or they won't be able to get them." The next year he wins one game.  But he increased the average attendance at Camp-Randall by almost 10,000 per game.  It was the third-best attendance gain nationally.  It took him three more years, but in year four, the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl.

A go-getter as football coach and a fan base that may have been blase but that quickly bought into and supported the coach's preaching.  And the success.

What comes next?

Back to ChiBadger's comment.  We saw the first three points that seem pretty in line with Rutgers' situation.  Chi, the floor is yours:

4. AD hires Stu Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Dick Bennett and eventually Bo Ryan as basketball coaches. 
5. Alvarez get some cred and keeps pushing...he even changed the school logo so it was "moving forward" [success was necessary for that leash]
6. Everything started building on itself. Facilities came much later.

Pause again.  Hiring a new basketball coach.  Uhhh, I'll pass that one to Dave White.  Changes the school logo.  Where have I seen that before?  "Everything started building on itself. Facilities came much later." Hmmm.

So, have we put the horse before the cart with facilities?  Maybe.  In fairness to ChiBadger - and us - he's probably never seen our facilities, nor did most of us see UW's before Alvarez showed up there.  But he makes some additional points.

But so often I read the stuff about first needing facilities, big ten [sic] money, etc. When all this happened our facilities were bad and big ten money was paltry. It was all about getting alumni interested (and the east coast stuff about 'there's just so much to do here' is a cop out...there's stuff to do everywhere, and the majority of donations come from outside of WI anyway).

Can someone hit the pause button?  Thanks.  Cop out.  In my mind, for ye-e-e-e-ars, Rutgers has used the idea that we can't draw, or garner attention, because the great megalopolis surrounding NYC will simply smother us.  Partly true.  But here's a critical point by Chi; if you don't try, you don't get.

For the most part, Rutgers never seemed to capitalize on its success.  AS @RUNYLI wrote, "...let's think back to 2006/2007, there or about, and no one was saying RU was a "dumpster fire" or laughing about the Empire State building being lit up in red. I mean, we had a bill board in Times square."  But then, it kind of settled in with mid-level bowls and average results on and off the field.  Or after the Final Four in 1976; there was a rejection of the Big East invite and....pain

In that vein, though, let's bring in another (edited) comment from that post, this from RUinChiTown:

Rutgers is notorious for doing a lousy job marketing itself to the general public. Not just in sports, but as a whole university. A relatively small number of citizens in NJ know of RU's high academic and research standing among universities in THE WORLD. It's gauche to brag about oneself, but RU takes the lack of self promotion to an extreme..... We don't have a "brand". In fact we seem to shun the concept. Heaven forbid we commit to a multi-generational objective that we will strive to be outstanding in everything we undertake....

My suggestion to RU to overcome its serious lack of self esteem is to go after the area alumni first and in an overwhelming fashion. Red magnets, and window decals are nice. But they are not what is needed. Investment of time and engagement by alumni is what is needed. That will lead to $$$. If folks feel like their career success is a result of their Rutgers education and debt to the university will develop.

by RUinChiTown on Feb 24, 2016 | 4:43 PM

Must be something in the water in Chicago.  But his points are on target.  I have also felt - for ye-e-e-e-ars - that Rutgers doesn't market well.  And, again, not just athletics, but the University as a whole.  Why aren't we advertising on the local New York and Philly stations?  Screw the Big 5, St. John's, and ‘Cuse.  And speaking of Syracuse, back to ChiBadger.

Interest led to donations; it also led to businesses paying attention since alumni paid attention. All this was with a hostile state government and a ton of people complaining about money being spent on athletics, not academics (sound familiar?). But a funny thing happened there too; as the ‘brand' was rejuvenated and grew so did admissions. That stuff about not being a public ivy if you have good sports is just stupid. Also, stop bitching about Syracuse or Connecticut. I know it's regional, but who cares about either one? Build your own brand. [emphasis added]

The man is a genius.

So, back to the brand and getting better at any number of sports.  I want it all, I want it now.  And I know it can't happen, and certainly not soon.  But as ChiBadger said, why not try for the middle somewhere. Hey, Wisconsin has done very well in the Directors' Cup standings, especially with Alvarez as AD (eat your heart out, Greg S!).  From his Wisconsin bio:

In Alvarez's 11 previous seasons as A.D., Wisconsin has finished at least 22nd in the NACDA Director's Cup five times, including a 16th-place finish in 2006-07. That is the second-best finish in school history. Six different teams have won national titles during Alvarez's tenure, including four in the magical 2005-06 season. Thirteen different teams have been crowned as conference champions, including five in each of the 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2012-13 seasons.

The bottom line and a simple approach

Aaron Breitman made the very cogent case recently that we have to be competitive in football; it isn't debatable.  Then....We. Must. Fix. Men's. Basketball. That, too, is not debatable.  We already have very good women's soccer and wrestling.  Women's hoops is in the mix, as is men's soccer.  Make both lacrosse teams strong and you're successful year round.  Then you build.  And with Phase One of construction including both soccer and lacrosse teams, it's a perfect time to push the issue with those supporters.

And here's one for Dave.  Again from our new best friend, ChiBadger:

Football built basketball and Alvarez was the touchstone.

Barry understood; Barry gets it!

You're up, Mr. Hobbs.