When the AD’s PR Overshadows Xs and Os

January 12th, 2014 by Matt Friedman

7575800It was not long ago that college athletic directors and assistant football coaches were relatively anonymous. But thanks to the ubiquity of sports media, those days are long behind us. This week, the hiring of an offense coordinator at the University of Michigan (a job that now pays in the high six figures) and the role of that school’s athletic director (a former public company CEO), has generated more talk of PR than Xs and Os.

On Friday, the school introduced Doug Nussmeier, hired from the University of Alabama to run Michigan’s offense after the school fired Al Borges (who generated lots of bad PR this season by making multiple decisions that were easy for even a casual fan to second-guess). But on Friday, and through the weekend, traditional and social media focused less on the football aspects of this hire and almost exclusively on the public role of athletic director Dave Brandon.

At the press conference, head coach Brady Hoke introduced Nussmeier, who spoke and took media questions, followed by Brandon, who also spoke and took questions in a lengthy session with reporters. Hoke, in what was an unusual call for a head coach – typically the “face” of football at major universities, if not the face of the school itself – did not answer questions.

This resulted in hours upon hours of talk radio chatter and two separate columns in the Detroit Free Press (here and here) analyzing why Brandon, not Hoke, has become the lead spokesman for Michigan Football. There’s no question that Brandon has seized the spotlight since the former player returned to campus as athletic director. He high-fives players on the sidelines in front of the cameras, is known to look over the coaches’ shoulders while they review film, has appeared in multiple Big Ten Network documentaries and even called into a radio show Friday morning, more than an hour before the Nussmeier press conference, to talk about the hire. Brandon is being called a “puppeteer” and worse in traditional media.

There is understandable upside in putting Brandon out in front, at least to some extent. While Hoke’s strengths as a communicator seem to be much stronger one-on-one and internally, rather than externally, Brandon is a skilled and passionate spokesman. He’s also active on Twitter and is insightful on his blog.

While I don’t know Brandon personally, experience shows situations like this are often results of egos that demand control and attention. Rather than this being the result of PR counsel in action, experience shows this is more likely a plan set from the top of the organization.

Regardless of the reasons behind why this is happening, the fact that this is happening can not be positive for the University. An organization’s PR approach should never become the story. When a PR strategy is working, it happens almost invisibly. While Michigan Athletics is examining its offense on the football field, this is also a good time to explore how it plays offense with PR (at least until the football team starts winning like it used to).

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