The Times West Virginian

April 24, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: NCAA football is thriving in the digital age

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — The other day Baylor football coach Art Briles walked into his graduate assistants’ office and had to laugh at what he saw.

“There’s five guys sitting in there — a couple of GA’s and some office personnel — and they all are within a foot and a half of each other and not a one of them is talking to each other,” Briles said, describing the scene “Every one of them is on the phone.”

It hit Briles then that he is now officially existing in a new world.

 “What did we do in 1980?” Briles said, when asked about the subject in the recent Big 12 post-spring practice coaches conference call. “I guess back then you had to look at each other and talk. That’s just the way the world is now, though.

 “That’s where we live. That’s what we do. That’s how we communicate.”

 And yes, Briles said, he’s active on the social media.

 But, then again, isn’t everyone?

 Believe me, Paul Brown would roll over in his grave if he saw where the football world that he mostly invented had come.

 And Vince Lombardi, went ahead and perfected the world Brown invented, he, too, would be doing flips.

 The Internet and through it social media has changed the world of football, especially on the college level and as new, young coaches continue to come into the game, it’s effect can only grow and widen.

 Take what happened at Texas Tech in its last practice before its spring game, which drew a record crowd.

 Young Kliff Kingsbury, the coach, had this idea that would help his theory of “the more we can publicize Texas Tech the better it is.”

 At the close of the final practice he gathered his players around as if they were going to play “Bull in the Ring” but, instead, what he had up his sleeve was a dance off.

 That’s right, Texas Tech players going one-on-one in dance contest that culminated with him, tearing off his practice shirt to reveal a shirt that read “TOO TURNT UP” as he went head-to-head dancing against one of his players to the “Stanky Legg”.

 All of it, of course, was being videoed and put online.

 “The dance off did pretty well, from what I hear,” Kingsbury said.

 Translation, it got through to recruits everywhere that this might be a fun place to play football.

 That is one of the reasons Kingsbury makes such extensive use of the Internet and social media.

 “Letting recruits know what we’re about and what the university is like. We have our players on Instagram. It’s good for the fans. They feel like they know our kids better than they ever have and cheer for them on Saturdays,” he said.

 That, he feels, along with the free flowing, high-scoring game college football has evolved into is why popularity for the game is soaring.

 “A lot of it has to do with the inside looks the fans are getting with these teams and kids. The kids are Tweeting out on a daily basis. They feel that relationship with them. That has helped our game. They feel they know them,” Kingsbury said.

 At West Virginia, the use of social media and Internet had its roots in a meeting five or six years ago that was put together by WVU associate vice-president for university relations operations Tricia Petty, who gathered the athletic department to talk about social media.

 “None of us at the time knew much about it. I didn’t have a Facebook page. I didn’t have Twitter. She kind of opened our eyes to what was happening,” said John Antonik, now the athletic department’s director of new media.

 That meeting laid the groundwork and they begin digging in, using it for recruiting purposes at first.

 “That was obviously a way to contact kids. We’re going to go where the eyeballs are. That’s natural,” Antonik explained.

 But like social media, the involvement took off like a Homer Hickman rocket.

 “Today we have a Facebook page for every one of our sports,” Antonik said. “Now, anything we put on our website goes on those pages.”

 The explosion was such that it actually forced a change in the approach WVU took.

 “It used to be we were using the website to attract people to the Facebook pages. Well, now we are using the Facebook pages to bring people back to our website.” Antonik said.

 Just how has it grown?

 “I keep track each month how many likes we have, how many followers we have,” Antonik said, searching his files. “For instance, the football page has 154,547 likes and men’s basketball has 54,261 likes. Compare that to the university which has 209,996 likes for the entire university Facebook page ‘It’s Proud to be a Mountaineer’.”

 As it is at other schools, the coaches have input, usually depending upon their interest level in social media, on their sports pages.

 At Oklahoma State, for example, head football coach Mike Gundy is deeply into social media on all levels.

 “I’m very active. I’m involved in orchestrating and starting the in-house services not only in recruiting but in marketing. At Oklahoma State we have to do everything possible to keep people involved and be on the cutting edge of everything new,” he said.

 “It keeps our fans involved. They get to know some of the coaches and some of the players. There are so many people out there on the social networking sites now. We are trying to bring people closer to use and what better way than to use our social networking resources?”

 WVU is very much the same, with any number of ways of reaching its fans both through ticket and merchandise sales, which is handled by Nathaniel Zinn, and information, which is Antonik’s bailiwick.

 Game stories, features, video interviews, rosters, statistics … it’s all there and it all cross promotes.

 The coaches have their own Twitter handles and some have Facebook pages, the idea being to inform and interact with the fan base.

 “It helps us get better,” Antonik said. “We look and see what the responses are. It’s a guide for us to gauge what our fans are thinking.”

 Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.