Do you want to be good? Be unique.
It’s the off-season – a time of growth for college coaches – and everyone is thinking about ways to make their program better. That’s what college coaches do. It’s a profession built on self-reflection and adaptation.
And this year when sports return, countless teams will be Chopping Wood and Transforming the Coffee Bean. They’ll be asking their Athletics Communications for a social media graphics package “just like” Dayton’s basketball team. Maybe even a few of them will be bringing back the Triangle Offense after watching The Last Dance.
There have never been more learning opportunities. Working from home, the availability of webinars, the time to read books and articles, and even our peers willing to jump on the phone for a few minutes, have provided us all with outstanding resources for personal and programatic growth. It’s a great time for everyone wanting to be a better coach.
But remember, after you take all those ideas and adapt them to fit your program, nothing provides the impact of being unique.
Especially in recruiting!
The buzzword in college athletics right now is “brand.” Coaches and players, alike, are focused on developing personal and program brands that speak to who they are and what they represent.
You see it driving the conversation around NIL – Name, Image, and Likeness. You see it in National Signing Day announcements – complete with personalized videos and individualized logos designed for each signee. You see it as Division I teams, looking to satisfy their athletes’ need for recognition and status, rush to work with Jeremy Darlow, a leading brand consultant and former director of marketing at Adidas.
Brand matters because it drives perception and recruiting is all about creating the perception that you are the right program for them and you are better than their other options. Positive perception drives interest, breaks ties, and leads to better players.
A strong brand speaks for you, even when you’re not talking. Like a great recruiting story, it tells everyone how they should think about you.
However, building that brand takes a lot of work. It takes time – and you want to be good now. So, if you’re looking for a place to start – start with unique.
There’s magic in being unique because unique is memorable. It stands out amongst the general sameness of college athletics recruiting where too many coaches struggle to define the thing that makes them different and desirable.
We’ve shared a lot of articles on the power of distinct messages and you can easily find more resources with a quick search of marketing theories on the web. I recently read economist Sherwin Rosen’s take on the “Superstar Effect” which highlights the disproportionate gap between the BEST and the slightly less talented, the very good. The argument states that in an effort to catch the best, most individuals become mired in the status quo. Lacking the ability to standout, they fall behind. In Rosen’s study, the gap displays itself in wealth. In recruiting, that gap is measured in perception.
Your take-away should be – if you want to catch the leaders, you can’t do it by simply copying them. The only program who should be recruiting like Alabama football, is Alabama football.
The players you’re recruiting love unique. The parents of the players you’re recruiting love unique. They want you to capture their attention. They want to know what they can brag to their friends about. When they choose you, they want their choice to feel special and different from their other options. Unique works.
In fact, from 2003 to 2008 I worked at the infamous college that prided itself on having re-painted the entire campus purple. A simple rule, if it could be purple, it was. The President called it “color discipline.”
There was purple soap in the bathrooms, purple rock salt in the winter, and lawns cut by purple John Deere tractors, whose painting was rumored to invalidate the warranty.
And it was crazy, but then it wasn’t. It was memorable – reflecting a sense of pride, providing immediate differentiation to all campus visitors, and driving the conversation among families on their drive home – and it drastically improved enrollment numbers.
Think about what makes you unique. Here, it was a commitment to using a single color, font, or logo in all written and visual communications that immediately strengthened the brand. For you it can be an idea – of something your program does that your competitors do not. Maybe it’s part of your game experience, how you design practice, or your approach to leadership and development. It can be your style of play, how you train, or what you look for as you evaluate.
It just has to be yours.
When it’s yours, you need to own it and share it. Be purposeful in how you deliver the message. Make the connections about why it matters for them. Find the right language, the right images, to highlight it as part of a compelling story. Tell them on the phone, in text, by email and in person – hopefully, when they can visit. Repetition is good.
The late Jerry Garcia – lead guitarist and vocals of the Grateful Dead – once said of his motivations, “you do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only one who does what you do.”
Instead of chasing the next great idea, chase a simple one. Be perceived as unique. And in recruiting, perception is everything!
Be Distinct. Be Different!
Paul Nemetz-Carlson has taken is career as a college coach and operations director and put it to work with coaches who are looking for guidance on developing the right unique message to get better responses sooner from top recruits. To contact Paul with questions or advice, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.