Fair warning — at around 2,600 words, this article is extremely long.
A topic that is often discussed among Georgia Tech fans, both on this site and elsewhere, is the quality of recruiting being done by Paul Johnson’s staff to his Yellow Jackets’ team. More specifically, often the discussion involves some unrest with regards to the staff’s efforts, varying anywhere from discontent to downright disapproval. There are complaints about the amount of local talent that the Yellow Jackets aren’t acquiring, about the recruiting rankings being decidedly average-to-below-average among Power-5 peers, and about the lack of accolades being given to the recruits that Georgia Tech does sign. While there may be several reasons for these perceived shortcomings, there are a lot of things that make Georgia Tech different from the schools it’s recruiting against. Most of those will never change, but there’s one way that they’re different and have total power to change — the program’s branding, including its relationship with Russell Athletic.
There are several pieces to Georgia Tech’s recruiting pitch (both good and bad) that are often brought up. Those who think the staff’s recruiting leaves something to be desired will harp on the fact that the Flats are home to a world-class degree that will set players up to be successful in life after football, are found in the middle of an exciting southern city with all sorts of local attractions and activities, and compete with some of the nation’s very best year-in and year-out as a member of the ACC. Some of the coaching staff’s apologists love to remind those detractors that Georgia Tech is a very tough school with very high admissions standards, a narrow academic focus, and doesn’t offer the allure of playing in the SEC (as so many top-notch local recruits have expressed a desire to do). Regardless of which side any given fan falls on, they can all agree on one thing — these are things that will never change unless the Institute elects to completely change its identity. (That’s not an actual possibility either, for what it’s worth.)
Maybe the perceived recruiting shortcomings are the fault of the coaches not working hard enough, or not pitching Georgia Tech in the proper way. I personally don’t think that’s the case, and let’s pretend for a second that it’s not. Instead of blaming the coaches or focusing on the non-negotiables of Georgia Tech’s recruiting pitch, let’s focus for a second on a big piece of that recruiting pitch that can be improved. Let’s focus on one area in particular where the Georgia Tech Athletic Department falls far, far short of even reaching the bar (much less raising it) with something 100% under its own control, and sees its recruiting efforts suffer for it.
Let’s talk about the branding of Georgia Tech’s football program.
Earlier this month, the Michigan Wolverines officially made their transition from using Adidas for all of their athletic wear and apparel, to using Nike — their “Jumpman” brand, specifically. Along with that came all-new uniforms, apparel, and a full-on party celebrating the switch. Their players seemed awfully excited about the switch, and its resulting new uniforms (including new Jumpman cleats). Earlier this off-season, Wisconsin did the exact same when they switched from Adidas to Under Armour as their primary athletic wear provider. The Badgers’ players were similarly excited about the new uniforms accompanying the switch to Under Armour.
These events have become commonplace over the past few years as teams have changed providers, but have also taken place regularly for no reason beyond displaying the teams’ new uniforms for the season, even when the uniforms have no significant changes from the previous year. Regardless of the nature of these events, they’re all focused on the school’s brand, and they market the programs to the teams’ fan bases. They drive sales of apparel and tickets, and they build excitement in fans about the coming season. That excitement from fans translates to a growing fan base, as well as an excited group of current players and potential recruits.
...Not Being Followed
Basically every Power-5 program around the country is doing something to drive excitement within their fan bases and among their players. Hell, even Purdue got new uniforms this offseason that its players and fans are excited about.
Then, there’s Georgia Tech.
As it stands, the Yellow Jackets remain the only Power-5 program in the country using Russell Athletic as its official provider of athletic wear. They’re joined by only three other FBS programs in that respect, as well as the Arena Football League, the Harlem Globetrotters, and Little League Baseball. I mean no disrespect to a really fun indoor football league, the world’s most entertaining basketball team, or anyone’s children, but that’s not exactly the kind of exclusive company that a Power-5 athletic program should be aiming to keep.
Oh, and I should probably mention that, as we approach mid-August, there’s still been no mention or inkling of what Georgia Tech’s uniforms will look like this fall. That, despite the changes that have happened between each of the past several seasons, without fail, and are sure to happen again from 2015 to 2016. Even at last weekend’s Fan Day, the players were wearing their jerseys from 2015. That’s hardly what I’d call drumming up excitement in the lead-up to the season.
While the remainder of their athletic peers sport popular brands with exciting uniform releases and popular, aesthetically-pleasing apparel, Georgia Tech finds itself working with a group best-known for outfitting minor-league football players and middle school baseball players, with no particularly accessible or impressive apparel to be found. A quick look at Fanatics, which is quickly becoming the internet’s largest and most popular retailer of sports apparel, shows that Russell Athletic is the manufacturer for a paltry 22 items currently for sale under the Georgia Tech banner — including all styles of apparel, for both men and women. Compare that to Clemson, for whom Nike has 167 items for sale, or Auburn, for whom Under Armour has 241 items for sale. Even simple things, like replica jerseys? The options are really pretty embarrassing. All of that, not to mention that the Yellow Jackets find themselves doing so as a result of a contract that pays them $2.3 million per year, second-worst among ACC teams and 47th nationally of 65 Power-5 programs.
Brand Issues are Internal, Too
Maybe the worst part of all of this isn’t the remainder of the 10-year contract with Russell Athletic that Georgia Tech is stuck with through the 2017-2018 athletic seasons, but the lack of attention paid to brand by the Institute itself, regardless of who’s providing its uniforms. The official colors for things like uniforms, apparel, and documentation, the depiction of Buzz, even the font used when writing out “Georgia Tech” is a total inconsistent crapshoot. That’s nothing recent, either. In fact, it’s a problem that’s been in place for years -- decades, even. It’s not even anything that has just recently been noticed for the first time — you may have read this already, but this article from 2012 points out the top-to-bottom flawed nature of the current brand before laying out a potential branding option for the Institute. I saw another article recently that once again points out the total mess that is the athletic department’s branding efforts before offering another solution, along with examples of what that solution might look like in practice. (Unfortunately I couldn’t find a date on that article, so I don’t have any perspective on when it was written.)
So, here we sit, nearly 4.5 years after the initial article criticizing Georgia Tech’s poor branding efforts was written in 2012 — a few months prior to my taking the position as manager of this humble site. In the time since, the biggest move to fix these issues was an email sent in July 2015 by then-Assistant AD for Media Relations Chris Yandle informing the general media that there was only one acceptable logo to use in reference to Georgia Tech’s teams. The logo has become consistent since then on things like TV broadcasts, but is nowhere to be found on a simple Google Images search for “Georgia Tech logo”. That logo remains contested even on the school’s webpage specifically calling out its branding preferences, while the school’s official colors are listed as White and “Buzz Gold” just below -- with “Old Gold” being denoted as a secondary color, century-old school traditions be damned.
Petty? Perhaps. Important? Absolutely.
So, we’ve established that Georgia Tech’s branding is inconsistent and underwhelming at best, no thanks to its deal with Russell Athletic and its own internal lack of attention to the matter. Obviously, there are problems present.
Still, you may be thinking, “So what? What does any of this matter? At the end of the day, Georgia Tech is still a great school with an attractive football program in a great city. Branding shouldn’t matter.”
In a sense, you’d be right — at its core, Georgia Tech will always be a world-class institution in an awesome city with a high-profile football program, regardless of the status of its brand. The lack of a strong, cohesive, defining brand will never devalue what Georgia Tech is as an institution, or what its students gain in attendance.
That said, this is where the issue ties back into recruiting.
Having a strong, consistent, attractive brand is the difference between making the school and program seem “cool” and otherwise. It’s the difference between drumming up interest and public support, and seeming like that obscure team that runs a weird offense. It’s the kind of thing that turned a school like Oregon into a recruiting and on-field powerhouse. Now, again, you may be thinking that this doesn’t matter or isn’t a big deal — Georgia Tech is surely seen as a relatively “cool” place to go and play football in the eyes of the nation’s high school players, right?
You’d be wrong.
Back in May, Pick Six Previews surveyed 100 uncommitted sophomore and junior high school football players on their opinions on uniforms. When prompted with “Uniforms have a great impact on my perception of a team,” 72 recruits responded “Moderately True” or “Very True”, while only 11 responded “Very False”. Some other results were:
- When prompted with “A school’s uniform will impact my college decision,” 55 recruits responded with “Moderately False” or “Very False”, while 33 recruits responded with “Moderately True” or “Very True”. (There was also the option to respond with N/A, which in this case included 12 athletes.)
- The recruits were asked to rate the four major providing brands on how “cool” they were. The averages were: Nike (9.5), Adidas (8.1), Under Armour (7.9), and Russell Athletic (2.9).
- Of the three teams most frequently named as having the best uniforms, none of them (Oregon, Baylor, TCU) are traditional football powers, but each have had very high levels of success recently in both recruiting and on-field results.
- Georgia Tech came in #4 on the “worst uniforms” prompt, behind Alabama, Penn State, and Maryland (which was also tied for fourth on ‘best uniforms’).
- The 22 teams receiving votes for “best uniforms” averaged 8.86 wins in 2015, while the 29 teams receiving votes for “worst uniforms” averaged only 6.5 wins in 2015.
So, while there’s somewhat conflicting suggestions among that data, it generally points towards the fact that branding matters for recruits, and that Georgia Tech is specifically doing a very poor job of it.
“But Joey, if a player is really concerned about what kinds of uniforms the team is wearing, they’re probably not the type of player we want at Georgia Tech anyways.”
Perhaps not, but look back at the data presented above — 72% of recruits say that uniforms affect their perceptions of a team, while only 33% of those recruits say that uniforms will impact their college decisions. What’s that tell you? It tells me that, while uniforms will hardly ever seal the deal for coaches trying to recruit players, they can often times be a good “lowest common denominator” way to get a foot in the door, establish some common ground, and get the players’ attention to begin with. In other words, it may not be the basis of their decision, but it at least can help to put Georgia Tech in the discussion.
So what’s the point?
To tie this up, it goes back to recruiting. We established early in this article that there are several core pieces to Georgia Tech’s recruiting pitch that any coach will be able to use, and which are “non-negotiable” pieces of the Institute’s identity. While they don’t always make the recruiting job easier, those things are a simple reality and out of the control of any coach.
That said, there are other pieces of a recruiting pitch, such as how “cool” a program or school seems, that are very much under the control of the school and athletic department. For Georgia Tech to not be making the very most of that piece, and instead be botching it entirely at an institutional level, is absolutely infuriating to me as an alumnus of the school and fan of its teams. (I can only imagine what it does to the individuals whose salaries partially depend on their ability to recruit to such a school.) There is far too much potential going to waste because of something so simple and controllable as the school’s poor branding.
That’s the million-dollar question.
Georgia Tech’s contract with Russell Athletic expires in the summer of 2018, about two years away. Until then, I wouldn’t expect to see the Institute make any big, sweeping changes to what it’s doing from a branding standpoint. The issues presented here will continue on in the mean time, likely with minimal improvement.
That said, when the contract with Russell Athletic does expire, all indications are that the Yellow Jackets will move to one of the other “Big 3” providers — Adidas, Nike, or Under Armour. The morning of this year’s spring football game, some radio discussion turned into rampant social media rumors and reports that Georgia Tech had struck a deal with Under Armour. While untrue, it prompted a response from former Athletic Director Mike Bobinski that effectively acknowledged the issues that the Russell Athletic partnership is creating for his programs with regards to recruiting. In essence, Bobinski said everything that he could without directly saying “we’ll be done with Russell Athletic at the first chance that we get”.
Now, with the developments earlier this week that have Bobinski headed to Purdue, a new Athletic Director will be hired in the coming months. In his or her first two years, they’ll be given the opportunity to help shape the future of the school’s programs by reevaluating the Russell Athletic partnership and hopefully moving in a different direction. That said, expect a long-awaited change by 2018, and hope that the change comes along with a full-on rebranding effort from the Institute as a whole. Until then, it’ll most likely just be more of the same.
For fans to have an impact on this process, I’d recommend emailing the individual selected as Athletic Director once that announcement is made, expressing opinions on the Russell Athletic partnership and the other options available. In the mean time, for anyone hoping to get involved in pushing for an improvement in Georgia Tech’s branding, I’d recommend emailing Brett Daniels (firstname.lastname@example.org), the school’s Deputy Director of Athletics whose previous role with the Dallas Cowboys heavily involved the team’s branding efforts. If nothing else, Daniels can point you in the right direction for your feedback.