WVU Football: Marketing team has work to do sans stars
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia's football team starts answering questions next week at the Big 12 media days in Dallas. Actions then speak louder than words when practice begins Aug. 1. There's plenty for the Mountaineers to discuss and demonstrate before the season opener at home Aug. 31 against William & Mary.
Yet the unknowns aren't limited to Coach Dana Holgorsen and his coaches and players as WVU deals with the obvious issues stemming from losses on offense and defense.
There's an equally apparent and no less critical problem for other people in the athletic department. How in the world does WVU market these Mountaineers?
"I think this is one of those unique years where you don't have that clear-cut front-runner to be the so-called face of the team," said Matt Wells, WVU's associate athletic director for sports marketing.
It's probably been nine years since the Mountaineer started a season without valuable name recognition adorning preseason posters and publications. That 2004 season ended with WVU winning the Sugar Bowl against Georgia and Pat White and Steve Slaton beginning a string of recognizable offensive, defensive and special teams players that would grow to include All-America and all-conference picks, major award winners, NFL players and early-round draft picks and even highlight reel and folk heroes.
The outlook is different before the 2013 season. Watch lists for nine individual awards were released last week and the Mountaineers had just one player included. That player, though, is Charles Sims, a transfer running back from the University of Houston who made the watch list for the Maxwell Award given annually to the national player of the year.
Sophomore safety Karl Joseph was named WVU's defensive MVP last season, made a few freshman All-America teams and was voted honorable mention all-conference by the media, though not the coaches. He wasn't on the Jim Thorpe Award watch list for the nation's top defensive back.
Left tackle Quinton Spain and defensive end Will Clarke will accompany Holgorsen and Joseph to the league's media days next week. Of the remaining six watch lists what will be revealed this week, the only one they could make is for the Rotary Lombardi Award for the nation's best lineman. That seems like a long shot, as do WVU's chances to have a name on watch lists for the nation's best quarterback and receiver.
Sims again could help with perceptions by making the Doak Walker list for best running back or the Walter Camp list for the most outstanding player.
Granted, there isn't much attention given to the preseason lists for obvious reasons and the Mountaineers may have players who step forward to fill the absences that exist right now. But right now, on the cusp of the season that follows the underwhelming Big 12 debut, they make a point. What WVU does not have is what Wells has to work with as he and his staff use names, faces and popularity, among many other things, to appeal to the ticket-buying, stadium-filling, jersey-wearing masses.
"You can't say there's a cookie cutter for how we do what we do," Wells said. "We do step back in the winter and after the spring and look at the roster and look at the way the coaching staff is approaching the coming season and what they're working with. Sometimes it's players on the team and sometimes it's what's going on inside the program and how we can tie that to the community.
"Anytime you can have synergy with the program, the team, the coaches, the (sports information) office, the marketing office, and everyone can be on the same page, that's where you can find success."
Holgorsen and his staff have been working with this reality for a while now. They, as much as anyone else, know Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are gone. They think they've recruited high school and junior college players who can be stars on offense, defense and even special teams, but they know it can take time, whether those players have been here for a year or two or if they're just arriving.
As they've waited, they've planned and tried to foster a different sort of identity. WVU spent all of the winter conditioning program and spring football working on its "T.E.A.M" mantra. The acronym stands for Toughness, Effort, Attitude, Mountaineer Mentality. It's been anchored to what WVU means to the state and what the state ought to mean to the Mountaineers.
"We've taken different aspects in terms of what this program is about and who we are," Holgorsen said in the spring. "We want to embrace different traditions, understand the past and learn about this great state. We want to educate them. How are all of our young kids going to understand about it unless we educate them about it?"
Wells said that creating collective identity fans can relate to can be just as attractive as having individual identities, which means it's no less beneficial to Wells.
"When you have three guys like Geno, Tavon and Stedman, it becomes pretty apparent who you can hang your hat on and who you can put out front," he said. "Maybe this is more of a blue-collar team that doesn't have as many established stars, so to speak, but has players who combine to do some of the things people are accustomed to seeing. Then we can capitalize on having some marquee names.
"Or maybe you pull back and do something more team oriented and you have something unique, like our new set of uniforms. Maybe those are the things that become the new things we hang our hat on and what drives our marketing and promotional campaigns."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.