CHAMPAIGN — With the arrival of a new head coach comes a chance to unveil a new slogan.
That’s why atop the new University of Illinois football poster — the one with new coach Tim Beckman surrounded by 10 players — are the words, “Dawn of a New Era.”
And that’s why the winning entry in the university’s contest to pick a slogan for use on official T-shirts is “A New Era BECKons!”
I’ve been thinking about how one might market this 2012 Illini football team, a version we might call Beckman 1.0. And I have to say it’s a daunting task for any marketing group because there’s just not much to hang those orange and blue hopes on.
Tim Beckman seems like a very nice guy. He looks good in a visor. And he overflows with positive energy.
But he lacks the proven pedigree to suggest game-changing offensive fireworks (he’s not his former boss, Urban Meyer) or the natural excitement to make fans want to start tearing down goal posts (he’s not P.T. Barnum, or even Lou Holtz).
It’s always helpful when there’s a returning quarterback and Illinois has that in third-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase. This is a terrific kid, a model citizen and a text book team leader. He’s a good student, a hard-worker and he’s a willing subject with the media. In short, he’s a very, very marketable commodity.
But in a world that rewards big arms, he’s best known for his big heart and big legs. He’s a running quarterback who can also throw, but the combination won’t have him on any preseason Heisman Trophy lists.
Illinois had a genuine star a year ago in Whitney Mercilus, who won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s best defensive end. He was a quarterback sack machine who forced fumbles and raised hell. But he’ll be hearing his name called rather early in the NFL draft next week, so the marketing team can’t latch onto Mercilus, either.
It’s possible that another defensive end, Michael Buchanan, will pick up where Mercilus left off. He had 4.5 sacks in the spring game last weekend and looks poised for a breakout year. But no one wants to market potential.
And then there’s the schedule.
Illinois is confronted by a seven-game home schedule that has an attendance average of 45,000 written all over it.
It’s just not real attractive.
How many fans are going to come out for the season opener against Western Michigan? Or for Week 3 against Charleston Southern? Or to see Louisiana Tech?
Who cares if Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech might be very, very competitive? People don’t willingly give up their autumn Saturdays to see opponents they’ve never heard of.
Even the Big Ten home schedule is pretty dreadful.
On Sept. 29, it’s Penn State, and that’s the unquestioned highlight. But in the past, the price of a Penn State ticket could always be justified by knowing you’d get a peek at legendary coach Joe Paterno.
Not anymore, of course. With JoePa’s passing, and with the horrific scandal that rocked State College last year, comes sweeping change.
Quick: Name the new Penn State head football coach.
Don’t feel bad. Even some of the Penn State players probably forget that his name is Bill O’Brien.
The homecoming game on Oct. 27 is against Indiana. Illinois-Indiana in basketball is something fans will stand in line to see. But in football? Not unless they’re giving away sweatshirts and free footballs on a sunny, 70-degree day.
On Nov. 10 – Dad’s Day – the opponent is Minnesota. And on Nov. 17, for the home finale, it’s Purdue. We’ll see, but don’t count on any advance sales.
I once asked AD Mike Thomas about marketing the football team and he agreed there’s a time and a place for a marketing component. But he quickly pointed out that the only tried and true marketing tool is a winning football team. So the best hope for a spike in attendance as the 2012 season moves along is for Beckman’s first team to pile up some wins early, hold on tight during consecutive road games at Wisconsin and Michigan, then resume their winning ways down the stretch.
Unfortunately, with paper-thin depth, a key injury or two could torpedo that plan. I’m just not sure it can happen.
That’s why my marketing slogan makes more sense.
I’m going with, “Good seats available!”