On Thursday in The Bronx, something happened that is almost as rare these days as finding a bipartisan agreement on the health care debate, or a fully healthy opening day lineup for the Mets. Fordham University, long on tradition and short on recent basketball success, won a recruiting battle not for a student athlete, but for a coach. A coach who, because Fordham operated quickly, smartly and efficiently, was being introduced at Rose Hill while two college neighbors struggle between the need for an efficient and successful quality leader and the lure of a big time, big bucks savior to lead their programs also back from the depths of despair. So while Fordham secured former Hofstra coach Tom Pecora to lead them out of a 17 year drought, the search for St. John's and Seton Hall goes on.
This past two weeks has seen a unique yin and yang of college brand strategy in the New York metropolitan area. Seton Hall fired coach Bobby Gonzalez for creating a renegade program (with some won/loss success) and besmirching the school's overall image, while St. John's fired head coach Norm Roberts for doing many of the things to create a quality program but not winning enough. The two schools in a Big East Conference that is now more football driven for brand and dollars than ever before face a very difficult question, both on brand and finance. What is more important, can you have both, and can you find a way to justify expenses to satisfy all?
So the question is, what is the brand value in a major market today of two schools which do not have their own arenas (limiting revenue), do not have an indy TV deal (limiting revenue), do not have a huge student body (limiting revenue), do not have major, or any, football to supplement hoops success and marketing (limiting revenue), yet want to retain a big name coach that will help "restore tradition" (big salary, losing revenue)? Tough spot to be in with today's challenged economy. The two programs are also limited by the myth that one has to be in New York to finally be a "success." One only has to look at this past year's Super Bowl, or the mega star that LeBron James is with the Cleveland Cavaliers, or the brand value of someone like Peyton Manning or even Jeff Gordon, to realize that in today's 24/7, all access, telegenic, social media inspired world that your physical location does not matter...it is how you drive and build your brand that does. Now it DOES matter if you are in fashion or finance or even entertainment. Success in New York is needed, as this is where your peers are. For sports, that is not true, and the pressure to win here, along with all the distractions, will make that expectation even more difficult. Professional teams can spend the money to provide all the ancillary support to at least make a run at New York success, but can two mid-sized, budget and revenue limited Catholic colleges do so? And for that matter, why do they have to? Also, what is the model of success that these two schools are trying to emulate? Is there one?
On the cost side, the amount of money being mentioned for a "name" coach may be without peer for basketball. It is hard to find a major market, or even mid-major market, where there is a University that does not have football as a generator that will pour such dollars into a collegiate hire. Maybe Georgetown? Xavier (no NBA competition)? Marquette (long standing tradition and very smart marketing spends to make it work)? The College of Charleston? There certainly is no parallel in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston or even Philadelphia (where the non-football Big Five schools, LaSalle and St. Joe's, have their own ups and downs and do not draw the numbers that their football playing brethren do...even with Villanova and Penn in 1-AA). So what is the upside in value and revenue for SJU and Seton Hall, the schools which DO have brand value in name and alumni? Will it outweigh the cost and can the cost be justified?
One of the key factors to watch will be whether the heads of search, who did a very good job as mentioned in controlling and managing the message in the dismissals, do the same in controlling and managing the message to all when the hire is made. The expectations are very high for both now, and both schools have reached a point where a decision in direction can effect careers, salaries and even enrollment for the future more than ever. Yes there is a chance for success for both, probably not to reach the heights of the past but to build a solid brand for the long term with managed costs, new brand marketing and a fun and successful atmosphere. The key will be in how the story is told, and conveyed, and how well the buy in for the brand will go.
Thursday Fordham clearly scored a victory. For Seton Hall and St. John's, the search goes on, with the victory for a hoops leader and a turnaround in brand growth still in the distance.