Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Top Nine Brands of College Football

With the first full spate of NCAA 2010 games in the books, I’d like to celebrate the anticipated return of the world’s greatest sport by combining my professional and personal obsessions: branding and college football.

But why top nine and not ten? Because, as a massive Ohio State fan, it’s only fair I exclude my Buckeyes from the list (otherwise they’d win hands-down and that’s hardly objective). I could extol the virtues of the OSU brand for hours — and I probably will in this blog sometime soon — but it’s also fun and enlightening to discuss other successful programs too.

So instead of replacing Ohio State with another school, I leave one spot vacated in their honor. Kind of like the Heisman Trust is about to do with the 2005 Trophy.

Now then, what makes a brand great? Why are Coca-Cola and IBM always at the top of the list, year in and year out? Because they excel at what we call the Three Cs of Branding: Clarity, Consistency, and Constancy.

Just so we’re on the same page, here are the Three Cs as defined in the Brand Strategy section of my site:

Clarity — In everything you do, internally and externally, be just as clear about what the brand promises as what it doesn’t. Your messages reinforce one idea, stated candidly, with no room for misinterpretation.

Consistency — A different set of Three C’s applies here: compromise + contradiction = confusion. Do not waiver in your plan. Stay the course or the brand will get lost, guaranteeing an uncertain audience. Experiencing the same things time and time again breeds instant recall, and that's what we're here to earn. Translation: if no one remembers you, you never existed.

Constancy — Otherwise known as frequency. Every other brand (or team), both inside your vertical (or sport) and out, is working hard every moment to take your place. Keep at it no matter what.

This means that a reliably high-quality product (long heritage of winning games and championships — both conference and national — as well as individual player hardware and the behavior of the coaching staff) represented in a unique, memorable way (helmet/uniform design, mascot, colors, traditions) comprise a great college football marque. Remember, it’s not all about wins and losses, or else this would just be a regurgitation of the all-time list of winningest teams.

In short, a brand is merely a story that’s told every time you come in contact with it. So this list is also about reputation, presentation, triumphs, failures, mythology, conflict, perseverance, broken promises, expectations, heartbreaks, and all the countless elements that make up any brand.

And with that, you’ve just elected to receive the Top Nine Brands of College Football as they stand today:

9. University of California, Los Angeles Bruins

Ah, Los Angeles — the blazing sun in an azure sky (smog notwithstanding); golden sand crowning a blue Pacific; blonde-and-blue-eyed surfer girls from Laguna Beach to Santa Monica. And the Bruins’ one-of-a-kind uniforms.

When coach Red Sanders came to UCLA for the 1949 season he changed the navy blue football uniforms to a lighter shade that would be more visible on the field and in the film room. He dubbed his creation "Powderkeg Blue," i.e., a powder blue ready to explode. Officially, UCLA has named this unique shade “True Blue.” (And if you wanna know the company line, the colors “represent blue for the ocean and gold for the California poppy, ‘The Golden State’ motto, and sunsets.” Sounds like a single’s ad.)

UCLA is one of only two programs on my list that don’t count among the top-ten winningest of all time, but as I mentioned above, wins and losses are but one ingredient — albeit an extremely important one — in a century-long recipe. The Bruins currently rank #56 all-time in wins, with a respectable but not mind-blowing .587 win percentage.

But let’s review a few of the other qualities that constitute this brand. Since 1983, their home field has been the Rose Bowl for chrimeny’s sake, home to the oldest post-season classic (and parade) in the sport, the Granddaddy of Them All. Ever been to a game there? It is just so L.A. The most fun I’ve ever had despite my team losing. Bikini tops, kegs, and Frisbees abound in the pre-game parking lot, which every other day of the week is the 18th fairway of Brookside Golf Club.

The script on their helmet hasn’t changed since 1954. They’ve got a national championship and a Heisman under their belt, an NCAA-record eight consecutive bowl wins (’82 - ‘88, ‘91), and their fair share of first-rounders and hall-of-famers. The True Blue and Gold have four wins over AP number-one-ranked teams, a boast Michigan, Alabama, and Nebraska cannot make.

But in branding, elements such as consistency, differentiation, and presentation can do so much. UCLA does that in spades. They’ve stayed true to their origins and brought a genuinely cool, Californian presence to a game defined long ago by its conservative Northeastern/Midwestern roots. In other words, they’re an advertisement for their surroundings, and thus a distillation of Los Angeles itself.

They’re different from everyone else, and they simply do not deviate. Win or lose, they are to be respected. They have an aura, something which brands from every vertical just wish they had. And that’s why the Bruins come in at #9.

8. University of Miami Hurricanes

Despite coach Randy Shannon’s best efforts, changing The U’s rep from “thugs” to “hugs” will take a good chunk of time. It is possible, particularly with the rapid-fire messaging on social networks, a 24-hour news cycle, and a country known for its penchant for giving second, third, and fourth chances, but it’s gonna require a whole lot of clean wins and an even larger lot of scandal-free headlines to make that happen for good.

A relative youngster as major programs go, the University of Miami fielded its first team in 1926 but didn’t hit its stride until Howard Schnellenberger installed a pro-style, pass-heavy offense, first showcased in freshman QB Jim Kelly’s 280-yard, three-TD performance in a 26-10 upset over Penn State at Happy Valley in 1979.

With that, the American sports powers-that-be were on official notice: “This is a completely new day for you people.”

You people was what my brother, friends, and I were disparagingly called by a dozen-or-so Miami fans while we imbibed at McSorley’s here in New York the day before the Kickoff Classic, which matched the ‘Canes against Ohio State in Giants Stadium to start the ’99 season.

“You’re the establishment,” they yelled, “and we’re here to stay.”

Though it’s taking every fiber of my being at the moment, I won’t go into the epithets hurled back and forth that hazy afternoon. We were twenty-somethings caught up in the moment, and it nearly came to fisticuffs. (And that’s nothing compared to the scene in Sun Devil Stadium at the ’02 national championship, but I digress.)

Suffice it to say, one day from facing a team that’s fifth all-time in wins, has seven national championships, the most Heisman Trophies (tied), invented the helmet sticker and sleeve stripes, blah blah blah, those Miami guys simply didn’t know or care about all that.

All they knew was right now. They were disrupters, just as their team was, intent on intimidating the status quo.

From a branding perspective, that’s often our objective. By the time Miami even fielded a football team, the Buckeyes already had three undefeated seasons in the Big Ten. “Who cares about that?” they wondered aloud.

They were and may always be the definition of swagger. Before Sebastian the Ibis became famous (and I think that’s a really cool mascot, by the way) the world of college football “handed the ball to the official after a touchdown.” The Miami Hurricanes threw it into the stands.

Of course, the rapid acquisition of fame and riches often leads to less savory behavior, for which Miami’s brand is still paying. A wide variety of scandals and controversies were perhaps summarized best by the famous “Catholics vs. Convicts” game, which ended with the ‘Canes 1987 national championship dreams dashed in a 31-30 loss to eventual champ Notre Dame under the gaze of Touchdown Jesus. In true Miami form, the Golden Domers were goaded into a fistfight with their opponents in the tunnel before kickoff.

Five national championships and two Heismans later, the University of Miami is now counted among the establishment, without a doubt. An incredible record and consistent brand reinforcement have turned this little school hidden in the orange trees and green palms — what perfect and representational team colors — into a perennial recruiting and competitive juggernaut. (And I can't omit the "U" helmet design from the conversation. It's absolutely fantastic, with a minimalist composition that runs completely counter to the team's 2 Live Crew-esque reputation.)

As a college football fan, I hate ‘em thoroughly. As a brand manager, the Miami Hurricanes are a dream-come-true. They generate two emotions which translate to lots of cash and even more attention: despise and delight. Oh the marketing opportunities.

If coach Shannon has his way, we may never see the ‘Canes of old; however, as long as anyone born before, say, 1996 is involved, theirs will always be a brand that punches you in the eye, talks about yo momma, and asks no questions later.

Congratulations to the University of Miami from a graduate of Miami University, you’re the #8 best brand in college football. (And for those of you confused by what you just read, do some homework and learn about the original Miami, 116 years The U’s elder. Recognize.)

7. University of Nebraska Cornhuskers

Just how clear and confident is a sans-serif scarlet “N” and helmet stripe on a solid cream helmet? I guess some cheeseball designers out there (or rednecks that don’t understand good, clean design) might see it as boring, to which I say, “bull puckey.” As understated as anything that’s revered from the Midwest, Nebraska has remained a giant of the sport for decades and consistently looks the part.

The record books show 46 conference championships and part or all of five national championships — three of which they earned in four seasons, joining the ’46-’49 Fighting Irish as the only teams to do so. And the rivalry with Oklahoma? The stuff of legends. In the Big Eight’s 89-year history before its transformation into the Big XII, Nebraska or Oklahoma won or shared the conference title 71 times.

With so much consistent success over generations, one might expect Husker Nation to be populated by self-important pricks. On the contrary. Just as in branding, where it’s common to loathe a brand because of its fan base — the BMW and Duke Basketball brands both enjoy millions of loyalists who everyone else hates, not because of the elegant, successful, well-built object of their obsession, but because their enthusiasts actually suck as people — Nebraska fans are universally known as the nicest, most welcoming, knowledgeable folks in the game. Oh, and when the sea of scarlet pours into Lincoln on fall Saturdays, Memorial Stadium itself becomes, literally, the state’s third-largest city.

Also, like all good brands, they’ve properly extended and specialized the core offering with a sub-brand that effectively reinforces the parent brand, in their case, the dread “Blackshirt” defense. The nickname originated in the early ‘60s and continues today as a reference to the black practice jerseys worn by first-string defensive players to contrast with the red jerseys worn by the starting offense in drills. The unit was so widely feared that the name, born in scrimmage, has become synonymous with Nebraska toughness and black-n-blue grit.

The Huskers have had to weather ups and downs with product quality and perception, which happens to every single program (and brand). With Coach Pelini taking the reigns in ’08, their resurgence has been steady, culminating in one of the most exciting Big XII championship games in recent memory, with many saying that Nebraska actually deserved the “W” against Texas due to a missed call by the sideline ref as time expired. With true class, though, the Nebraska program didn’t complain, but rather, merely vowed never again to put themselves in a position such that one call, right or wrong, could lose them a game.

Typical. This is what brands steeped in excellence do — they don’t start whining, they get back to winning. And Nebraska will be back, that I guarantee. Sooner rather than later. And for all that, they claim #7 on my list of the greatest brands in college football.

6. University of Southern California Trojans

There’s a lot to talk about with this power-brand from La La Land — particularly recently — where the W column speaks loudest: #10 all-time in wins, a winning percentage of .706, six Heisman Trophies (soon to be five; we’ll get to that in a bit), 47 bowl appearances (second-most all-time), 37 Pac-10 championships, and 11 national championships.

Straight out of central casting is their recent phalanx of poster-boy quarterbacks. Marcus Allen, Lynn Swann, Charles White, Junior Seau, and the infamous O.J. Simpson have been household names for decades. Their alumni roster is a who’s-who of hall-of-famers. Hell, John Wayne played outside linebacker for the Trojans in the ‘20s (before losing his scholarship to an injury sustained bodysurfing at Newport Beach). Talk about icon power.

Its first team fielded in 1888, USC bore the nickname "Methodists" before morphing into a completely different level of fearsome rage, "Wesleyans." Then, in a turn of early branding genius, they replaced those intimidating monikers with “Trojans” in 1912 after a journalist at the LA Times coined the name due to the “terrific handicaps” suffered by the players and coaches who labored against the “overwhelming odds of better equipped rivals.” Thankfully, this one stuck. Whew, that was a close one.

What didn’t stick were those overwhelming odds against USC football. In the early ‘20s under the guidance of “Gloomy” Gus Henderson, the school’s meteoric rise began and soon placed them aloft in the rarified air of national dominance. Howard Jones (no, not that Howard Jones) took over in 1925 and proceeded to pile up the school’s first four national championships before his departure in 1940.

We all know the script for the ensuing 70 years leading to today — seven more NCAA championships and what seems like a thousand Rose Bowl wins. But there’s much more to it than that. In the short-term memory-land in which we live, the bad times tend to be eschewed in favor of the good. (Oh should the brand managers at BP be so lucky.) In the ‘80s and ‘90s, after the “golden age” under coach John McKay subsided, they dropped 13 in a row to rival Notre Dame and eight straight against cross-town rival UCLA. From 1996 to 2001 the Men of Troy posted a 37-35 overall record and no top-20 finishes for four straight years, the only time they’ve ever done so. To quote that Howard Jones, things could only get better.

Then, cue the heavenly choir. In 2000 coach Paul Hackett was replaced by Pete Carroll, a hip Northern Californian fresh from a mediocre stint in the NFL, and after a few slow seasons the Trojans returned to prominence. Hailed as a master motivator and “player’s coach,” all Carroll did was repeatedly bring the nation’s premier high school talent to Los Angeles to sign on the dotted line.

Everyone says Carroll was the world’s best recruiter, but I beg to differ. Have you ever seen the USC campus and student body on a sunny day? A headless chimpanzee could recruit five-star talent to that school. All he did was roll out the Cardinal carpet and step away from the throngs.

Which brings us to where we are today. Knowing all the above, how could I not bestow upon USC the top spot in my greatest college football brands? Because this is how branding works. They cheated and they knew it. And don’t tell me that Carroll had no idea about the sanctions. How stupid did you really think we were, sir? Saying that was an insult to the intelligence of college football fans everywhere and even more to the integrity of the game.

With all of their success, the thousands of miles of victorious headlines and ticker-tape receptions, it takes just one serious breach of trust and ethics to put a heretofore-bulletproof brand on life support. And they’re going to pay for at least a decade, not just with post-season and recruiting sanctions and possibly Reggie Bush’s Heisman forfeiture, but with parents’ distrust during recruiting visits at kitchen tables across the USA. Oh, and getting stuck with Lame Kiffin.

By naming them sixth, I’m rewarding them for the brand excellence achieved before the violations. I’m rewarding a high level of play that defined the sport, improved their conference, and populated years of Super Bowl rosters. I’m rewarding the 42-21 pasting of Alabama in 1970 that — with all six USC TDs scored by African-Americans — compelled Bear Bryant to beg his university to consider integrating. I’m giving them sixth place for sheer consistency in an elegant, distinct uniform design and a Cardinal and Gold color combination that perfectly complements autumn afternoons. I’m rewarding the Song Girls, the Trojan atop Traveler, the LA Coliseum (did your home field host the Olympics?). And yes, all the clean national championships.

One good way to judge the size and import of a college football brand is to count its rivalries. Just like Microsoft, giant marques have more than one. And while Ohio State-Michigan is widely considered the single-largest rivalry, USC has a whopping four legitimate, stadium-filling, hatred-generating annual enemies: Notre Dame, UCLA, Stanford, and Cal. I’m rewarding that, too.

SC, I know you’re not accustomed to finishing outside the Top 5, but sixth, in my opinion, is generous.

5. University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Arguably the most internationally recognized collegiate athletic program of all, the Fighting Irish finished their first season of American football in 1888 with a 1-3 record. All three losses came at the hands of Michigan (the lone W a resounding 20-0 win over that immovable force Harvard Prep). Coincidentally, that season parallels today’s total of all-time wins: Michigan has the most with 878 and the Irish are next with 846.

A key to great branding, as you can guess, is exposure. Thankfully, the frocked wizards managing the Notre Dame schedule put their heads together and figured out that losing to the same team again and again isn’t the way to build a powerhouse. At the turn of the century, with college football growing in national popularity, the school joined the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States in 1906 — which four years later became the NCAA — and soon began their winning ways, posting a 108-31-13 record by the end of 1912. (Along the way in 1909, they finally got one back against the Maize and Blue, 11-3, after which point Michigan refused to play them for 33 years.)

Jesse Harper took the head coach’s whistle from 1913 to 1917 and put up 34 wins, five losses, and a tie — and in doing so cemented annual rivalries that continue today with Michigan State and Army. What happened next was a stroke of genius that many programs to this day have trouble accepting. Coach Harper scheduled national giants Texas, Penn State, and the aforementioned Army in the same season. Notre Dame stunned Army 35-13 and made headlines across the country with long forward passes from QB Gus Doraine to end Knute Rockne. That one game, a beatdown of the heavily favored Black Knights, is credited with the establishment of the passing game. And that, friends, is the way you launch a brand.

In one season, Notre Dame went from a nowhereville program to national innovator, with a daring offensive scheme and even more audacious barnstorming schedule taking on the big boys from coast to coast.

Next came former Irish player Knute Rockne to coach the Fighting Irish to six national championships, five undefeated seasons, Four Horsemen, and the highest winning percentage of any NCAA football coach in history (.881). So overt was Irish dominance under Rockne that the brand was catalyzed exponentially by two seismic events in relative rapid succession. The first was the coach’s final game, which saw him lead a group of Notre Dame All Stars against a professional team, the New York Giants, in Yankee Stadium to raise funds for the needy of New York City amid the Great Depression. Just think about that for a second: a college team going up against the pros to raise money for charity. If you weren’t a fan of any college team before that day, you were a Notre Dame fanatic afterward.

Then, a decade later came the release of the box-office smash Knute Rockne: All American, which memorialized his “Win one for the Gipper” speech, delivered at halftime before Notre Dame mounted a stunning comeback victory against top-ranked Army. No one knows for sure if those famous words were Rockne’s, or if the speech even happened. In branding, that rarely matters. Perception is reality, and perceived it was, for generations to come. (Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency helped ensure that; Reagan played the role of “The Gipper” in the movie. A brand can’t PAY for that kind of coincidence. Luck of the Irish in the house.)

One might argue that this was the dawn of branded entertainment. I mean, a whole movie about a brand — in this case, a college football brand — that tugged at heartstrings and permanently entered the American lexicon? It’s as if Rocky were a movie about a Chevy instead of a boxer. How bright the brand equity halo would shine over that bowtie logo.

What couldn’t be argued was that by now, playing football for Notre Dame was the dream of nearly every high school player (and his parents). And because UND is a Catholic university, they enjoyed a direct pipeline from every Catholic high school in the country, which historically manufacture the best prep programs and players.

Not to diminish the value of what followed, but after this point, Notre Dame was expected to win. And they did. Frank Leahy won four national championships in six years, Ara Parseghian two, and Dan Devine and Lou Holtz each left with one national title. They’ve racked up 12 undefeated seasons and another ten with one loss or tie. Numbers that make you dizzy if you look at them long enough.

So why aren’t they the number one college football brand of all time? Because of the last decade and a half, that’s why. As soon as Lou Holtz walked out the door, they’ve been an embarrassing shred of the stalwart brand they once were. And it’s the administration’s fault. They’re the ones who started this carousel of six head coaches since 1996, compiling a 92-68 record (.575 win percentage). While that’s fine for other schools, Notre Dame is not just some other school.

Bob Davie was shown the door after his fifth season and a 35-25 record. The total joke of George O’Leary’s hiring and resignation — he quit five days after accepting the job for admittedly misrepresenting the academic credentials on his résumé — still echoes throughout the halls of the Comedy Cellar and the university. Tyrone Willingham, the school’s first African-American head coach, wasn’t even able to see his own recruits start their junior season; he was booted for having the same winning percentage as Davie (.583) but with two fewer years to prove anything. (This racially tinged incident was dismissed by Willingham because he’s a class act, but I don’t think anyone was satisfied with the school’s lack of response to the matter.) Charlie Weis left a record of Super Bowl-winning offensive coordination in Foxboro only to fall short of expectations in South Bend. He’d never been a head coach, never coached at the university level, and didn’t even play for Notre Dame, his alma mater. And it showed. He racked up a 35-37 record and just one bowl win.

In fact, because the brand has been exaggerated over the years and not been honest with itself, its fans or bowl committees, it continually accepted bids to bowls to get blown out by competition they had no business being on the same field with. Since 1995, the Irish have just that one bowl victory — over Hawai’I in the Hawai’I Bowl last year, putting an end to a nine-bowl losing streak. Since 1981, their post-season record is 6-13.

Notre Dame is a tremendous academic institution, but this article is about football brands. I know you can’t recruit the same kids as the other powerhouse state schools can because your admissions standards are high. You therefore forfeit the license to complain that you don’t win because of academics.

Your football brand has become the butt of jokes. You snubbed the Big Ten and remained independent, which would have required you to play teams you’d rather not lose to every year (but which would have facilitated recruiting dramatically). The last player of any consequence was Jerome Bettis. You schedule service academies, to whom you lose. The line of your seven Heismans ended with Tim Brown 23 years ago.

The real gold in your helmet paint, despite science telling us it’s impossible, has begun to oxidize, and the only thing you seem to do is fire and hire, fire and hire. Are you sure that’s Jesus signalling a touchdown behind Notre Dame stadium, or is he up in arms shouting, “What the heck’s going on here?”

I only write these things because I’m treating you as a client. You need to appreciate crisis management and the value of a reality check if you want to go back to being feared. First stop: being respected.

4. University of Michigan Wolverines

The winningest program in college football has seen better days, but like all major football brands (and brands in general), there are good times and there are bad.

And then there are horrifying nightmares that refuse to end.

The Wolverines kicked off 2007, Lloyd Carr’s final season as head coach, with the unique distinction of becoming the only Division 1 (BCS) team in the AP Top 25 ever to lose to a D-1AA (FCS) school. To add insult to the wound, the 109,218 Big House fans on hand were witness to the first instance of a top-five-ranked team dropping completely out of the AP Top 25 (they were #5) as the result of a single game. Inexplicable.

They sent Carr off on a good note however, beating #9 Florida in the Citrus Bowl (I guess all that SEC speed we hear about took a break that day.) But then another record-setting misstep. Hiring Rich Rodriguez away from West Virginia, the Maize and Blue would endure the worst record in its 129-year history in 2008, winning just three games and losing nine, including their fifth straight to arch-nemesis Ohio State.

Things are never so bad that they can’t get worse, which they did, with back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since ’62-’63 and falling under the scrutiny of the NCAA for violating the off-season eight-hour-per-week and in-season 20-hour-per-week practice limit. Later the NCAA accused the program of failing “to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program" under coach Rich Rodriguez, but not before losing their sixth in a row to rival OSU and failing to qualify for a bowl game with just five wins. And hemorrhaging scholarship players who preferred to wait a year to play somewhere else than continue in the Rich-Rod regime.

The above is why they’re #4 in my ranking — otherwise they’d be in the discussion for top brand. The magnificent history of the Michigan Wolverines (which I’ll get to in a few paragraphs) is not in question here. When disaster strikes a truly strong brand, it is bent but unbowed. When a string of mishaps becomes your calling card, turning bad to worse to worser to worst, that’s a cultural problem. I mentioned BP before. They make immense returns for their shareholders, beat Wall Street expectations nearly every quarter, and currently stand as the world’s fourth-largest company by revenue. So what.

After an embarrassing, nauseating display of corporate malpractice, blame-storming, and depraved indifference with their oil spill catastrophe this year, BP is a shadow of the brand it once was. Their arrogant, ill-conceived “beyond petroleum” tagline is a farce. The logo is offensive. Yes, they still make millions of dollars every second, but their executive management has lost total control of the product level where real people make real results happen.

Of course, the Michigan teams’ recent failure to win in a sport played by 19-year-olds is hardly equal to the largest environmental disaster in history. I use the analogy to make the point that every single day, everything you do, internally and externally, has ramifications on your brand. The assistant coach didn’t pay attention to the practice clock; the oil rig inspector ignored the broken drill seal. Neither intended to cause harm. Rather, they were let down by the culture around them, which no longer mandated or enforced the standard of excellence that helped them become giants in their respective fields in the first place.

And exactly as I brought the hammer down on Notre Dame above, I’m bringing it on Michigan. It appears as if, now in his third year, Rodriguez is beginning to right the ship, but oh, what a price they have paid. Only one major bowl win in the BCS era, and just two since ’92.

All of this after becoming arguably the most successful program in college football history. They won the first Rose Bowl in 1902, hold an NCAA-record 878 wins and own first place in all-time winning percentage of .741, also an NCAA record. The Wolverines claim 11 national titles, 42 Big Ten crowns, three Heisman winners, and an absolutely mind-boggling 23 undefeated seasons.

And nothing need be said about the winged helmets, the most recognizable in college football — nor “The Victors,” up there with Notre Dame’s “Victory March” as probably the best-known fight song. Michigan Stadium is the largest in the country, holding 109,901 fans clad head-to-toe in Maize and Blue, the color of corn and fall Midwestern skies, to watch the sport’s biggest rivalry waged every other year when they host neighboring Ohio State. The Notre Dame and Michigan State rivalry games pack the place too.

So prove me wrong, Wolverines. Show us all that you deserve to ascend to your familiar perch at the top of college football’s greatest brands. Win clean and ask the hard, uncomfortable questions at every single turn about what’s going on with your brand and your product, and why. That’s what great brands do.

Remember, I’m an Ohio State fan. I learned the hard way all those John Cooper years. You’ll be back. (I just hope not too soon.)

3. University of Alabama Crimson Tide

Number eight in wins all-time, the University of Alabama is the only SEC team to make the list. That’s odd, no? I’ll tell you what’s even stranger — not one but TWO pairs of teams in the same conference with the same nickname (Auburn and LSU Tigers, Georgia and Mississippi State Bulldogs). So much for brand differentiation.

Disclaimer: Before you email your complaints, I know there was no SEC in the 1890s, and when those teams were first fielded they weren’t in a conference together, so the point is moot. I just can’t resist getting Southern people all riled up.

Okay, back to the brand. When I think “Crimson Tide,” my brain cues up old footage of a stern Bear Bryant prowling the sidelines under a houndstooth fedora. Of course, the Tide also happen to be defending national champions (their 13th, impressively) and holders of the most recent Heisman Trophy (their first, incredibly). So alongside Bryant, I simultaneously see HD video of defensive line giant Marcel Dareus rumbling into the end-zone with a football he stripped from the Texas backup QB and threw against the Rose Bowl backdrop in triumph on his way to a national title.

I think of some of the absolute coolest helmets there ever were, the color of a deep thigh bruise, emblazoned with white block numerals. Sure, that design concept was the standard across the college football landscape from the early days all the way to the ‘70s, but Alabama’s the only major program who kept it alive. A mountain of style points roll your way, Crimson Tide.

So many positive elements can be attributed to this brand. First of which, the name. They dubbed themselves “The Crimson Tide” in 1907, after a Birmingham Age-Herald reporter used the phrase in an article on that season’s Iron Bowl, their annual throwdown with in-state rival Auburn, which even then was one of the great rivalries in the land.

Now let’s stop and just consider this name. I’m sure they had no idea at the time, but how groundbreaking is it? It would be decades before the singular team-name idea proliferated (NC State Wolfpack,1922; Tulane Green Wave, 1964; Dartmouth Big Green, 1974; Stanford Cardinal, 1981). Of course, most teams who changed their nicknames from plural to singular did so under the charge of insensitivity to objectification of Native Americans. Before all that though, the University of Alabama’s brand was a first for major college sports.

Okay, next: Big Al the Elephant. Because you know, when I think of the state of Alabama and a Crimson Tide, the first thing that pops into my head is a pachyderm. Yet somehow it really works. As a kid I always wondered, “What in the world does an elephant have to do with a Crimson Tide?” Then the web was invented, and I discovered two events which reportedly stood behind the name, both of which occurred in 1930. First, an Atlanta Journal reporter called the team a pack of “red elephants” after a game against Ole Miss. Straightforward enough.

Next — and this one’s somewhat dubious — ‘Bama traveled exclusively with luggage manufactured by Rosenberger’s Birmingham Trunk Company; when the team rolled in to Pasadena for their Rose Bowl game versus (and subsequent 24-0 shellacking of) Washington State, reporters remarked the luggage logo depicting an elephant standing on a trunk, and that was all it took. Whichever it was, the program’s association with the elephant was now and forevermore. (College football’s first co-branding initiative perhaps?)

And let’s not overlook the classic, uniquely Southern typeface of the “A” inside their familiar circular logo. A clean design with just enough flair which many schools would do well to follow. If only the Atlanta Braves didn’t shamelessly rip it off, it would surely stand out as one of the most distinctive, singular team logos of all time.

So after all this gushing, you might ask why the Crimson Tide aren’t higher in this list. Brands, just like the people upon whom they’re built to make an impression, can be stained for a long, long time.

I wrote above about USC and its hopes of a short memory span among football fans around the country for their misgivings, but institutional racism wasn’t one of them. Alabama didn’t let a single African-American kid start on the football team until 1971, a full 45 years after Brown University’s Fritz Pollard played in the Rose Bowl (and an astounding 79 years after Harvard’s William H. Lewis became the first African-American named to the College Football All-America Team).

Sorry, but there can be no arguing here. For all of Alabama’s football success, innovation, and vintage design cues, we must understand the shadow that institutional behavior can cast upon a brand. This is how the business of branding works. If you don’t like it, tough. Learn from it and do better next time.

Since it took you 79 years to play a man of color in ‘71, you’re going to wait until the year 2050 before this rule is lifted. And don’t give me the “That was then, this is now” nonsense. Alabama knew exactly what it was doing in denying kids the opportunity to join the team because of their skin. You don’t get to wipe that away just because you’re winning again. Any brand must pay for its wrongdoings. Great brands swiftly admit to, apologize for, and amend their faults with full transparency.

P.S. Anyone with a brain the size of a cashew will not soon forget that your brand CEO, Coach Saban, is a liar. See also: BP, Pete Carroll. Not hating, just stating. Saban will get his own someday, somehow, some way. The brand universe seeks order, and the one surrounding him has yet to find it. Til then, Alabama, celebrate your past and recent laurels. Just know that brand audiences forgive and forget only after real, tangible reasons to do so — and in an arena as competitive as college football, that’s a delicacy rarely enjoyed.

Nonetheless, congratulations on finishing third in the best brands of college football.

2. Pennsylvania State University Nittany Lions

Understatement is sheer confidence, nameless jerseys unifying an entire squad, and a single blue stripe dividing a pure white helmet. Consistency is undying loyalty to coach, tradition, and organizational objective. Clarity is never being on probation. Constancy is six undefeated seasons but netting just two national championships (’82, ‘’86) out of them and never, ever complaining about the obvious snubs involved.

This is Penn State, where visitors to a place called ‘Happy Valley’ often leave anything but, and the country’s second-largest home facility (capacity 107,282) is only too happy to remind you of the “L” your side just secured as you exit Beaver Stadium.

While normally I’d start this portion of our program cooing about the austere blue and white uniforms — oh, and not “navy blue” or “Nittany Blue” by the way, but just plain “blue;” perfected by black cleats and only black cleats — I’m compelled to open with the most enduring brand element in Penn State football’s extensive brand portfolio.


A Brooklyn native with an Ivy League diploma (Brown University class of ‘50, where he shares the career interceptions record of 14), Joseph Vincent Paterno joined the Penn State football coaching staff as an assistant to Rip Engle in 1950, much to the chagrin of his dad, who asked why he even went to college.

Paterno holds the longevity record of all football coaches at all universities, and with it the mark for most wins of all D-1 (FBS) coaches, now at 394. Not surprisingly, the diminutive football giant owns the bowl victory high-mark with 24 wins (to just 12 losses).

Pundits say Penn State’s just blindly adhered to the past, addicted to some out-of-fashion programmatic drug so devoid of reality it doesn’t even know it. “Why not hire a young, strapping figure who makes the boosters swoon? Why not add some loud colors and graphics that appeal to today’s teenager? Why not chase today’s trends to the screen doors of the nation’s hottest recruits, add a little something to those plain uniforms, and then a little more, and then a little more?”

Because that’s not what one of the best brands in college football does.

Yes, there are older programs, and as noted previously, schools with a higher win total (Michigan, Texas, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State), but few if any have executed its brand plan more steadily or thoroughly than Penn State has. Pay attention brand strategy students and haters everywhere.

To the analysts I direct attention to Exhibit A: when 15 Nittany Lion players — including a few marquee names — were present for an off-campus brawl in 2007, JoePa took brand matters into his own hands and sentenced all involved to cleaning detail the morning after every home game that season. Garbage-gathering, aisle-sweeping, and whatever-hosing in a building that seats 108,000 the morning after a game, when it’s near-impossible to get out of bed as it is. That’s a lot of nacho goo for Saturday’s heroes/Sunday’s zeroes. Try getting a big ego knowing you’ll be knee-deep in White-Out detritus the following morning.

Recruiting consequences be damned. This is the way you run a world-class brand.

Congratulations to the Penn State Nittany Lions for earning second place in the Top Brands of College Football.

1. University of Texas Longhorns

With the second-most wins (845) and bowl appearances (50) all-time, it’s impossible to overlook Texas as one of the true powerhouses of the game.

And then there’s the look of Texas. Solid fields of burnt orange and white, interrupted only by the most unique helmet logo on the planet, the longhorn. Wow. Heads-up branding folks, you’re looking at the essence of clarity, focused presentation, and “define by design.”

At first glance, the casual fan might believe this proprietary, low-intensity orange hue is an emulation of the scorched, iron-rich plains and prairies of the Lone Star state. Okay, maybe you didn’t, but I did as a little kid. Think: Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam duking it out near a cactus or in a saloon. That color.

And then I traveled the country and saw that burnt orange wasn’t so Texas as it was more arid places like Arizona and New Mexico. So where did the most inimitable shade in the college football palette come from?

Burnt orange wasn’t always the color of the Longhorns. Like most seminal programs, they started playing football way before the Pantone Matching System and four-color printing came along. Most major programs, in fact, have at some point “updated” their uniform color combo after fabric/leather dying and helmet technology made it possible. And they’re still routinely doing it today (e.g., LSU’s recent shift to a bluer purple).

The 1883 team wore orange and white some games, gold and white for others. In 1895, they moved exclusively to orange and white, and then two years later, they switched to orange and maroon to save on laundry costs. Then they went back to orange and white, but were sometimes derisively called “Yellowbellies” by opponents because, by the end of the season, the omnipresent sun had bleached their standard orange uni’s to a pale yellow. For a football team, or any brand for that matter, that’s simply unacceptable.

So in 1928, UT coach Clyde Littlefield added one word to the order form that forever altered branding in college athletics: “burnt.” The darker orange resisted fading, and only the high cost of that tint of dye during the Great Depression reverted the Longhorns back to the brighter orange for two decades. When the financial coast was clear, it’s been burnt orange and white all the way.

The Longhorn mascot’s name is “BEVO,” and like many great logos, its origin is as debatable as the conflicting accounts are dubious. Some attribute the name to Ben Dyer, editor of the UT student paper The Alcade, who used the name “BEVO” in an article after the steer’s first cameo appearance at halftime of a 1916 Thanksgiving Day 22-7 beating of archrival Texas A&M (then called the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas). Supposedly, some people back then called near-beer “Bevo,” which might have been Dyer’s motivation.

Another widely spread legend holds that in 1917, two years after beating Texas 13-0, A&M students kidnapped the bull and branded that score on his flank as “13 v 0.” (Mad props to A&M for starting the first branding program in the country, by the way.) The first part of the story is proven to be true. What’s in doubt is that UT students, upon BEVO’s return, converted the burned-in “13” to a “B” and the “v 0” design to “EVO.” Unfortunately, for this to be true, Texas would have had to have employed time travel, because the name BEVO had already been in use for a full year before A&M absconded with the one-ton beef patty.

Others claim that “BEVO” was just an example of the wacky trend in the 1910s of calling someone their primary personality trait and then adding the letter “o” to the end. The Marx Brothers help clarify: Groucho was grouchy, Harpo played the harp, and Chico raised chickens as a child. Evidently, “BEVO” is just this convention in play with “beef.” Say see, it’s BEVO to you, see?

Whatever the root, BEVO is one of the most majestic and fearsome live mascots in any sport anywhere. To wit: BEVO II charged an SMU cheerleader, BEVO III jail-broke his pen and ran free around campus for two days, BEVO IV attacked a parked car, and his successor BEVO V broke away from his handlers (called Silver Spurs) and scattered the Baylor band. Awesome.

But enough about cattle. There are many other traditions that have strengthened the brand down in Austin — the Hook ‘Em Horns hand gesture, firing Smokey the Cannon before games and after TDs, amazing rivalries with Texas A&M and Oklahoma among them, and even though I’m not personally a fan, those fringe-laden band/cheerleader uniforms. (Oh, and that reminds me: flag corps are for high school bands, y’all. This sad fact did affect your overall brand score, but not your final list position.)

Back to on-field excellence. The Longhorns count four national titles, 32 conference crowns, two Heisman winners, the third-highest winning percentage of all programs (.720), 17 players in the College Football Hall of Fame, and four enshrined in Canton. And if it’s consistency you’re looking for, Texas holds the NCAA record for consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25 (155).

It’s not all swine and roses, however. They were pretty bad in the ‘80s and ‘90s, ending the Big XII season with the best record only once from ‘91 to ‘04, and winning just one bowl between ‘82 and ‘93. But in noble brand fashion, they pulled through, and under the leadership of the classy Mack Brown and an outstanding administration, are back among the football elite.

Case in point, I once had a business meeting in a luxury suite inside Darrel K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Beforehand we had lunch at the private Alumni Club, also inside the stadium. I was blown away. From the bull-skull lighting fixtures and faux-barbed-wire handrails to the tasteful amount of burnt-orange trim around the facilities (it is possible to overdo it, but they didn’t), the University of Texas football brand is managed by experts who really, really get it. It’s no wonder UT has one of the most respected advertising and branding programs in the country. The proof is everywhere, but then, they should excel at branding. The mascot’s a bull for heaven’s sake.

And with that, hearty congratulations are in order. To the University of Texas football brand on its first national championship, you are hereby crowned The Best Brand in College Football 2010.

Branding Death Penalty: University of Oklahoma Sooners

See? I told you the “best brands” ranking isn’t only about wins and losses. The University of Oklahoma has racked up seventh-most victories all-time (800), five Heisman Trophies, has set the record for most consecutive wins (47), and since the end of World War II has been the most successful program in the entire country. So certainly the Sooners should be among the top nine, right? [Insert Lee Corso response here.] Not if your helmet reads “OU” and your name is “University of Oklahoma” you don’t. You’re supposed to be an institution of higher education and you can’t be bothered to design all two characters in your logo in the proper order? Sorry, but even the worst brands in the land know how to spell. I’ve got my own brand to uphold here, and I’m afraid that until you’ve mastered the English alphabet, you’re officially uninvited.

Honorable Mention, Design: Arizona State, Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, Southern Methodist, Stanford, Syracuse, Utah, Washington, Wyoming

Honorable Mention, Tradition: Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, Miami University, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, Wisconsin