On Saturday, Florida State's Jameis Winston was awarded the Heisman Trophy at a ceremony in New York City. Two years ago, Heath Nielsen, Baylor's associate athletic director of communications sat in the audience at that very ceremony and heard the player he and his staff had campaigned so hard for have his name called. Before joining AB, eMedia Editor Michael Gaio was on the staff in Baylor's athletic communications department. We had Michael catch up with his former boss to relive that season and gain insight into what it takes to market a Heisman Trophy winner.
Praise for Baylor's Heisman Campaign:
"One of the best Heisman campaigns I've seen in a while."
— Chris Huston, HeismanPundit.com
"A very smart campaign by Baylor, their sendouts, their promotional stuff — very, very smart."
— Michael Wilbon, ESPN
— Samantha Ponder, ESPN
Michael Gaio: How early did you start thinking about Rob's Heisman campaign?
Heath Nielsen: Oh, late spring. I don't know if I can put a date on it, but we knew that that fall we were going to make some sort of push. We knew we'd have a website and try to get his name out there. Then as a staff we spent the summer hammering out the details.
MG: And how was that decision made? The decision to move forward with a full-blown campaign.
HN: Coach Briles (Baylor's head football coach) allowed us to give a full push for the first time during Rob's junior year so that was kind of the last hurdle to mount a full on promotion of a kid we thought could bring the university a whole lot of notoriety. We knew Rob was just a really special kid who could really give our program and school a lot of recognition. Once coach gave us the green light, that really spurred us to get going.
MG: Then the staff really hit the ground running.
HN: The thing is, once you've decided to do it, you really have to do it. We have two candidates on this year's team (quarterback Bryce Petty is one of the top rated passers in the country and running back Lache Seastrunk was leading the Big 12 in rushing as of this writing) and we've gone about things differently. But once you've decided to make the push for a player, you really have to go all into it.
MG: How much does a player's personality and character come in to whether or not you're going to market him?
HN: I think a lot depends on that. There's a difference between putting a kid who is really well spoken, clean cut and a great representative of your university out there, versus an athlete who may not have those qualities. Those things will go a long way in deciding whether to really market someone.
MG: That's not to say Bryce Petty and Lache wouldn't be good representatives of Baylor.
HN: No, those guys are fantastic. We're just in a little different position as a program now. With Rob, that's what we had to do. Now Baylor as a football program is in a different spot now where we might not have to do as much, but at the time that's what we had to do.
MG: How much has social media changed the way schools think about promoting players, and even their teams in general?
HN: It plays a big role. Nowadays, a majority of any promotion will be digital. Some of that is just because that's the way the world has gone and the technology as a whole. But it's inexpensive. I always like to say, "The price is right." You can get a lot of eyeballs looking at stuff just through social media. By the time your intended recipients, whether that's your fans of the media receive your message and share it and retweet it and put it out there, the exponential increase of how many eyeballs your content is reaching is just fantastic. That wouldn't have happened back in the day when you were putting something in the mail.
The caveat there is that even the mailers, the old school physical items sent via snail mail (Baylor sent a series of six RG3 trading cards to media members throughout the 2011 season) had digital photos taken of them and were then shared digitally. So even the old school items became social pieces. That's a lot of people getting to see your message.
MG: And how did that affect the voters, do you think?
HN: When it was all said and done, voting-wise or people viewing what we did, the ones that truly mattered, the actual voters that is, they didn't seem to get as excited about the social stuff that we did. We could put stuff on Facebook and Twitter and make a cool website, but they didn't really talk about that. It seems that it was the old-school items, the trading cards we sent in the mail that really resonated with the voters.
Conversely, the fans loved the digital stuff. They were buzzing about it. What we found was, when we put stuff in the mail, that's what the media most reacted to. The mailers in my eyes are what really got the voters to react.
MG: I remember that season being extremely busy for you, but I never asked you, what was that season like for you personally?
HN: Busy. That's the unoriginal, easy answer. It required, because we went in full-force as a staff it required a lot of teamwork. And by that I mean because we diverted both staffing and financial resources to the campaign, it required other staffers to pick up other duties and put in extra effort. So it really was a full team effort to pull off the amount of content that we put out there. Whether it was the video staff or communications staff, everyone was all in. All with the goal of getting an obscure candidate's name out there to the media and the public at large.
Football season is always busy, but that added a whole different dimension. And it was a lot of monitoring. How were people responding to what we were putting out there? What they were saying about Rob and Baylor as a whole? There was a lot of sitting in bed with my laptop open and my wife wondering what the heck I was doing and I was always just tracking what was being said out there.
MG: And your reaction when he won?
HN: There were a lot of people behind the scenes to kind of push him. It was rewarding. I was just really happy for him and it was a huge, huge moment for the school.
The thing is, it wasn't a big surprise with the way you can track things. And it was weird because we got [to New York City for the ceremony] and everybody there expected us to win. We're with all these big time, traditional schools (Other finalists that year included Alabama's Trent Richardson, LSU's Tyrann Mathieu, Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Stanford's Andrew Luck) and they were telling us congratulations before the winner was even announced. It was just nice to be a part of that event and for him to win, was fantastic for the school.
MG: Obviously, Rob won the Heisman due to his play on the field, but what role do you think the whole marketing campaign played in it?
HN: The fact that some of the media and voters weighed in after the fact leads me to believe that we probably had a little bit of an impact. Take away everything we did, how would it have gone down? I don't know, maybe he wins the whole thing. But I will say, he wasn't really on people's radars prior to the season. He was way down the list of Heisman candidates back in August. We were fortunate that his big moments and our big games came when we were on the big time, national TV games and a lot of our not-so-good games were not.
MG: That's right. I remember the game at Kansas (Baylor fell behind 24-3 in the fourth quarter before rallying to win in overtime) wasn't on TV at all.
HN: There you go. And you lose that one and the whole thing is over. But then no one saw it and his stats were ok, so it didn't hurt him.
MG: How much luck factors into winning a Heisman?
HN: Luck was absolutely a huge factor. Good timing, good fortune, opportune moments. If you look at that 2011 Heisman race, you look at a candidate like [Oklahoma State QB] Brandon Weeden who had a fantastic season and then there was one game where he wasn't great. That Thursday night game up in Ames, Iowa (against Iowa State.) Not even bad, just maybe a little bit off and this was when he had just seemed to take over the top spot in the Heisman race. And he comes out and has this not-so-great performance and it was on primetime, Thursday night, ESPN. He went from being the potential leader and then that one less-than-stellar outing just completely erased him in the minds of voters.
MG: On the other hand, RG had great luck.
HN: Then there's our candidate, he lost three times but they all happened to be games that people weren't watching. (Baylor lost at Kansas State, at Texas A&M and at Oklahoma State that season.) The big games, the opener against TCU, the Oklahoma game, the season finale against Texas, those were all nationally televised ABC or ESPN games. The whole country was watching and that's when Rob was at his best. So yeah, you absolutely need the ball to bounce your way if you're going to rise to the top.
You look at the fact that in week one we had a game on a Friday night to open the season (Baylor defeated 14th ranked TCU 50-48. Griffin threw for five touchdowns) and [ESPN College] GameDay just happened to be up in Arlington doing their broadcast so we hustled Rob up to the set the next day and just having him on the show up there, answering questions, I think early-on people fell in love with this Cinderella, small school candidate. He didn't play in a BCS bowl, he didn't win the National Championship, but people were still voting for him.
MG: How does the marketing approach change if you're at a school that's a little more off the radar than your traditional powerhouse program? I know Northern Illinois and Kent State for example, had Heisman campaigns this year.
HN: Absolutely. I talked either directly or indirectly to guys at Northern Illinois and Utah State. I told them both I would do as much as possible if I was them. If you're an under-the-radar school, do as much as possible. Even Louisville saying they're not going to do a Heisman campaign for Teddy Bridgewater, that put his name out there and got articles written about him and the team. And here, Lache Seastrunk said what he said about himself. (Seastrunk said he before the season he would win the Heisman Trophy.) While I didn't advise that, at least he was on people's minds. People see that and they're at least thinking of you. Heck, do as much as possible. At that point, what do you have to lose? Let people know your kid is a stud and give him every opportunity to be noticed.
MG: Schools have tried all sorts of things to gain publicity for a player. How do you strike the chord between creative and goofy? Is there a risk/reward factor?
HN: None of us were experts and we didn't try to act like we knew everything there was to know about big publicity campaigns. We just worked together as a staff. I don't know that we shot a whole lot down. We're trying to get attention, so out-there things can be a good idea. We didn't have a lot to lose so we were willing to try lots of tactics. If they didn't work, we dropped them and kept churning along with the things that were working. We were kind of daring and naïve and just going for it.
MG: How closely do you pay attention to other campaigns now? I saw Texas A&M had a site for Johnny Manziel similar to RG3's.
HN: I look at things out of curiosity. I'm still in the business. I still work with a sports team and have athletes who are eligible for awards. I love good ideas and fun tactics.