In a very short time, Jeff Tedford has become the face not just of Fresno State football but of the entire athletic department.
It’s a face Bulldogs fans both loyal and fickle need to see more often. They need to see it on social media, billboards, buses and their television screens.
Tedford’s face should be everywhere. Instead, it’s been practically invisible since the Hawaii Bowl triumph on Christmas Eve.
Who else is there? The Bulldogs don’t have a permanent athletic director. (I’m told by a reliable source the job will be posted in late May and the search conducted in June.) Men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry bolted to west Texas. And there’s no athlete on campus these days – save perhaps for quarterback Marcus McMaryion – with that kind of recognition.
Nope. The face of Fresno State sports belongs to the 56-year-old football coach, eyes usually hidden behind frameless sunglasses, who boosted the Bulldogs from 1-11 to 10-4 during his first season.
But besides national signing day and the first day of spring practice, we hardly ever see or hear from him.
If Fresno State wants to sell tickets for what’s shaping up as an extremely promising 2018 season, more visibility is needed. Much, much more.
I don’t mean to imply that Tedford has spent the last three months sitting in his office with the door shut. He regularly meets with donors, speaks to leadership groups and lends his voice to direct message phone blasts.
“I’ve done a fair share of those things,” Tedford said. “They’re not public, so you don’t see them.”
Fair enough, but that’s also the point. The bulk of Tedford’s appearances aren’t in public view. For an athletic department that desperately needs to reconnect with a fan base that’s getting older and more disinterested by the year, they need to be.
Before we proceed, a few things should be laid out. Job 1 for Tedford is winning football games. Jobs 1A and 1B are getting his players to graduate and serve as good ambassadors for the university.
By all indications, Tedford is handling those duties like a maestro handles an orchestra. But what about marketing and promotions? Aren’t those also part of his job description?
“It is my job when I get asked to do certain things,” Tedford said. “It’s not my job to organize it and set it up. If Development needs me to do certain things … I’m happy to do it and understand that’s a role I do fulfill and an obligation that I have. And I don’t mind that stuff at all.”
So if someone wanted to splash Tedford’s visage on billboards up and down Highway 99 or on FAX buses motoring around Fresno, he’d agree to it?
“I’m good with that,” Tedford said. “I’m good with whatever. I’m here to coach and do whatever it takes to have this program be successful. It’s not necessarily my role to step on peoples’ toes to come up with the ideas to market the program, as well.”
Tedford is right. It’s not his job to market the team. But asking him to play a larger role isn’t asking too much. Especially given his prominence.
Back in Pat Hill’s heyday, he would regularly call up sports radio shows if he heard something he didn’t like. That’s a form of marketing, too. Hill used every microphone within earshot to promote the Bulldogs brand or stump for program improvements.
These days, coaches have other platforms. Lane Kiffin, who oversaw a similar turnaround last season at Florida Atlantic, is a one-man marketing machine. The Fresno State alum uses his Twitter account to pound out a constant drumbeat of attention.
The difference is evident.
Fresno State does have an athletics marketing department. Problem is, it’s understaffed and hasn’t seen a budget increase in six years. To help make up for that, much of the athletics marketing has been folded into the university’s marketing and communications arm.
This is a good thing because it allows the athletic department access to graphic designers and videographers it wouldn’t normally have. But it’s also a bad thing because athletics no longer controls the message, and there seems to be a reluctance on the university side to market football by itself. As if the offices would get raided by the Title IX police.
Take the “Just the ticket to build our community” campaign, which kicked off in 2016. It’s a fine slogan and clever wording but doesn’t give football or football ticket sales the emphasis they need and deserve.
Will that change over the next few months? Paul Ladwig, senior associate athletic director for external relations, promised a new campaign will roll out soon.
“We would be awfully silly for not pushing Fresno State football incredibly hard this summer,” Ladwig said.
They certainly would. Fresno State has a prime opportunity to take advantage of its most marketable asset. The face of the Bulldogs just needs to be more visible.