Nadkarni: As 2012-13 comes to a close, Northwestern continues to brand itself for future


Rohan Nadkarni, Reporter

What a year this was for Northwestern athletics.

Imagine if you told then-linebackers coach Pat Fitzgerald in May 2006 that in seven years, he would be Northwestern’s head coach, lead the team to its first bowl game since 1949 and that “Arrested Development” would be revived on Netflix, where you can watch all 15 episodes in a row. What would Coach Fitz say?

He would probably joke about how little he knows about the Internet, cite his head injuries from playing linebacker and insist he was only focused on going 1-0 in fundraising that week, but, on some level, he would think you’re crazy.

But this year, not only did NU earn that bowl win, but it also hired a new basketball coach, sent two wrestlers to the final round of the NCAA Championships and played a baseball game at Wrigley Field. While the combined successes of the Cats on the field, on the court and on the mat are unparalleled in their history, those running the athletic program are focused on a much bigger picture.

NU’s attempts to grow its brand seem to be almost as important as growing its athletic programs moving forward.

It’s no secret that athletic director Jim Phillips craves more attention for his school. The “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” slogan and NU’s partnership with the Cubs are just some of the more obvious examples of how the athletic department is trying to widen the school’s footprint.

The truth is, for a school with such a small number of students, finding the right athletes has now become much easier than finding fans – and money.

Take, for example, Welsh-Ryan Arena. Although University President Morton Schapiro insists he loves the building, and new basketball coach Chris Collins says his concern is bringing students to the arena, objectively speaking, Welsh-Ryan is in desperate need of an upgrade.

But wins alone won’t bring the program money. The athletic department knew that even if former coach Bill Carmody took the Cats to a tournament, he wouldn’t serve them anything else. Enter Collins. He’s young, has worked with NBA players at the Olympics and tweets about LeBron James. Collins is the type of coach that NU believes not only can win games, but also can market the team to a wider audience — and subsequently help raise money for the program.

The results of this year’s marketing bonanza seem mixed so far. Although reporters are frequently told ticket sales are up, it’s impossible to know how wide NU’s footprint really is. When was the last time you saw an Under Armour football jersey that wasn’t in Beck’s?

Ultimately, it will be interesting to see if NU’s athletic department can keep the brand growing as fast as the product on the field. Wins alone won’t cut it. With a limited alumni group interested in sports, the pressure to remain a top academic institution and decades of pathetic athletic performances, NU must climb out of a deep hole before it can truly establish itself as a brand worthy of national recognition.

When the Cats’ coaches hit the road this year, hopefully they pack their Under Armour jackets, Coke Zero 12-packs and checkbooks from BMO Harris Bank — they’re gonna need ’em.