How an Ath­let­ic Depart­ment Brand Can Cre­ate Win­ners on and off the Field

There’s no mag­ic potion to cre­at­ing state cham­pi­onship-cal­iber pro­grams. But build­ing your brand is step one and these prin­ci­ples can help you get started.

How an Ath­let­ic Depart­ment Brand Can Cre­ate Win­ners on and off the Field

There’s no mag­ic potion to cre­at­ing state cham­pi­onship-cal­iber pro­grams. But build­ing your brand is step one and these prin­ci­ples can help you get started.

Sev­en­teen years ago, when I start­ed at Spring­field Cen­tral High School as an assis­tant prin­ci­pal, we had one of the low­est per­form­ing ath­let­ic pro­grams in the West­ern Mass­a­chu­setts region and one of the largest stu­dent bod­ies in the Commonwealth. 

There’s plen­ty of proud his­to­ry at this inner-city school — our gym not only dis­plays state title ban­ners, but also the jer­seys of past alums who made it to the NBA and MLB. How­ev­er, the school was in the midst of a dra­mat­ic down­turn in ath­let­ic suc­cess and there was lit­tle to boast about when I arrived.

Fast for­ward near­ly two decades. Across the board, our teams are some of the most com­pet­i­tive in our state’s high­est lev­el. Our boys’ and girls’ bas­ket­ball teams rou­tine­ly reach the final week­end of post­sea­son. Our wrestling pro­gram often wins state cham­pi­onships, and our foot­ball team is now con­sid­ered one of the most pow­er­ful in New Eng­land. Dur­ing live recruit­ing peri­ods, coach­es from the Big Ten, ACC, Ivy, and Patri­ot Leagues vis­it our school. 

In 2018 our football team became the first to win a statewide MIAA football championship in Western Mass.

The turn­ing point? Our brand. Build­ing it has been a slow, method­i­cal process with many bumps along the way, and we con­tin­ue to work hard at it every day of the year. But it’s also been a tremen­dous learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty, with the ben­e­fits far exceed­ing our expectations. 

If you’re about to start your own brand-build­ing jour­ney, keep these prin­ci­ples in mind.

You can’t do it alone.

A team of like-mind­ed peo­ple work­ing along­side you is key to your ini­tia­tive. I was lucky to have an admin­is­tra­tive col­league share my views about the poten­tial of our brand. 

Togeth­er, we sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly made deci­sions that helped us gain trac­tion towards our ulti­mate goal. We scru­ti­nized every hire and tried to find indi­vid­u­als that were excel­lent in the class­room and accom­plished coaches. 

As a rule, we hire peo­ple, not resumes. Some of the most suc­cess­ful, effec­tive, and influ­en­tial peo­ple in our build­ing start­ed off as uncer­ti­fied teach­ers work­ing towards their advanced degrees. And any time we get a chance to hire an alum­ni, we do. We believe they have an intrin­sic loy­al­ty to the school and can relate to our cur­rent stu­dents. Our goal is to cre­ate a fam­i­ly atmosphere. 

Bot­tom line — it takes a vil­lage. Find some­one with like mind­ed views to help you kick-start your goals. 

The best abil­i­ty? Repeatability.

We cre­at­ed a school mot­to that we could take immense pride in, Home to Schol­ars and Cham­pi­ons.” Years ago, we noticed a school from the West Coast had a sim­i­lar mot­to and was extreme­ly suc­cess­ful for its area. Their stu­dents were no dif­fer­ent than ours, so we thought, If that school could man­i­fest their own des­tiny, why not us?” Our mot­to was born and we nev­er stopped push­ing it.

Sev­en­teen years lat­er, Home to Schol­ars and Cham­pi­ons” is what peo­ple know us by. We’ve tagged it every­where we could — our sta­tion­ary, our hall­ways, our gym­na­si­um wall — and every time stu­dents under­per­form, we point out our mot­to is the expectation. 

This catchy, repeat­able mot­to is rel­a­tive to almost any­thing in life. A schol­ar-ath­lete is more spe­cif­ic to the class­room, but a cham­pi­on is a cham­pi­on in life. 

Com­bine con­sis­ten­cy and creativity.

As part of our process, we real­ized our school’s logo need­ed an upgrade. Two of our most dynam­ic coach­es came up with the solution.

Our cur­rent foot­ball coach took over a decade ago and want­ed to cre­ate a unique iden­ti­ty for us. He cre­at­ed our C” logo, an invert­ed two-tone twist on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami’s icon­ic U” logo. All of our sports teams use the C” in their uni­forms. When any­one sees our gear, they imme­di­ate­ly know it’s Spring­field Central. 

Mean­while, our wrestling coach had been toy­ing with anoth­er logo with our mas­cot, the Gold­en Eagles. So we com­bined that eagle with our C” to cre­ate a fierce logo, a sin­gu­lar iden­ti­ty. This new logo will adorn our new­ly-ren­o­vat­ed bas­ket­ball court start­ing in the 19 – 20 school year.

One logo for all the teams strengthens our brand.

Ral­ly the community.

When you’re an inner city school, every­thing that goes wrong in the city gets equat­ed with the school sys­tem. It’s a tough rep­u­ta­tion to shed. As hard as we tried, peo­ple just didn’t find aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess that inter­est­ing. It’s hard to get the atten­tion of the media from a pos­i­tive perspective. 

But when you have an ath­let­ic win, they’re almost forced to put it in the paper. And our brand could be out in the com­mu­ni­ty in a pos­i­tive way.

It’s amaz­ing how many peo­ple will stop you on the street to say, Hey, you’re hav­ing a great year.” They have no idea what you’re doing aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, but when they see your name in the paper for ath­let­ics, it con­nects pos­i­tive thoughts to your school.

I recent­ly researched how many times our ath­let­ic teams gar­nered head­lines in a local news out­let ver­sus how many times we were men­tioned for aca­d­e­m­ic rea­sons. The ratio was 97 to 1. When we quan­ti­fied this with a pro­ject­ed adver­tis­ing cost, it equat­ed to tens of thou­sands of dollars.

We’ve been for­tu­nate to get the full sup­port of our city’s polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty. They want to see us be suc­cess­ful aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly and social­ly, and our pos­i­tive iden­ti­ty allows us to get the sup­port we need. 

You’ll see them at games — our may­or, our super­in­ten­dent, school com­mit­tee mem­bers, city coun­cilors — cheer­ing for us, proud of us. It dri­ves home that what we do as an ath­let­ic depart­ment is important. 

We also try to bring back alum­ni as much as pos­si­ble. Travis Best, who was a McDonald’s All-Amer­i­can a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ago at Cen­tral and went on to great suc­cess in the NBA, can always be found in our stands when he’s in town. His jer­sey is the only retired num­ber for any of our ath­let­ic programs. 

Every year we hear sto­ries from stu­dents who have dreamed about becom­ing a Cen­tral High School Gold­en Eagle. It’s a great feel­ing to know your school is pro­vid­ing amaz­ing aca­d­e­m­ic and co-cur­ric­u­lar oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents who are his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­ad­van­taged. We’ve even had stu­dents turn down full-schol­ar­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties from prep schools to become part of our community. 

We don’t have all of the answers but we hope to con­tin­ue to improve, grow and devel­op. Resources like this blog can help us, and oth­er schools across the coun­try, share ideas and best prac­tices to ensure pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences and future oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dent-ath­letes everywhere. 

Tad Tokarz has been a high school admin­is­tra­tor for 18 years, work­ing his entire career in an urban dis­trict. He also teach­es adjunct class­es focused on edu­ca­tion­al lead­er­ship, spe­cial edu­ca­tion and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment at Amer­i­can Inter­na­tion­al College.