Building your athletic department brand is the first step in creating state cham­pi­onship-caliber programs. 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.