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Monday, February 06, 2023
Wisconsin's men's hockey rebrand is aimed at drawing interest back to the ice at the Kohl Center. 

Wisconsin's men's hockey rebrand is aimed at drawing interest back to the ice at the Kohl Center. 

Column: The mechanics of the Wisconsin reset button: Knocking their socks off

On select seats sat a plastic bag containing a pair of cardinal red crew socks with white toes and heels, the word “Badgers” emblazoned on the foot, a depiction of the Madison skyline wrapped around the ankles and a white motion “W” stitched near the elastic band encircling the cuff. Also included in the bag was a small white card with a quote, attributed to Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, that read “This hire will knock your socks off.”

Tony Granato officially became the head coach of the men’s hockey team March 30 in front of fans, family, members of the team and the media, taking over for Mike Eaves after his once illustrious 14-year tenure with the Badgers hit rock bottom. At his introductory press conference, Granato waxed gratitude and genuine joy to be back in Madison, leaving audience members with both an assured feeling that the men’s hockey program was in a good hands and, for those who got their hands on them, a brand new pair of socks.

In the last 17 months, Wisconsin has introduced four major new coaching hires, including three in revenue sports. With coaches darting for other programs, filling in for retired legends and taking the place of disappointing returns on investment, Alvarez has introduced his fair share of head coaches in recent years. Behind the scenes, however, have been enormous efforts on the parts of the UW Athletics marketing, communications and video services to make the transitions, at least to an outside observer, appear seamless.

While each of these changes has been important in furthering the Wisconsin tradition of success, the men’s hockey rebrand has taken on a more drastic feel—with three new coaches with impressive resumes now in charge of manning the Badgers’ bench, UW hockey has an air of liveliness to it that hasn’t been felt for some time. It’s worth taking a look at that time line that has ultimately culminated in the fresh direction UW is now taking.

‘My phone is ringing off the hook already’

Of Wisconsin’s recent head coaching switches, perhaps the most jarring, and undoubtedly the quickest, turnaround came when then-head coach Gary Andersen revealed in December 2014, days after Wisconsin’s horrific 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, that he had accepted the head coaching position at Oregon State.

“My phone’s ringing off the hook already,” Alvarez said in an impromptu press conference at Camp Randall Stadium just minutes after Andersen’s departure was announced. “Word’s just starting to leak out and I’ll be very busy tonight answering phone calls from agents and coaches and go-betweens. People trying to get in on this job.”

Alvarez fielded plenty of phone calls, but the one name he settled on was Paul Chryst, who was introduced as head coach just seven days after Andersen departed.

What softens the blow of the football debacle is that while Andersen’s decision was certainly incendiary and very well could have garnered feelings of betrayal among the team, Chryst’s fit was natural and, quite frankly, not all that surprising. After years as a Wisconsin assistant, Chryst cut his teeth as head coach at Pittsburgh while essentially biding his time to get back to the cavernous walls of Camp Randall, between which, incidentally, he had spent much of his life.

UW painted Chryst’s hiring as a sort of coming home story, simple and concise yet meaningful and effective. Wisconsin unveiled a microsite that set the standard for its recent coaching hires, as it displayed a feature video, coaching timeline and quotes from former players reacting to Chryst’s hire. All in all, Chryst’s transition went smoothly, and it didn’t require an enormous rebrand to convince fans to be on board. Glowing input from Russell Wilson, J.J. Watt, Joe Thomas, Scott Tolzien and Chris Borland certainly didn’t hurt.

‘As I’ve said from day one, this wasn’t about me, this wasn’t an audition’

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Gard’s formal introduction as head coach would come as more of a shock to Badger fans had it not been written on the wall for three months before his promotion was made official. Bo Ryan’s Dec. 15 retirement sent ripples through all of college basketball, as he finally brought closure to a plan he had been toying with since June. Ryan, perhaps stepping out of his realm of power, immediately anointed Gard as his successor on an interim basis, leaving the program in the hands of a close friend and top-level assistant who he had worked with for over 23 years.

Once Gard revived a scuffling UW squad that looked to be on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament in early January, it seemed probable starting around early February that Gard had the permanent head coaching job all but sealed. Finally, on March 8, after the head coaching job posting had been online for a week, per state employment regulations, Gard was officially named the head coach after working under Ryan for 23 years.

Gard’s introductory website had a similar feel to Chryst’s—it emphasized his close ties to the Dairy State, wove in input from former Badger stars Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Devin Harris and Alando Tucker and shine a spotlight on Gard’s hometown of Cobb, Wis. There was nothing terribly flashy about Gard’s introduction, but then again, there was nothing terribly flashy about his long-foreseen hiring.

‘He’s already gotten started’

Jonathan Tsipis’ hiring has been the quietest of the recent coaching moves, although this is entirely due to Granato’s return to Madison. If not for the timing, Tsipis’ transition would have caused a greater stir considering where Bobbie Kelsey left the women’s basketball team and Tsipis’ storied background. After going 47-100 in her five seasons at the helm, Kelsey was let go after yet another disappointing season that was highlighted, unfortunately, when a postgame rant by the former Stanford player and assistant coach made national headlines.

Tsipis brings head coaching experience and a winning resume to Wisconsin, both of which were severely lacking under Kelsey’s regime. Alvarez lauded the former Duke men’s undergraduate assistant and Notre Dame women’s associate head coach at his introductory press conference, pointing out Tsipis had “already gotten started. He’s been here two days and he’s been out seeing some of the top players in the state already.”

CoachTsipis.com reflects the energy behind Wisconsin’s new hire—the background music behind his introductory interview video and images of him cutting down the net at various stages of the NCAA Tournament represent a stark break from the previous years at UW.

‘This hire will knock your socks off’

With Mike Eaves’ firing after 14 years on the job, the men’s hockey program saw its first major changes in some time. Although Eaves had extended Wisconsin’s traditionally successful background and brought a National Championship back to Madison, his recent years on the Badgers’ bench were disappointing, and Alvarez knew it was time to move on. What many Wisconsin fans may not have realized at the time of Eaves’ firing was that Alvarez clearly had a succession plan.

Although Alvarez claimed at Granato’s introductory press conference that he called Tony to simply ask for advice on where to look for the next head coach, he revealed the conversation worked its way toward Tony making a return to Madison—a progression in the phone call that Alvarez’s cunning bargaining ability was bound to make. Tony agreed to come back, but only if he could bring along his brother, Don Granato, and friend and former Wisconsin teammate Mark Osiecki. Naturally, Alvarez accepted the proposition.

While UW’s website introducing the new coaching staff is similar to that of its other hires—it’s saturated with video footage, timelines and input from former players and coaches—there are several key elements that set it apart beginning with, most obviously, the name of the website.

The “this hire will knock your socks off” tagline, which shone through UW’s marketing message quite literally with the socks distributed at the introductory press conference, but also more subtly as the URL of the men’s hockey microsite, actually was born organically during an interview Alvarez conducted with UW play-by-play man Brian Posick.

“This line is from an interview Barry Alvarez did with Brian Posick prior to the announcement of the hiring specifically about this hire, so we took it from there,” Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing and Promotions Kevin Kluender wrote in an email.

According to Kluender, the website took about five to six days to finish, an astonishingly quick turnaround given both the intricacy of the design and the sheer amount of content housed on thiswillknockyoursocksoff.com. Using a parallax-scrolling, single-page design, an increasingly popular style that’s most useful for driving focus to a singular important idea, UW marketing, communications and video services, in conjunction with the help of a third party, created a cohesive information hub that centered on one simple premise; that “this hire will knock your socks off.”

Per Kluender, this blitzkrieg style approach to promoting the men’s hockey rebrand is both a reflection of modern communications practices as well as the enormity of the coaching changes.

“The last coaching hire for us in men’s hockey was 14 years ago. I don’t recall what we did beyond the press conference,” Kluender said in an email. “It was a different time. In this case, we knew we were working with the hiring of a staff who we all believed hockey fans and casual fans would at minimum be interested in and hopefully be actually excited about. Of course we want to sell tickets as one of our longer term goals, but I feel it was just as important to have Badger fans, alums, donors, etc. feel good about the hockey program and be able to share in our enthusiasm with this staff. We wanted to communicate and share their passion for Badger hockey as well as their tremendous credentials.”

As Kluedner alluded to, along with the goal of drawing excitement and interest toward the program, is an emphasis on revamping ticket sales. Aptly enough, there are 10 “Request Ticket” buttons within the one-page website that direct users to the men’s hockey season ticket request page, which provides details on season ticket packages and a map of available seating. The buttons are accompanied by taglines like “Be there when the puck drops,” “Be part of something special,” “Be there in their inaugural season” and “We’re all in. Are you?” The calls to action are almost maddeningly frequent, but they’re in line with common digital marketing best practices, creating a sense of urgency, using crisp copy and adhering to a design that pops in the context of the rest of the page.

The site includes video messages from nine different parties, including former UW players Ryan Suter, Adam Burish, Blake Geoffrion and Mike Richter, former coach Jeff Sauer and current players Cameron Hughes, Matt Jurusik and Luke Kunin.

This unique messaging, innovative style and direct appeal to ticket-interested fans underlie UW’s unilateral push to rejuvenate excitement surrounding men’s hockey. While the returns of Tony Granato and Co. speaks enough for itself, UW’s efforts to supplement the quick action on the part of Alvarez are extremely strong. While only time will tell if ticket sales and interest in men’s hockey will reach the levels UW has very clearly set, it’s definitely heading in the right direction, even if it hasn’t knocked everyone’s socks off just yet.

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