Niyo: National title within reach for Spartans

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — A handful of years ago, it wasn’t so much what Michigan State couldn’t do. It was what it didn’t do.

And now that it has done all this — the football team arriving here for tonight’s Big Ten championship game for the third time in five years, with national-title hopes firmly in tow — it’s no longer about what the Spartans won’t say.

Instead, to borrow the university’s ubiquitous marketing tagline, it’s about what the “Spartans Will” as Michigan State tries to capitalize on its amplified athletic profile and this moment in the national spotlight.

And though head coach Mark Dantonio’s priority at the moment is figuring out a way for the fifth-ranked Spartans (11-1) to beat No. 4 Iowa (12-0) tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium, he’s well aware the ramifications go beyond football. The Big Ten champ is a lock for a berth in the four-team national playoff, and if the Spartans advance to a Dec. 31 semifinal, they’ll be ringing in the new year with unprecedented noise.

“We’re just working,” said Dantonio, who is 86-32 overall as Michigan State’s head coach, winning 11 or more games five times in the last six years — a conference record. “But I’ve always thought that Michigan State had a brand. Right now, you know, it’s certainly talked about often, relative to what’s going on here athletically and with our university in general. So it’s very positive.

“But I’ve always thought we had a great name out there. We’re a world-class university, in all respects, not just athletically.”

And yet it wasn’t until recently that the university openly embraced its athletic gifts, at least when it came to marketing.

‘Spartans Will’

It started in 2010 when the university, with the help of an ad agency, adopted a new tagline. The previous one — “Advancing knowledge, transforming lives” — wasn’t exactly a position statement that set Michigan State apart. The current slogan — “Spartans Will,” with its open-ended double-entendre — certainly has, even if it, too, has generated criticism from some faculty members.

“I’m very concerned about making proclamations about exceptionalism,” MSU professor emeritus Frank Fear said in a speech on campus last spring, echoing the anxiety voiced by another distinguished professor in sociology, Lawrence Busch, among others.

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Indeed, by making use of the university’s athletic nickname, as well as the Spartan helmet design — both were conspicuously absent in previous campaigns — this was a new kind of proclamation.

“When you’re building a brand or nurturing a brand, continued affinity is something that you’re always looking for,” said Heather Swain, the university’s vice president of communications and brand strategy. “You want to create awareness and you want to create affinity. So it has a tremendous power in that.”

Athletics is, as many college administrators say, the front porch of the university. And as such, Swain insists, “We have a responsibility to use that visibility and leverage it.”

Lucky for her, then, she has a pair of high-profile coaches in Dantonio and Tom Izzo — his powerhouse basketball program should be ranked No. 1 in the nation next week — who embody the “roll-up-the-sleeves, get-it-done” ethos Michigan State alums appreciate. (Asked Friday at the Big Ten coaches’ press conference if his program was on the verge of “blue-blood” status, Dantonio deadpanned, “I hope not.”)

“They couldn’t be better brand ambassadors,” said Swain, in her 10th year at Michigan State after previous stops at Indiana University and Ball State. “This is a place that truly lives its values. And so it does make it really easy to work here. … Not every place is like that.”

Dantonio and Izzo will earn more than $7.5 million in salary and bonuses this year, roughly 10 times what university president Lou Anna K. Simon makes. And yet there’s a synergy there that’s not all that common in major-college athletics, owing in part to the relationships that have been built over time.

Simon, who also serves as the NCAA executive committee chairwoman, has been at Michigan State for more than 40 years, the last decade as president. Hollis, an MSU grad, has been in the athletic department for 20 years. Izzo’s coaching tenure in East Lansing dates to 1983, while Dantonio is in his 15th year there in two separate stints.

“If you get a coach who cares about things beyond the border of their sport, it’s a true blessing,” said Hollis, whose athletic department budget has grown from $74 million in 2009-10 to a projected $107 million for 2015-16, a 45 percent increase. “And both those guys do. …

“So I think you’re seeing not only the continuity but the connectivity.”

The exposure, too. Hollis talks about the Spartan pride increasingly on display nationally, “whether you’re in New York City or on the Santa Monica pier.”

But it’s also about the rise in university applications — up more than 30 percent in the last five years — that’s at least partly influenced by athletic success. (Applications from California spiked dramatically after the Spartans’ Rose Bowl win in 2013.)

Michigan State’s win at Ohio State two weeks ago was the highest-rated college football broadcast of the season, drawing more than 11 million viewers on ABC. The Spartans have been a part of three of the six most-watched games this season, including the wins over Oregon and Michigan.

Today will mark the fourth time this season that ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew — which travels to highlight a top matchup each week — will be at the site of one of Michigan State’s contests.

“Televised sports increase brand awareness for major universities far more than we could ever purchase,” Swain said.

“We would never be able to buy that kind of advertising, that kind of visible impact. We wouldn’t be able to afford it. So it just puts us out there in front of not only our own alumni and our existing fans, but a whole nation of people, over and over.”

Getting word out

Leveraging that, then, is the real important task, for Swain and her staff. That might mean using social media platforms to offer a different kind of play-by-play, marrying the action to the academics, highlighting achievements or initiatives in various departments, whether it’s Alzheimer’s research or medical students working in Cuba.

It might mean promoting top-ranked graduate programs in nuclear physics or organizational psychology or elementary and secondary education.

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“What I tell my staff all the time is, I want people to be able to tell a different story tomorrow about Michigan State than they can tell today,” Swain said.

“So if you’re an alum with affinity and enthusiasm, my goal will be to get you tomorrow how to be able to tell a neighbor or a friend’s son or daughter something about the institution that goes farther than athletics, or it goes farther than the experience that you might’ve had 20 years ago. …

“I’ve got you on the porch, so I’m gonna try to get you in the house.”

Big Ten championship

Iowa vs. Michigan State

Kickoff: 8:17 p.m. Saturday, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

TV/radio: Fox / WJR 760

Records: No. 4 Iowa 12-0, No. 5 Michigan State 11-1

Line: Michigan State by 3

Series: Iowa leads 23-20-1