Monday, December 14, 2009

What 'The U' can teach you about building communities

I'm a sucker for documentaries that show the 'rise and fall' of military empires, businesses and the like. I love seeing the plan that made these giants possible, then what changed that led to the inevitable decline.

So when I saw that ESPN was going to have a special titled 'The U' on how Miami Hurricanes football became a juggernaut in the 1980s, I had to watch. Now let me have a disclaimer here; the Canes in the 80s were brash, cocky, arrogant, and much of what their players did was a complete embarrassment to college football, in my opinion. I wasn't interested in the special from that angle, I wanted to see what happened to take a football program from all but being closed in the late 70s, to being the dominant program in the country just a few years later.

To give this story a baseline and some perspective, in the late 70s, support for Miami's football program was so low that the school ran promotions with local Burger Kings to give away a free football ticket if you bought a Whopper! The school was about ready to drop the football program when it hired Howard Schnellenberger in 1979. Schnellenberger had tutored under two of the greatest football coaches of all-time, Bear Bryant at Alabama and Don Shula at the Miami Dolphins.

When Schnellenberger arrived in Miami, he immediately started putting his fingerprints over the entire program. His first goal was to 'win back' the city of Miami. Racial and economic tensions had divided the city in the early 80s, and left the entire area looking for an identify to unify it.

And Schnellenberger saw that potential identity as being the Miami Hurricanes football team. He purposely focused almost all of his recruiting efforts on getting football players from inner-city Miami, and the surrounding areas. He did that because as he explained, he wanted to recruit kids from South Florida that wanted to play in front of their friends and family, so they would be in the stands cheering on these players.

Schnellenberger's staff called South Florida 'The State of Miami', and told his staff to saturate that area of the state with their recruiting efforts. What happened was that kids from Miami started committing to play football at Miami, and then started calling their friends at other local schools and told them to come to Miami as well.

And the Miami community noticed that Schnellenberger was going into rough, inner city areas of Miami, and recruiting kids that other schools wouldn't touch. That began to resonate with the Miami community, and they began to respect Schnellenberger and in the process, the community began to adopt the Miami team as their own. Because it was.

"By the mid 80s, the Hurricanes were Miami's team" - Billy Corben, Director of The U

In 1983, the Miami Hurricanes won the school's first football National Championship. And the key was, that title was won with LOCAL players. An area that had been engulfed in strife and division, now had a reason to come together, and Schnellenberger instilled a sense of pride, of local pride, in the Miami program.

What does all of this have to do with your company's efforts to build an on or offline community? The lesson learned here is to give the people you are trying to reach, a sense of ownership in something larger than themselves. Schnellenberger did NOT recruit the best players in the country, he recruited the best players in Miami, specifically because he wanted LOCAL players. He wanted the mamas and daddies of these players to be in the stands cheering their sons on. He wanted the Miami community to identify with this team.

And they did. Remember that lesson when you are trying to create your community-building efforts.

Pic via ESPN


Unknown said...


Watched that same documentary -- guess we were both watching the Heisman Trophy award - BTW, congrats on that -- but like you I agree. What was most interesting was how the coaches first goal wasn't to win a national championship or even to have the best team. His goal was to win the hearts and minds of a city, instill pride and make folks "want" to be a part of Hurricane football.

I think that was the big point -- look in your own backyard for your core and while you're there, you might be surprised to find that your core audience actually can be the seeds of incredible success. Which is usually the opposite of how everyone else does it... they go looking for the biggest bloggers, the sites with largest amounts of traffic, etc. and then try to latch on. Instead, why not find the folks that are really committed to your vision, regardless of the size of their influence today, and let them be apart of building something great with you... in fact I was having this very convo last week with a company with regards to their 2010 blog strategy.

See ya in Pasadena ;-)

Mack Collier said...

Hey Tom, thanks on the Heisman, no one would have said a word if Coly had won it, he had a great year and career.

During that documentary, I thought it was funny when Michael Irvin said the Hurricane players would go to clubs and the bouncers would let them go right in, while they made the Miami Dolphins (PRO) players stand in line! He said it got to the point where the pro players were coming up to the college players asking them to help them get into the clubs!

But I think that goes back to the city being able to identify with the local players, as opposed to a pro team made up of players they didn't know and couldn't relate to.

I guess that goes back to your community building efforts to always be mindful of what the 'common tie' will be that will bring a group together. What will the identity be?

Scott Hepburn said...

You get points in my book for posting a photo of a personal hero, Jim Kelly. Thanks for that!

One of the key takeaways here is that building anything great is JUST. PLAIN. HARD.

Marching into inner-city Miami in the 80s and asking people to believe in something was no easy task. Particularly at a time when racial tensions were high, defying "you can't do that" took courage.

The best community-building programs (or marketing programs or...fill in the blank) require vision, courage, and perseverance. Those traits are the difference between slapping up a Twitter account and doing something truly transformational.

Arik C. Hanson, APR said...


Remember Convicts vs. Catholics? Still one of my favorite rivalries.

I think another interesting parallel between the Miami situation and our world is to always remember to start with your internal audiences. Before building a community outside the four walls of your organization, start with your team, your staff, your employees. They're your biggest cheerleaders. Much like the local kids and families in this story, your employees are the key to your success online. Recruit and empower them and you've won a key victory.


New Rap Songs said...

Great Post!

Jon said...

I loved this documentary. The same producers did one on the city of Miami that was very good as well.