Why Geoff Collins's Georgia Tech Rebuild Starts With a Rebrand
The Waffle House thing wasn’t planned. When Geoff Collins coached Temple, he lived a 75-minute drive from the nearest Waffle House. That didn’t stop Collins from going there, but it did limit his chances. So when Collins took the Georgia Tech job, he ate at Waffle House as often as he could—which was pretty often considering Tech has a Waffle House on campus and nearly every player the Yellow Jackets recruit lives near a Waffle House.
Then Collins noticed the response he got when images of him holding a Waffle House mug or to-go cup appeared on Instagram and Twitter. Collins, who had two previous stints at Georgia Tech, knew the company had serious Tech ties—current CEO Walter Ehmer is a Tech grad, for example—so Collins leaned into the connection of the Yellow Jackets and the yellow-signed chain. It wasn’t schtick. It was the breakfast he wanted anyway, the one the Conyers, Ga., native dreamed of while he worked in Philadelphia. “That’s a nice little synergy,” Collins says, “with two brands that go together.”
That doesn’t sound like something a football coach would say, unless that football coach is Geoff Collins. Though he spends most of his day discussing under fronts and pattern-match coverages, he’s also quite comfortable talking about flooding the digital space or the stickiness of a particular slogan. “If he wasn’t a coach,” Santino Stancato says, “he’d run a multimedia company.”
Stancato should know. The 25-year-old does run a multimedia company of sorts. While at Temple, Collins hired Stancato away from the Brooklyn Cyclones (a Class A Mets affiliate) to manage the Owls’ football brand. When Collins got the Georgia Tech job in December, one of the first calls he made was to the wunderkind he calls Morpheus. (Collins swears he knows Stancato’s proper name, but he rarely uses it.) Soon after, Morpheus joined the Yellow Jackets’ program as its first brand manager. In fact, he’s the first person to hold that particular job title at a Power 5 program.
Why focus so much on brand? Simple, Collins says. “In the NFL, players choose based on contract length and dollar amounts,” he says. “But when high school players choose a school, they’re choosing based on brand. So you create the strongest brand and strongest culture you can.”
It just so happens, though, that no other first-year head coach needed to spread the gospel of his team’s new brand as much as Collins. The Yellow Jackets ran a triple-option offense for 11 seasons under previous coach Paul Johnson. Few schematic identities were more clearly defined. But Collins won’t be running the option, and as he put together his first recruiting class at Georgia Tech, he had precious little time to spread the word. Still, thanks to his own one-man-band efforts in December* and the work of Stancato and the rest of the staff after they joined, Collins believes the people who need to know are now well aware that the Yellow Jackets will look strikingly different when they take the field on Aug. 29 against defending national champ Clemson in Death Valley. “We’ve already, in a month, broken past that,” Collins says.
*Collins waited to assemble his staff until after Temple played in the Independence Bowl against Duke, so he was the lone coach recruiting for Georgia Tech between getting the job and the early signing period. He wanted to make the transition for Temple’s players as easy as possible given the circumstances, though that transition was more difficult than most because of factors Collins couldn’t have imagined.
Let’s get one thing straight. The option was good for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets won the ACC in 2009 (the title was later vacated by the NCAA) and won the Coastal Division in 2014 running that offense. It was an experiment that worked, but it also was an experiment that had run its course. To energize the fan base, the Yellow Jackets needed to look different. Basically, they needed to be cool. And a program located in the capital of the South—surrounded by talent in metro Atlanta—can be cool even if it’s attached to an engineering school that isn’t the easiest to get into or stay in.
Collins knows that. He was in high school in the Atlanta suburbs when Bobby Ross took over for Bill Curry. He was a freshman at Western Carolina in 1990 when the Yellow Jackets shared a national title with fifth-down-aided Colorado. He got a job as a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech in 1999 when George O’Leary was routinely leading Georgia Tech to top-25 rankings. He came back with Chan Gailey when Megatron played for the Yellow Jackets and Reggie Ball ranked just behind Chipper Jones in 404 Q score. “I’ve been formulating this for about 20 years,” says Collins, who hopes to make the city of Atlanta itself one of Georgia Tech’s best recruiting tools.
While Collins and Stancato have worked to educate recruits and potential recruits about what Collins plans to do, they also have been busy trying to remind everyone that Georgia Tech wasn’t always a niche program. The bio on the program’s official Twitter feed now reminds visitors that the Yellow Jackets have won four national titles. Collins hasn’t forgotten when André 3000 would show up on Georgia Tech’s sideline.
Collins sold Georgia Tech even when he wasn’t supposed to. When he got that GA job under O’Leary, he begged the head coach to let him talk to recruits. (Not to recruit off-campus—which would have been against the rules—but in a role similar to the ones player-personnel directors have on campuses today.) O’Leary said no that first season. Collins kept pestering O’Leary, and after he’d been on the Flats a year, O’Leary relented. (Sort of.) “We had six primary states,” Collins says. “He told me I could have the other 44. He thought that would shut me up. It didn’t.”
The Yellow Jackets signed players from 11 states in 2001. Guess who helped reel in players from the other five states? When Collins returned to Georgia Tech in ’06 as the director of player personnel, he helped assemble the best class in program history. That ’07 group included tailback Jonathan Dwyer, safety Morgan Burnett and defensive end Derrick Morgan. Collins performed so well in that role that Nick Saban hired Collins to build the recruiting department at Alabama in Saban’s first season. The 2008 Alabama class—the first full cycle after Saban arrived—was one of the best classes in college football history. It included receiver Julio Jones, future Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, future Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, defensive end Marcell Dareus, safety Mark Barron, safety Robert Lester, rush linebacker Courtney Upshaw and nose tackle Terrence Cody. Patrick Suddes, at that time a young Alabama staffer working alongside Collins, has rejoined his former co-worker at Georgia Tech. Suddes will be the Yellow Jackets’ director of player personnel.
After Collins got back on the field, he began building his own brand. He was the guy who drew a Can of Swag in an attempt to convince soon-to-be-Alabama-bound cornerback Marlon Humphrey to come to Mississippi State. As Florida’s defensive coordinator, Collins dubbed third down the “money down” and had managers pogoing on the sideline while holding posters emblazoned with dollar signs every time the D had a chance to get a stop. At Temple, Collins had storm troopers holding up those signs. This happened because Collins is a nerd who loves Star Wars and who quotes Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings when taking Temple co-workers to Waffle House. “A lot of places will fear negative feedback that can come from those things if you don’t win,” Stancato says. “But the way that we embrace that stuff as a program—in-season and out-of-season—is what truly makes it special.” Temple beat Tulsa 31–17 the storm trooper game. More importantly, a Thursday-night audience on ESPN got a look at Temple’s brand of football, and the storm trooper gimmick might have brought a few more people into the tent.
Collins and Stancato want to have fun, but they’re more worried about making potential recruits aware of the program. Then, once they have the attention of those players, they want to show them what Collins’s program looks like. Yes, the Yellow Jackets will do Game of Thrones-themed workouts when winter has come. Yes, those workouts will be hard.
Stancato was pleased this past month when official and unofficial visitors seemed to already have a feel for what Collins wants the program to be, based on what they had seen on social media and thanks to direct communication with the program. He hopes even more potential players will have a sense of the program this time next year. When Georgia Tech wraps the first recruiting class of the Collins era on Wednesday’s National Signing Day, Stancato can throw himself headlong into the program’s stylebook. This is the menu of fonts and phrases that the Yellow Jackets will use when they present themselves to the world on the web. If Stancato does his job, you’ll know it’s a Georgia Tech football production before you ever see a logo.
This is why Collins hired Stancato, who studied marketing and public relations at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. Stancato never took a graphics class. Instead, he realized he had a knack for the visual arts while helping coach his younger brother’s baseball team. Stancato would snap photos of players and then create posters that he could sell to the players’ parents using design methods he learned from watching YouTube videos. When he sold about $5,000 worth of posters in one day, he realized he had a knack for visual arts and for marketing.
Collins never strayed into that field, but he’s just as interested in the concept of branding. Most coaches understand that their program needs a viable, identifiable brand, but they’d rather hire someone such as Stancato to handle the details. Collins is in constant contact with the guy stored in his phone as Morpheus because he wants players to take the red pill, stay in wonderland and learn how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Of course, Collins knows branding doesn’t win games. His teams will have to play the kind of defense they played when he was a coordinator at Mississippi State and Florida if he hopes to have early success as the offense adjusts to an entirely new scheme. Collins brought Dave Patenaude from Temple to run the offense, and that offense will have facets Johnson’s didn’t. For instance, it will have tight ends and slot receivers. The Yellow Jackets haven’t had those for 11 years.
When Collins took over, the Yellow Jackets had 13 running backs and zero tight ends. Collins signed graduate transfer Tyler Davis from Connecticut to give the Yellow Jackets some instant experience at tight end. Collins also signed high schooler Dylan Deveney from New Jersey in the early signing period to help beef up tight end depth.* Collins could have stocked the tight end room with this class, but that would have created its own set of problems. “If you go out and just sign five tight ends in the same year, your roster management system is going to be flawed,” he says.
*Georgia Tech’s most interesting signee in the early signing period was defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen, a 6'4", 250-pounder from Belgium who has never taken a snap in the United States. Collins wanted Yondjouen at Temple, but Yondjouen seemed set on signing with Arizona. When Collins got the Georgia Tech job, he reconnected with Yondjouen, convinced him to come to Atlanta for an official visit and wound up signing him.
Besides, Collins might already have some of what he needs on the roster. He realized quickly how smart the players are at the university U.S. News and World Report ranks as the nation’s No. 8 public school. Even though Johnson’s teams didn’t use tight ends or slot receivers, Collins says four players told him at the first team meeting that they played tight end. Even more said they played slot receiver, he says. The players already on the roster know they need to be flexible if they want to play in the new scheme, and they’re willing to do (or say) anything to get on the field.
Collins wants to incorporate that intelligence into his brand strategy. He saw how Stanford went from using its academic bona fides as a crutch to using them as an effective recruiting tool. That’s why Collins got miffed at his introductory press conference when he was asked if Georgia Tech could win with its academic rigor. “I kind of bowed up a little bit, because I see [academics] as such great advantages,” Collins says. “The greatest players I’ve ever coached in my career are elite in every phase of their lives—from athletics to their work ethic to their attitude to their academics. Socially, spiritually, they are elite in everything they do.”
Collins knows he’ll have to win at Tech or all this branding talk will seem like a distraction from the business of football. But he believes the branding will help him get the players who can help Georgia Tech win on a consistent basis.
On Jan. 5, Collins addressed the crowd during a break in the Georgia Tech basketball team’s win against Wake Forest. “We are going to put Georgia Tech back in the conversation,” Collins said.
Get those sideline passes ready for André 3000. Tell him to bring Big Boi, too.
A Random Ranking
I may turn the Random Ranking topics over to you permanently, because you’re on a roll. Last week’s crowdsourced ranking (condescending nicknames in descending order) was so much fun that I put out the call again and got another excellent suggestion.
I loved the Gladys Knight rendition before Sunday’s Super Bowl, but it didn’t quite crack my top five.
1. Whitney Houston before Super Bowl XXV
2. LeAnn Rimes before the 2006 Rose Bowl (the best I’ve seen person)
3. The various academy choirs at Super Bowl XXXIX
4. Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock
5. Toronto Maple Leafs finish the song after the singer’s microphone fails in 2014
Three And Out
1. Florida State coach Willie Taggart dismissed quarterback Deondre Francois on Saturday night following an Instagram post by the girlfriend of Francois. The post included video that showed nothing but audio that included a man threatening to beat a woman with whom he was having an argument. The audio also included the sound of one person striking another.
“Last night, I informed Deondre Francois that he is no longer a member of the Florida State football program,” Taggart said in a statement. “As we build a new culture and foundation for FSU Football, we have high expectations for all of our student-athletes and we will not shy away from those high standards of conduct. We are moving forward as a program.”
James Blackman, who reportedly considered a transfer last month, now becomes the favorite to start at quarterback for the Seminoles. As for Francois, it remains to be seen whether the video will lead to criminal charges. Because he has graduated, he could transfer and play somewhere else immediately. He also could try to enter the NFL’s supplemental draft. But given his issues in the past two years, it’s tough to imagine an NFL team taking him now.
2. When you heard about Missouri football getting a one-year bowl ban from the NCAA because a tutor did work for players, you probably asked, “But what about North Carolina?” I explained why those cases are different.
3. Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray still isn’t answering the baseball-football question (because it gives him leverage with the Oakland A’s, at least until the team’s Feb. 15 reporting date for spring training). Here’s Murray not answering the question multiple times on the Dan Patrick Show.
What’s Eating Andy?
Dilly dilly indeed. Excellent work, Drogon. You won the Super Bowl (commercial division).
What’s Andy Eating?
Don’t be fooled by stereotypes. Yes, southern California has more salad restaurants per capita than any other place in America (some of those—Tender Greens for starters—are amazing), but you can dive into a pile of carbs and fat just as easily in the Southland as you can anywhere else.
For example, if you find yourself in Manhattan Beach, you can visit local institution The Kettle and cover the most important food groups with the same dish. On one plate, you get…
• The fried chicken group.
• The biscuit group.
• The gravy group.
• The egg group. (Because something has to have nutritional value.)
The Kettle serves buttermilk honey fried chicken and biscuits until 2 p.m., and if you order it any time between 9 a.m. and the cutoff, you won’t need to eat again the rest of the day. This dish hits every pleasure center thanks to the chicken with the sweet, crispy skin, the savory gravy and the fluffy black pepper biscuits. If The Kettle and Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles ever did a limited-edition collaboration that combined The Kettle’s honey fried chicken and biscuits with Roscoe’s waffles and gravy, the entire Los Angeles metro area might need to shut down so everyone could take a nap.
Until then, we’ll have to settle for The Kettle’s glorious platter of empty calories followed by a loooooooooooooong walk on the beach.