To kick off the college football season, I was able to catch up with two digital leaders at Ohio State Athletics, Pat Kindig and Zach Swartz. Kindig is the Assistant Athletics Director-Digital Assets, overseeing the tOSU digital team outside of football, while Swartz directs new and creative media initiatives specifically for football operations.

It will come as no surprise that excellence sits as a cornerstone of the Ohio State football program. Swartz and Kindig described a culture that demands elite production on the field, in recruiting, at the training table, and of course, on social media.

We dove into the tandem’s roles and team structure, the program’s commitment to player development, and the lofty expectations for everyone within the Ohio State football machine. The full Q&A is below.

*The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Pat, you said that Zach manages social media solely for football and you focus on the rest. Could you break down how your departments are structured and how that has evolved over the years?

 
Pat: Sure – I’ve overseen social since ’08 – ’09. So obviously we’ve seen a lot of evolution there. Zach joined on this April and his first week was the (NFL) Draft. It’s always busy here, but he came on right in the fire. For Zach’s side, recruiting is number one – that is his main audience – and from our side, the fan would be number one. Now, they obviously cross paths from time to time.

The first directive from Zach’s standpoint with football is to reach the recruit and from our standpoint, it’s to reach the fan.

From our end, we have the main athletics account, which I oversee, as well as fan-oriented accounts like the Brutus Buckeye Twitter and Instagram where we like to have that back and forth with fans, giving that personal approach as well. Engagement is huge for us with the fans.

With the football accounts, you’ve said recruits are number one. At a recent conference, Kelly Mosier from Nebraska Athletics said that anyone working in college athletics is very aware, no matter what your role, that you’re always recruiting. But if you’re creating content that recruits enjoy, the fans are enjoying it as well.

Does that ring true to how you think about creating content for the football side of things?

P: We want to make sure the recruit sees it first before the fans see it. Provide that exclusivity.

Zach: Yeah, my position was created by Coach (Urban) Meyer. I don’t know of many programs across the country that have a person full-time on the football staff that runs all of the social media from the front and back end. I report to our Director of Recruiting and, in the hierarchy, directly to Coach Meyer. Everything that goes out is done in what we think would be good for recruits. And like Pat said, we want the recruits to see it first.

So we’re not only making content to publish live, we’re making content that we can now text and direct message to our recruits from our coaches specific accounts, from the direct account, and from Coach Meyer’s account.

So it is a little unique in the fact that we’re creating content that we’re mailing and direct messaging to recruits prior to posting live. From a coach’s perspective, it’s almost more important for that stuff to be sent directly to the guys rather than posted. That’s kind of a secondary goal. For me, you know, we have to get engagement to grow and be seen, but yes, the recruits are the number one goal.

When you’re creating content on behalf of Ohio State Athletics, or Ohio State Football, what do you want recruits — your audience to feel? What’s your brand message?

Z: There are specific themes that Coach Meyer coaches to the assistants and their units that are then passed along to the players. That’s been something consistent. Those three things are:

Power of the Unit – which is our nine units – each position group and their head coach, they’re seen as individual units, and Nine Strong is the goal of the program. It’s not National Championships. It’s not to win bowl games. That’s all part of it, obviously, but Nine Strong is the goal.

The second is Competitive Excellence. We want our players, coaches, staff, trainers – and me – to be as elite as possible. To be elite at everything you do.

The third is the Brotherhood of Trust. We have a systematic approach to teaching players to view the football program as a family.

Those are the things that we teach our players. It’s those core elements that we try to put into our graphics and videos. We want all those things to represent what we are as a program. We want videos to be fast paced: quick music and highlights. We should make recruits feel like it’s an exciting place to be. We’ve been doing a good job with recruiting because we don’t have to make up a whole lot. We have a great history and have had recent success.

That’s what we want people to feel. We want them to feel the history and excitement of Ohio State Football. At the same time, with Coach Meyer, it’s pretty incredible. I’ve never seen anything like this in my career as leadership development goes. We have a very strict way of developing leaders and a procedure, with the help of some professionals, to teach the staff how to act in your daily lives. To keep your bodies healthy. To be able to see your family. That’s one thing that’s taught by Coach Meyer; to be well rounded, so that when it comes time to do your job, you’re able to do that.

We push our players to be as well rounded as possible. To be good in the classroom. To earn a job after college. We do a lot of talking to players who have internships and jobs outside of football as well as current players who have internships and community service during the summer. We want people to feel like they’re going to get a really well rounded experience at Ohio State, which I know everyone says, but it’s pretty incredible the amount of detail Coach Meyer puts into it.

Those are the two sides – fast, energetic, exciting. The history of Ohio State football. And the other side – If you come here, you’re going to be a great football player, but you’re going to be elite at everything.

Pat, can you jump in on the fan-centric side of that – what do you want the fans to feel from the content you’re creating and sharing?

P: We have a saying — we want to insightfully insight. So we want to have thought-provoking material on everything we put out. We want to invoke pride from our fan base. It doesn’t take a lot to get our fan base to respond. And there’s times that we want to rattle the cage with them as well. We like that emotion. We want our fans to have that emotion and passion. So we want that to spill over from social, to when they get to their seats at the games or when they’re watching on TV.

We love curating content from fans. Every Monday we turn around a fan video. We collect and we turn it around. We want to share their stuff. Their stuff is better than ours sometimes. We want to highlight our fans and that’s how we keep growing the fan base. Fans love to see themselves and they love to see what they’ve done. So we get them up on the video board and things like that. “Insightfully Insight” evokes a prideful response from our fans.

In the lead up to the Draft, opendorse did some analysis of the most marketable draft prospects. OSU had 4 of the 5 most followed draft prospects on social media. I wanted to know if your team works with the players to grow their personal brands on social media?
 
P: We really, like any other school, do media training with these guys. They know what to say and what not to say and represent this great university and state in the right way. It’s printed on the wall.

Z: They’re taught to represent the great state of Ohio and the great Ohio State University in the right way. That’s something that’s taught every single day with the same terminology. In meetings; team meetings and individual meetings; at practice and after practice; after workouts. Not only by Coach Meyer, but by position coaches, the GAs, and the strength coaches.

We teach that being a Buckeye means, one, you represent a fan base and a university and a bunch of people that truly care about it. It’s a big University with a lot of history. And two, you’re going to be in the public eye, because Ohio State football is one of the most national brands out there.

They know that for sure. I wouldn’t say we have meetings about what you should tweet as far as specifics, but they are taught what it means to represent the University and the state in the right way. At the same time, there’s definitely a culture of professionalism here that helps players get drafted. Coach wants people – our recruits – to want to go to the NFL. I wouldn’t say we’re shy about saying that we want recruits to have those lofty expectations if you want to come play for Ohio State. That’s not the number one goal – it’s to develop them as well-rounded people and then give them the opportunity to have that, but we want somebody that has that goal.

A lot of the people that come here and see the professionalism. A lot of former players have come back and said that the way they were treated at Ohio State is exactly how they are treated in the NFL. Understanding that if they’re treated like professionals, knowing that one day they will be a true professional, I think that rubs off onto how they see themselves and how they portray themselves on social.

Another one of the mantras that Coach has had is Real Life Wednesday. This goes to the part outside of football. Throughout the year on Wednesdays, we have all kinds of speakers. We’ve had bank CEOs, Nike, Roger Goodell, Anthony Schlegel, a former player who has started his own business. It’s turned into more than just speakers. We had a job fair that was put on for our football team with fifty-to-sixty local and national brands. The players were taught how to dress professionally, they made a resume, and they went from station to station exchanging business cards. That’s turned into a week-long internship at Goldman Sachs for three of our players. One of our players took a Nike internship for week out at Nike this summer.

It also extended to Patriot Week right before Memorial Day, where the players took an hour-a-day to learn about different aspects of patriotism. specifically, they learned about the right to vote, how minorities were granted the right to vote in the ’60s, and how the voting process works today. They wrote letters to the families of deceased marines in Ohio and throughout the country. So, all of this teaches life beyond football – how to be a man, how to be a well-rounded citizen, and eventually, how to go get a job when you’re done, whether the NFL happens and not. The big part that we try to portray on social is the real-life effect that the program has on these players outside of football.

One of the pitches of Ohio State is how successful the program has been at putting players in the NFL. I noticed your team sharing and retweeting what former players – who have found that success – on your Twitter or Instagram. Is that something that you proactively do – reaching out to former players and asking them to share Ohio State content, or does that just come from the players loving Ohio State and sharing on their own?

P: They just do it! From Joey Galloway to Chris Spielman, to Cris Carter. If you followed all those guys this weekend, when Orlando Pace was inducted to the Hall of Fame, all that stuff comes out. There’s just a lot of pride there. James Laurinaitis shares stuff all the time. We just keep our eyes out on the radar and know who’s active. Zach put out a couple videos with photos and tweets from former student-athletes here and we’ll do that all the time, so we don’t have to solicit.

Z: It’s all organic. We have players come back to our facility all the time. They’re allowed to workout. We’ve had everybody from Nate Ebner, who’s in the Olympics, to Bobby Carpenter, who works in the media now. I think all 12 of the guys who were drafted have been back over the summer.

When they are back, we definitely ask them questions on camera and use anything that they might say for recruiting. We really never put words in their mouth. We make sure we ask straight questions. They really do love this place and it’s helped them get to where they are.

Right, that’s such a huge advantage to have advocates like that. 

P: Yeah, they’ll congratulate each other on a good NFL Sunday. It all takes care of itself and we’re just there to amplify it.

In the world of college athletics, high quality video and visual content has taken off. It’s no longer the exception with a few great programs doing it, it’s kind of the norm now. Do you concern yourselves with “staying ahead of the Jones’” with the content you create, or is it more about staying on-brand and on-message?

Z: From a football perspective, our number one goal is to be elite and be the best. I look at what other schools are doing, of course. I think everybody does. But at the same time, the goal is never to copy anything that anybody does. We have a really strong brand that we don’t need to do that. We can get ideas from what other schools are doing, but my goal is to be the best in the country at what I do, just like everyone else’s goal is the program is. Whether it’s recruiting, player development, coaching, training or nutrition… whatever it is, the charge is to be the best.

So while we definitely may get ideas and see what other people are doing, we have a football brand that is very strong in itself to where we have a lot to work off of.

Okay guys, one more question and I’ll let you get back to work – In social, it seems like there’s a new trend every couple of months.  There’s a new idea that the industry latches onto. Is there a trend or big idea that has come about in recent months that you see as becoming very prevalent in the next several months and year?

P: I don’t know where you find every couple months, this is more like every five minutes. [laughs]

Obviously the Instagram Stories development looks to be taking off. We actually did just this Saturday while the Cleveland Browns were here. That will be interesting to see how that shakes out with Snapchat. I think I have a list of I don’t know how many cameras I want to buy before my boss shuts down my budget.[laughs]
Zach’s got a new one that he’s firing stuff off from practice. I want to go buy one, I think it’s sweet.

So that first-person perspective is great. The fact that Facebook and YouTube are allowing the 360 degree is really, really big because not everybody can afford the VR platforms. That’s something that we’re really looking at. And, of course, whatever comes up next.

Z: I think live is huge, obviously. In athletics, we’re obviously limited on what we can put out there. Especially for me being in the football program, there’s a lot I’d like to share, but when you’re live you can’t control the F-bombs and all that, or whatever you may hear at a football practice. So there’s a fine line, but there’s definitely a lot of opportunity to use live. And like Pat said, there’s so much technology now that’s affordable. Really high quality video is becoming super affordable, so finding technologies that allow you to share high quality video quickly is huge. Whether it’s one quick clip at practice or a game, or being able to share it on a cloud back to your storage system and get it edited to put out as quickly as possible. That’s definitely a goal that I have throughout the rest of camp and throughout the season: to get equipment that allows us to put out unique content that you can’t find anywhere else, that you can only find from us, and to get it out as fast as possible.

I still want quality content and that’s the good thing about these cameras. They allow for really good, quality content. Even just on your phone sometimes, you can grab really high quality content and put it out there right away. That’s how we grow our brand, or at least our fan base and our interaction on our social platforms. It’s quick and quality, at least that’s the goal.