When the hubbub died down after the Washington Huskies’ bounce-back season in 2009, the buildup of quarterback Jake Locker swung into full effect.
The buzz started midway through December when Locker announced he would return for his senior year.
Already tabbed by media as a likely top pick should he enter the NFL draft, Locker now was mentioned as a frontrunner in the Heisman Trophy race.
By early summer, Locker began showing up on airwaves around the country – on television, radio and Internet podcasts.
An all-out blitz – featuring dozens of interviews and on-site appearances – made sure all corners of the country knew about the Huskies’ dynamic quarterback.
As Locker’s national profile skyrocketed, so did the UW’s.
“An athlete like Jake Locker is once in a generation with the skills he has,” said O.D. Vincent III, senior associate athletic director at UW.
“(Locker) coming back for his senior season meant so much to us, so we wanted to do our part. We want the rest of the country exposed to Jake.”
Publicity campaigns aren’t just a series of periodic e-mails or faxed letters to national-award committee members these days. They require astute, strategic planning.
Kevin Long, president of MVP Sports Training in Indiana, is a media-management consultant to NCAA Division I programs. He helps push athletes into the national spotlight.
“Everybody has really stepped it up a notch,” Long said. “DVDs of a guy’s plays from the past year go to Heisman voters. Text alerts during games go out to Heisman voters. Athletes have their own websites.
“A lot of things go into building a successful Heisman campaign. It’s not for those who don’t have the money to do it right. It’s not a part-time gig. It’s a full-time operation.”
The Huskies have been on top of it from the start, as Vincent assembled a team to get the Locker promotional blitz rolling.
The team includes Shannon Kelly, the associate athletic director for marketing and strategic programs; Jeff Bechtold, the director of the Huskies’ sports information department; and Jeremy Cothran, also from the UW sports-information office, who has been assigned as Locker’s personal aide.
The university also hired DNA Seattle, an advertising firm, to utilize Locker in its season-ticket promotions.
Vincent said “the center of the universe” for the Locker campaign is in Ferndale, where folks started writing letters to influential Heisman voters on behalf of their town’s favorite son , describing him as the humble product of small-town roots.
Next was promoting the right kind of community activities that reveal Locker’s character – such as his staunch involvement in the university’s “Touchdown for Kids” foundation.
Finally, UW officials identified two media meccas – New York and ESPN headquarters in nearby Connecticut – for Locker to visit as a way to combat the specter of East Coast bias.
True to his team-first nature, Locker said he only agreed to go on the trips as a way “to represent our football team and this university … and not myself.”
HEADING EAST – TWICE
As much as Locker wanted to escape the personal spotlight, the hype already had begun to mushroom prior to his late-June trip east.
One Seattle media outlet declared it the start of “Locker-palooza.”
“(Publicity) is not something that I’m uncomfortable with. If you asked me would I rather just play football and not do it, heck yeah,” Locker said. “I also understand it provides our fans, and people who support us the … kind of insider information they like to find out. It’s also a huge platform for you to be able to affect people in a positive way.”
Locker conducted interviews with New York media, then turned his attention to the massive entity that is ESPN, located in Bristol, Conn.
As if one trip weren’t enough, Locker was at it again the last week of July as part of the Pacific-10 Conference football tour, joining three other quarterbacks in hitting most of the places he visited the first time.
One of the amusing highlights came at ESPN. Just before the taping of an in-studio interview, a producer recommended that Locker put on facial makeup.
“They said, ‘We have a lot of shows in HD (high definition),’ and I said I understood that, but that I was totally fine with the way I naturally look,” Locker said. “I could just hear my dad and my grandpa if I had told them I put makeup on to go on the show. I wasn’t about to deal with that.”
Scott Locker, Jake’s father, gave the decision a big thumbs-up.
“It made me a pretty proud father,” he said.
After the second trip east, Locker admitted he was wiped out – so much that UW coach Steve Sarkisian declined to bring him to the Pac-10 media day in Los Angeles, instead inviting linebacker Mason Foster.
“It was a lot, definitely,” Locker said. “I think the flights (took) more of a toll on me than the actual interview process. It was pretty crazy – a different atmosphere, a different lifestyle, for sure.”
When it was all over, Locker returned home and spent a week in Eastern Washington camping with his family.
“Those days now are few and far between,” Scott Locker said. “And in the first couple days (camping), I could tell there was wear on him from the trips. I think it does take a toll on you, mentally and physically.”
Look at the Heisman Trophy. The pose seems to fit Locker’s rugged style, with the ball tucked under one arm, the other arm extended, ready to stiff-arm a tackler.
How serious is Locker as a Heisman contender?
• ESPN.com lists him as No. 2 on a list of favorites, behind Alabama running back Mark Ingram, who won the award last year.
• SportsIllustrated.com tabs Locker as one of the men to beat – ahead of Ingram.
• Locker has recent history on his side: Eight of the 10 past winners have been quarterbacks.
Winning is important, too. Locker could have the best of statistical seasons – say, 3,500 passing yards, 750 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns – but if the Huskies don’t win games, his chances would diminish greatly.
If Locker and the team get off to a blazing start in 2010 a contingency plan is in place to ratchet up the promotional campaign, Vincent said.
“It’s the next level of this campaign,” Vincent said. “Going out too strong, too early has never worked.”
UW fans would love nothing more than to see Locker lead the Huskies to a Pac-10 title, a major bowl game and along the way earn himself a trip to the Nokia Theatre in New York as a finalist for the Downtown Athletic Club’s Heisman Trophy in December.
What does Locker think?
“Anybody who thinks an individual award is given because the individual was so good is crazy,” Locker said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a Heisman Trophy winner that won less than nine games. He better play on a pretty darned good team to be able to do that. As much as it is a good honor to win awards like that, it’s even more of a testament to the football teams those players have played on.