Advertising is a reflection of culture.
As a creative, your goal is to connect with people. To take little bits of life, find something funny or emotional about it, package it up however you need (in a 30-second TV spot, for instance) and hope it helps people connect to your brand.
But the problem is every creative at every agency is trying to do the same thing for just about every brand and/or product in America. And if one thing dominates our collective attention to an extreme degree, it can impact the ads you see, and make them all feel like they're telling the same story.
In. These. Uncertain. Times. They're four words to talk about a global pandemic without saying "COVID" or "global pandemic" and they gently remind you of the chaos you're trying to escape by watching a rerun of the 2017 Outback Bowl on ESPNU. It's an annoying cliche, and we got sick of hearing it by the third week of March.
But just because it's overused doesn't make it untrue. We have obsessed over the virus, it has dominated our Twitter feeds, our day-to-day interactions, and even the way we talk about sports.
The last two weeks have thrown the Virginia Tech football team into the spotlight. They happened to be involved in each of the ACC's first two COVID-related postponements and now all eyes are on them to see if they can muster up enough guys to make the third time a charm. Instead of answering questions about depth charts or job security, Justin Fuente addressing the media and sounding like this:
Those dead eyes? That chuckle to himself when something's obviously sad-funny, not actually funny? Fuente has never connected with the Virginia Tech fan base more. It's hard to get excited about a season with no true start date, and even tougher when forced to acknowledge the roster limitations that the Hokies may be forced to deal with from the jump.
But let's put those feelings on pause for just a moment, set the pandemic aside and talk a little football. Because while Hokies everywhere have spent the last few weeks fretting about postponements, one storyline has gone a bit under the radar:
Virginia Tech has a new, 38-year-old, first-time defensive coordinator.
In itself, that story is fascinating. Not only did Fuente replace a retiring Bud Foster–the last remaining thread to the Frank Beamer dynasty–but he filled the role by promoting a young coach from within. It's a gutsy decision by a head coach often panned for his conservative nature. And yes, fans can roll their eyes and talk about how the Hokies made the decision for the money (Hamilton's $600K is half of what Barry Odom got at Arkansas), but there is significant precedent for these types of educated gambles.
The obvious and most recent example is Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. The 37-year-old former NFL defensive back came back to his alma mater, spent a year as DB coach before being called up to the big chair–a path nearly identical to Hamilton's. Leonhard's defenses have dominated in Madison, making him a rising star in coaching circles. But examples of come ups like his aren't rare.
Clemson's Tony Elliott went from coaching at South Carolina State and Furman before a few seasons as the Tigers' running backs coach. He's now their OC and is one of the most sought after (and highest paid) assistants on the market.
Will Muschamp jumped from Valdosta State and spent one year as LSU's linebackers coach before Nick Saban gave him the nod to be the DC at 31. Kirby Smart took a three-year apprenticeship under Saban before leading the Alabama defense at 33. Jeremy Pruitt spent two years as an D-1 position coach (again, at Alabama) before making the leap to Florida State defensive coordinator at 39. And hell, in just four years Lincoln Riley went from Texas Tech GA to ECU OC under Ruffin McNeil.
It's just a smattering of examples, but can you see the common thread? A veteran head coach with an eye for talent sees the potential of a young assistant, and instead of letting the guy spread his wings at a Group of Five school, simply gives him a promotion and keeps him in-house.
Though promotion from within seems like a move for programs (literally) balling on a budget, it makes sense that these assistants came up the ranks at places like LSU, Alabama and Clemson. Those places have the ability to grow talent because they have enough money to keep them supported.
Were those now-famous coaches ready to take the reins in their thirties? Of course not. And if you gave each of them a dose of truth serum, they'd say the same thing. That's how promotions work, especially when they come from good bosses. They throw you into a role you may not think you're ready for and then give you the support you need to grow into it.
Lost between the surprise of Hamilton's promotion and the mild disappointment Tech didn't get a bigger name is that Fuente made a big boy decision. Like other coaches at bigger, more powerful institutions, Fuente seemed to recognize one of college football's universal truths–there are few more valuable commodities than a bright, young coordinator.
If you're confident in the ability, a young coordinator on a cheaper salary can alter the trajectory of a program. It gives you money to throw other places (as Fuente did when he beefed up the rest of the defensive staff), it gives players someone they can relate to and can bring a certain level of energy to their side of the ball. And if they succeed, hefty promotions can come without breaking the bank (Leonhard, for instance, got a huge bump after two years of monster defenses, but is still just the 27th highest paid coordinator in the sport.)
But this should all be obvious, because what fan base knows the benefits of promoting a young coordinator more than anyone else in the country?
Virginia Tech Athletics | Dave Knachel
In 1995 Beamer promoted Foster at the ripe age of 36. 25 years later, Virginia Tech fans would say it worked out pretty well. Though it's easy to draw comparisons between the two, Hamilton faces much more pressure than his predecessor did in '95–and it's not because he's taking over for a legend.
Hamilton is not inheriting a vaunted Foster defense. The last dominant Lunch Pail D left Blacksburg with Tremaine Edmunds and Tim Settle in 2017, and the room is now filled with a collection of disparate parts who have seen a few highs (shutting out Georgia Tech and PIttsburgh in back-to-back games!) and a ton of lows (Bryce Perkins! Lynn Bowden! Giving up 600 yards to ODU! The rest of 2018!) But the pressure to build a successful unit still rests on his shoulders. And despite the lack of spring practice and the uncertainty COVID-induced quarantines have wrecked on the roster, there is one thing the new coordinator cannot escape.
His performance will make or break Virginia Tech's season.
Though it's drawn ire over the last four years, the Hokie offense seems ready to take off. Tech averaged 36 points in Hendon Hooker's starts, which would have been 15th most in the country over an entire season. The quarterback's presence opened up the attack, kept opponents honest on play action and dramatically increased their touchdown percentage in the red zone (67% in 2019, up from 50% the year before.)
But Tech's scoring numbers aren't just the result of improved play from under center. They improved as the defense solidified. Though the Hokies' put up more points, they didn't set the world on fire with oodles of yards. They took advantage of opportunistic situations, short fields and momentum shifts.
Just look at Tech's wins under Hooker. Miami turned the ball over on their first four possessions, leading to scoring drives of 48, 23 and 20 yards. A 21-0 lead gifted by the defense was enough to stave off an epic collapse.
The Wake game was tight until the defense forced two Jamie Newman turnovers inside his own 30, turning a tense 3-point lead into a convincing 36-17 win. Caleb Farley ran a score back in a 45-0 route of overwhelmed Georgia Tech. Norell Pollard's scoop-and-score gave the Hokies control of a rainy punt fest vs Pitt.
While the success of Tech's post-September turnaround was credited to the quarterback change, at least half of it was due to improvement on the other side of the ball. And conversely, when they weren't good it was almost impossible for the Hokies to win.
Bud Foster's last VT defense was one of his most volatile and explosive (for better and worse) units. Will see what new DC Justin Hamilton (a fast-rising Foster protege/clone) changes, if anything. Hopefully nothing -- volatile = fun for neutrals pic.twitter.com/9zdvycWWjW— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) August 24, 2020
This is the pressure weighing on Hamilton. If he can step in, avoid newcomer mistakes and make his defense level out just a bit, the Hokies could see quite the jump this fall. He doesn't even have to be stellar in his first year, just build incremental improvement and let Tech's strength (aka the offense) do the heavy lifting. But if the D doesn't improve–or worse, experiences the rookie coordinator blues–Tech's delicately stacked house of cards may come tumbling down on the rebuilt staff.
There's a real chance Hamilton could be the turning point in Fuente's tenure in Blacksburg. If they can get both sides of the ball on the same page, Hamilton's career could skyrocket and Fuente could look like a program-building genius for giving him the nod.
But nothing's guaranteed. And for Fuente to have to count on the success of a 38-year-old coach with limited practice reps in the middle of a pandemic?
Uncertain times, indeed.