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Saturday, March 26, 2005

And They Don't Take American Express

Not in East Lansing, anyway, and most certainly not in Austin, Texas.

Michigan State did beat Duke last night in the regional semis, didn't it?

You remember those old Visa ads for the Olympics, where the cocky-voiced narrator would talk about all of the great things that would go on, saying something like, "They'll take this, that and the other thing, but they won't take. . . American Express. Visa, the exclusive choice of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games." Or something like that.

They were catchy, and perhaps they caught Amex off guard, as they were a frontal assault on a competitor. Fast forward to 2005, and Amex now has adds of its own, this time with Coach K saying that he's a leader and talking about what he wants his kids to leave Duke with. I have respect for Coach K as a coach, but I could have done without the ad. I thought it to be pretentious, and I just wonder about a coach's wanting to cash in on his celebrity, making himself larger than the school for which he works and making serious money while in a purportedly amateur endeavor. Sorry, Coach K fans, but in this particular realm, I don't accord Coach K the Special K status that you do.

I wouldn't have envisioned John Wooden doing ads like this. Or, yes, Duke lovers and apologists, Dean Smith either. Or Bob Knight. (You'd argue that some coaches would if offered the chance, and that's a fair point, but many wouldn't). Yes, schools have sold some of their laundry space to shoe companies in exchange for money, and I'm not thrilled with that either, but this type of commerce eclipses that type for a simple reason -- that renting of space to Nike directly benefits the athletic department.

How about the renting of the coach? Or is it simply another way to keep the coach happy, keep his income up in a way that the school's budget cannot? Is it different from the camps, the radio shoes and the car from the booster who owns eleven car dealerships within thirty miles of a school's campus? Or is the coach making money off of endeavors, trademarks and institutions that aren't totally his, thereby exploiting the situation?

Anyway, it was awkward watching the NCAA playoff game featuring Duke where one of the ads featured its legendary coach. It was reminiscent of an old battery commercial featuring then TV star Robert Conrad (who played WWII flying ace "Pappy" Boyington) daring you to knock the battery off his shoulder, the tough guy implying, "do you want a piece of me?" Okay, maybe not nearly as bad in the hubris department, but there was Coach K talking about leadership, and, yes, he did a great job with, for him, a fair assemblage of talent, getting Duke to win yet another ACC title game, but not everyone was rooting for Duke in last night's game (and they had to suffer the ad notwithstanding). And there were the Michigan State Spartans, playing as though they didn't give one hoot about Coach K's legend, his team's accomplishments, or an internationally known charge card. They dared to knock off the Blue Devils, playing outstanding defense, and they didn't care one whit about Duke or Coach K.

Which is as it should be.

The question for Amex's marketing execs is whether they'll need a different ad as they run deeper into the tournament. After all, are they the card, or are they a card that gets you to the regional semis of life before you need to trade up to something better? Or is there some subliminal message there, that the lessons we learn from the Coach Ks of the world transcend wins and losses, and that we should follow this outstanding leader regardless of whether he reaches his game's summit year-in and year-out, that he's an all-timer?

There's no doubt, of course, that Coach K is a leader, but sometimes you burnish your legend with the opportunities you turn down as much as the opportunities you accept. The more he does outside the relatively safe zone of coaching is the more that he exposes himself, and it's not like he really needs the money. And last night someone else looked like a better leader, ad or no.

Meanwhile, Tom Izzo should give his agent a whole raft of grief. Where are his ads, after all?

These guys are wonderful coaches, and they should stick to that.

Besides, where they work, they don't have to pay for much of anything anyway. It's not so much that the establishments in East Lansing or Durham don't take Visa or American Express, it's that they probably pick up the tabs for their local coaching heroes anyway. Their money -- and their credit cards -- are no good.

And that's a much better deal, isn't it?


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