SBJ/November 19 - 25, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Texas Tech official helps pave way for Knight into heart of community

There are some challenging sports PR gigs out there: representing Mike Tyson, Allen Iverson, Ray Lewis, John Rocker and Bob Knight, to name a few. Each presents unique PR obstacles, yet it is Knight who may be the most interesting.

In fairness to the legendary basketball coach, Knight's legal issues pale in comparison with those of most of the other names above. From a media relations perspective, however, Knight makes a great case study. Through his antics and public outbursts, Knight has made his disdain for the media clear. Yet the media, for the most part for more than three decades, have treated him fairly.

In early 2001, Chris Cook, Texas Tech assistant athletic director for media relations, was told that the university was going to sign Knight as head basketball coach. As word spread, Cook heard from colleagues who wished him well at the unenviable task of handling PR for Knight.

Cook ignored the pessimism and developed a plan to highlight Knight's more approachable side. He knew Knight would bring some PR baggage from Indiana University, where the coach won three national championships and had a string of very public incidents.

Cook knew he needed a strong PR and community relations program designed to show Texas Tech's supporters that Knight was not the tyrant some made him out to be. Cook also wanted to cultivate positive relationships between Knight and the local media. He hoped that their story lines would focus on Knight's rebuilding of Red Raiders basketball, rather than on his past.

On March 23, the very day Knight was hired at Texas Tech, Cook organized a massive press conference, putting the new coach front and center in the university's United Spirit Arena. He opened the event to students and the Lubbock community. About 7,500 people attended, including more than 100 media representatives.

Knight took questions from everyone. He stressed that this was a new beginning for him and that he was excited to be part of Red Raiders basketball. He effectively downplayed all Indiana incidents. ESPN and CNN/SI carried the press conference live.

The month after the press conference, Cook had approximately 175 media requests, each asking for an interview with Knight. Cook granted only those the coach agreed to. Throughout the summer, Cook convinced Knight to do several interviews for feature articles with newspapers in Texas.

Continuing to build the relationship between Knight and the local media, Cook held a media day, to which only local print, radio and television representatives were invited. At the Big 12 media day, Knight spent more than two hours with the press.

Cook has built community support for Knight by setting up opportunities for the coach to speak on behalf of Texas Tech at area youth centers and at Red Raiders events.

With Knight at the helm, Red Raiders basketball home games will be different this season. Cook anticipates granting about 45 media credentials at each game, compared with the 25 or so he awarded on average last year. And the press will no longer get the best seats in the house, as the Red Raiders are now selling courtside seats.

As Knight re-enters the media spotlight, his comeback, like Michael Jordan's return to the NBA, will be scrutinized by the press. Watch the number of headlines as soon as Knight gets his first technical foul, gets in the face of a Red Raiders player or publicly voices his disapproval of a reporter's question.

What could be the weak link in Cook's otherwise sound PR plan is that there may not be a crisis communications plan at-the-ready. Cook and Texas Tech officials would not comment on whether a plan exists.

If no such plan exists, Cook may be in trouble. One misstep by Knight, and the media will make it the lead story for days. Cook will not have time to squelch any negative press and regain the community support Knight now enjoys.

Wayne Henninger can be reached at wayne@statelywaynemanor.com.

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