In 2014, the University of Oregon, led by star quarterback Marcus Mariota, fielded arguably the best team in school history. Mariota and the team’s efforts culminated in the university being awarded its first Heisman trophy award in school history. The award is granted based on individual performance, but it doesn’t hurt to be on a great team. It was a monumental accomplishment for the program because it was another step in national prominence for a university whose football history isn’t as decorated as some of its peers. Lost in the storybook timelines, impressive displays, and a lavish building proposal, is a P.R. campaign that finally found measurable success 13 years after it ended.
A school known for inventive ways to market itself, Oregon hasn’t shied away from taking on the phrase “by all means necessary” to draw attention. In 2001, the athletic department showed just how far it was willing to go when it erected an 80-by-100 foot billboard of Joey Harrington in New York City. The $250,000 10-story tall billboard located across the street from the Madison Square Garden was a bold and blatant call for attention for a program quick to be overlooked at the time. Harrington’s Heisman competition that year came from some of the most prestigious programs in the nation in the University of Florida, University of Nebraska, and the University of Miami. Each program had at least two previous trophy winners, and each had claimed a national championship in the last decade (Miami would win the title that year as well.) Oregon had neither. The athletic department at Oregon knew it needed to do something to garner attention from voters. Putting a billboard in the same borough of New York where the presentation happens was just the call it made. The strategy certainly did put the program in the spotlight, but the goal it set out for was simply not in the cards. Harrington would go on to finish fourth in votes (last of those invited to the presentation.) The striking tactic did find some lasting success as a campaign. It spawned a parody campaign by Washington State, which gave Oregon free advertising, and Oregon expanded out-of-state billboard campaigns to Los Angeles and the Bay Area the following year.
Ultimately, Mariota told the University of Oregon to not run a campaign for him and in the end, it was clear he didn’t need one. But the lasting effects of Joey Harrington’s campaign certainly played a role in Mariota’s buildup toward being a star around the country.