In helping make a new name for the Little Rock Trojans, former University of Arkansas at Little Rock basketball coach Chris Beard made a big name for himself.
Beard, a key figure in the rebranding that erased the “UA” from UALR in the name of the university’s sports teams, was introduced April 8 as the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’ new coach — he worked there just a week before quickly moving on to Texas Tech — after just one whirlwind year with the Trojans. The season included a Sun Belt championship and an electrifying double-overtime victory over Purdue in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
That victory was the high point for the new Trojan brand, Little Rock marketing and PR specialists said, adding that the brand won’t necessarily be hurt by Beard’s defection.
“There are two things that determine success for an athletic department,” said Mike Sells of the Sells Agency in Little Rock. “One is the success of your product — whether your team wins games. The other is in selling tickets.”
Beard proved adept at winning games — 30 of 35 with the Trojans — and victory spawned big attendance, even if longtime fans found it a bit jarring to hear “Little Rock” instead of “UALR” or “Arkansas-Little Rock” coming out of sportscasters’ mouths.
That streamlined effect was just what Athletic Director Chasse Conque and his marketing team had in mind when they unveiled the new brand, along with sleek new logos, last July. The idea was to cement the Trojans as “Little Rock’s team,” Sells said.
“There are going to be fewer Razorback sports events in central Arkansas in the future, so they wanted to identify UALR’s teams with the metropolitan area they serve,” Sells said.
The tournament gave UALR — and it still is UALR, by the way; there’s been no move to rebrand the college — a chance to shine nationally. “They capitalized on that moment,” PR specialist Natalie Ghidotti of Ghidotti Communications said. “But changing the perceptions of locals will be tougher just because we all know them as the UALR Trojans.”
So what, if anything, will Beard’s departure mean for the new brand?
Martin Thoma of Thoma Thoma, an expert and author of “Branding Like the Big Boys,” said maybe not much. “Coach Beard’s departure is probably a bigger issue for the team than the brand,” Thoma said. “Coaches come and go, but teams and brands endure.”
He added: “If UALR wants to be recognized as ‘Little Rock’s Team,’ it needs to develop activities and initiatives that connect and involve it with the city. That’s what we call ‘living your brand.’”
The new Trojans coach, former Associate Head Coach Wes Flanigan, has picked up the banner. He’s used the #LittleRocksTeam hashtag on Twitter, although not consistently.
Thoma said a bigger question for the University of Arkansas System is how the sports initiative fits into an overall strategy. “Does it add or detract from building the brand of the University of Arkansas?” That remains unclear, he said.
Beard's flurry of moves is unusual, but he has a history at Tech. He was an assistant coach there from 2001-11, including several seasons under the legendary Bob Knight. Beard noted that being in West Texas will place him closer to his daughters, two of whom were born in Lubbock.