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Brand Wringing

Opinion: VCU’s new coach shouldn’t be forced to operate in a shadow cast by his predecessor. Let him call his system what he likes.



On April 2, 2009, the new men’s basketball coach for Virginia Commonwealth University was introduced to local media at the Siegel Center. A few hundred avid fans were also on hand to hear Shaka Smart first speak about what he called Havoc, his description of the intimidating playing style he would implement.

Because most of the sportswriters were accustomed to hearing coaches boast about their plans — even call them by gimmicky names — they focused less on the coach’s propaganda and more on his unique name.

Six years later, to the day, Smart packed up his strategy and vamoosed. His rather impersonal departure for Austin, Texas, left Rams fans shell-shocked and wondering what in particular had lured him away. After all, hadn’t he turned down similar offers in previous years? Still, Smart’s six-year record at VCU was 163-56, so he could hardly be faulted for his results.

Then came a twist: News surfaced about the University of Texas moving to trademark slogans using the word Havoc. A major brouhaha seems to be simmering. On April 3, Texas applied to federally register “Horns Havoc” and “House of Havoc” as marketing slogans.

Once we’re talking about revenue streams, this story seems poised to move from the sports page to the business page. Then maybe to the front page.

On April 8, at the Siegel Center, VCU’s new head coach, Will Wade, wasted little time before saying what many in the crowd of some 1,200 wanted to hear: “Havoc still lives here!” Rather than a new coach with his own hoops schemes, Wade sounded more like an employee trying to help his new bosses make a point.

An obvious question at the heart of the controversy is whether either university holds the exclusive right to use the word havoc as an element of its brand, or slogan, connected to basketball.

But before getting bogged down in a legal debate that could take years to resolve, there are a couple of nagging questions that VCU President Michael Rao ought to consider. At this point, hasn’t VCU already received most of the benefit it’s going to get out of using Havoc as a brand? And if that’s true, then does the university really want to be drawn into a high-profile legal battle over a warmed-over word?

Judging from the reactions of some of my basketball-loving friends last week, especially on Facebook, there are plenty of Rams devotees who welcome such a fight. Some of them seem to feel that beyond Smart’s role in establishing Havoc, it was the basketball players who breathed life into their coach’s concept. Don’t the guys who played the games at a frenzied pace own a piece of Havoc? What about VCU’s famous pep band, the Peppas? What about the fans?

There are wounded Rams fans who appear to be more concerned with the propriety, maybe even the morality, of the clash over the title to a word. Losing the most popular sports figure that VCU’s ever had was bad enough. Losing ownership of aspects of their nostalgia seems like too much to swallow.

Suzy Peeples grew up in the Fan District on VCU basketball. In the 1950s, her father, Edward Peeples, played for Richmond Professional Institute — which merged with the Medical College of Virginia to become VCU.

“While Shaka conceived of Havoc, it took the Ram Nation village to raise Havoc into what it’s grown to mean today,” Suzy Peeples says. “We are about to start a new love affair with Coach Wade but Havoc is still our baby and custody shouldn’t go to Shaka.”

Bridg Allen, who received his English degree from VCU in 1990, flatly rebuffs the notion that Havoc’s merchandising rights are worth fighting over. “I don’t want my university embroiled in a lawsuit with another school,” he says.

Allen would be happy enough to see a Havoc-era banner of some sort raised to the rafters, like a retired jersey. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “Texas can keep the word havoc. Our business with Texas is on the basketball court, not in a federal court.”

Then again, the promise of a home-and-home series with Texas, which was spelled out in Smart’s contract with VCU, may be starting to fizzle. Because Texas supposedly is the wealthiest athletic department in the country, it may opt to cough up a kill fee to skip a trip to the Siegel Center.

Let’s face it, without VCU’s miracle run to the Final Four in 2011, Rams merchandise wouldn’t have become such a gold mine. It was the university’s advertising gurus who knew how to take Smart’s overplaying strategy from the court to a motivational brand. Yes, the coach may have kicked it off, but Smart hardly imagined buses in New York decked out with “Havoc Lives Here!” in huge letters.

Down in Austin, instead of coveting another rancher’s livestock, the modern rustlers are plotting to snatch an established brand. In Texas, maybe enough is never enough.

Although I feel Peeples’ pain, I have to agree with Allen that it’s time for VCU to turn the page. The new coach shouldn’t be forced to operate in a shadow cast by his predecessor. Let Wade be his own man. Let him call his system what he likes. As a fountain of invention, the university can always create new brand campaigns. And in the basketball season ahead, the team and its loyal fans will breathe life into them.

There’s no dignity for either university in pursuing a public-relations course that would have them locking horns over a marketing device. In Texas that may not matter. In Virginia it should. S

Artist and writer F.T. Rea, who lives in the Fan District, covered VCU basketball from press row for about 20 years.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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