In this “I Want Your Job” episode, Jim Cavale is joined by Duke Basketball’s Dave Bradley and Nolan Smith. Dave, the Creative Director and leader of Duke’s digital presence, shares the stories of his career as both a student and later an employee at Duke University, including key insights from the development of Duke’s iconic digital brand. Central to growing that brand was current Director of Basketball Operations Nolan Smith, a former Duke basketball champion who played a significant role in creating Duke’s earliest video content.
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Highlights from the interview:
3:50 – “Anything I could do to get involved in sports, I wanted to do.” Dave describes arriving at Duke as a student and looks for his niche, eventually responding to an opportunity with the student newspaper
11:18 – Following negative media coverage after a tough 2007 season, Coach K calls a meeting to ask for new ways to tell the Blue Planet story, and empowers Dave (then working full-time at Duke) to find solutions
19:38 – Dave talks about the impact that digital and social media have on recruiting, naming a few recent college basketball commitments (including Zion Williamson) who cited projects from Duke’s digital presence as part of why they wanted to play there
26:38 – Dave lists the various roles in digital/creative that actively capture photos/videos around Duke Athletics, and how that group has grown from a one-man-band (Dave) to a well-oiled content machine
33:32 – Dave gives credit to Zion Williamson, who was intentional in building a strong digital brand and who changed others’ perception of him on and off the court over the course of his time at Duke
46:44 – Dave offers advice to others in the digital space to work hard, share new ideas, and find an organization where you can bring something to the table that no one else can
50:30- Nolan shares the story of his early years growing up, having a father who played professional basketball, and how he came to play basketball on scholarship at Duke
52:04- “For me it was always bigger than basketball, and Coach K and what Duke had to offer for me was life after basketball.”
58:50- Nolan shares his experience as a player, helping to bring Duke back to a national championship level, and the powerful story of winning that championship in the same city that his father had, 30 years prior
1:05:02- “Dave Bradley, first and foremost, he changed the image of Duke basketball.”
1:07:45- How Nolan, as director of operations, builds relationships with players and help them build their brand at Duke so they can let it echo into their pro career and beyond
1:10:23- Nolan shares how he used to get content compared to Duke players now retrieving content through INFLCR
1:11:12- “To see our guys post another player who might have had a big game or a team camaraderie picture of a nice huddle, to get that right after – boom – and post it out…that’s the coolest thing in the world. I mean, I wish I had that to be able to celebrate my teammates that are out there battling with me and show them I love them, and show them I appreciate them each and every day we take the court.”
1:15:41- On athletes and the value of having a strong personal brand: “It’s bigger than basketball and it’s the business of basketball that guys are starting to understand more.”
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Full Episode Transcript
Jim Cavale: Welcome to Episode 7 of I Want Your Job. I’m Jim Cavale, the founder and CEO of INFLCR, and this is another fun episode. It’s going to be jam-packed with a lot to take away and apply to what you do in sports.
Because we’re going to visit with Dave Bradley, the creative director for Duke basketball, the most followed account in all of college sports for any team, basketball, football, you name it. This guy has a story that you’re going to want to hear. He started with the Duke Blue Planet black and white newsletter when he was a student back in the early 2000s. And that was a catalyst for a story in media that has evolved into, like I said, leading the biggest, most-followed social media team brand in all of college sports.
And then Nolan Smith, who won the national championships at Duke, and his story from a player and now director of operations’ standpoint for Duke basketball is so interesting. And so, you’re going to hear these two talk about this amazing brand that we all know so well, but let you in behind the scenes and really set the stage for what it looks like running this program from a brand standpoint when it comes to, especially now social media and the athletes that we see and follow on social media who represent Duke today, or they used to represent Duke as a player and now they represent them as an alum, while they’re in the NBA, or doing whatever they’re doing in their careers professionally.
So this show, as always, is presented by INFLCR. My team has worked hard to put this together. I want to thank them. And I want to encourage you to use these interviews as substance, tools, education, to be a student and apply it to what you do day to day in sports. There’s a lot you’re going to get from it. So, without further ado, let’s jump in first with Dave Bradley from Duke basketball.
So, Dave, I think the best place to start is you’re a student at Duke and you obviously want to be around this iconic basketball program. And you’re given the opportunity to do that. Just tell that story.
Dave Bradley: Yeah, I mean, obviously, one of the reasons you, if not the reason you look hard at Duke and want to go to Duke, it has the best combination of athletics and academics, certainly in the southern region and maybe in the country. So, I was going to the East Coast, always wanted to be a part of something like Duke, did the whole Southern college tour. Went out West, a little bit too far. Tried the Midwest, liked Notre Dame but little chilly up there. So I looked down South, you do the tour, you go to Duke and with… you’re like, wow, like, it’s special. You see it right away. You walk on campus. You go around the athletic complex. You’re blown away.
As a kid, I always loved sports, wanted anything I could to work in sports, never knew what that meant. It wasn’t like I knew I wanted to be a social media guy or a coach or a general manager. I just… and everyone, everyone might say that, it’s a cliché thing to say but it’s in my heart and it still is.
So you, you get… you get on campus and you try to figure out like any college kid like what’s my niche, like, where do I fit in here. And Duke, you know, it’s an intimidating place in the very beginning. You got kids… everyone there is working as hard as you or smart, smarter than you. You go from a big fish, small pond to, you know, probably more of like, small fish big pond-ish for me, you know, and I’m never the smartest guy in the room, whatever. But I knew if anything I could do to get involved in sports, I wanted to do.
First year, go through some of the learning experiences. We all go through freshmen year. Got involved with the club hockey team but knew I wanted more, knew I wanted more than… than the college social scene, and I love the club hockey experience. You want to find friendship groups outside of maybe your dorm.
And one day the student newspaper The Chronicle. Duke basketball is looking for someone that has experience with… with, it was PageMaker at the time, which is now InDesign and, and Photoshop ops looking for student managers. Hockey guy northeast, didn’t know hoops that well at the time, loved it, you know, grew up watching a lot of UConn hoops but figured I have no shot to be the manager, didn’t have a manager position. And figured everyone at Duke is going to apply, had no connection.
The Photoshop and PageMaker opportunity though, like, I’ll shoot my shot, let’s see where this goes. So I respond, and probably embellished maybe a little bit my experience there, you know, but I’ve always been a really resourceful guy. I can figure this out.
So I apply…
If it was nowadays, you just say you’d learned it on YouTube.
And updating myself back then, like Google and YouTube were kind of just on the up. So I’m going to Barnes and Noble. I’m going… I’m not buying the books. I’m sitting there taking notes and trying to figure this out.
So I get an interview, and I get an opportunity, an opportunity to work for Duke men’s basketball as a sophomore in college. And it meant… it meant so much. I mean, it was, like, to have the opportunity, I was like, all right, like this is it. I’m going to show them.
So let’s date yourself before you keep going. What season is this?
So right now we are looking at the 2001-2002 season of Duke basketball. So we win the national title my freshman year. I go to Final Four as a student. Did not have any luck getting involved with the basketball team that first year. So my second year, this was like, this advertisement was like summer, late summer right before the start of the year. So that whole year was my first year at working with the program as a student. And again, you get… you get a little bit lucky. Current Elon men’s basketball head coach at the time was the ops guy for Duke basketball, Mike Schrage. And so, Mike was the guy that really gave me a shot.
So they’re looking for… he was looking for someone that could help him out. He’s busy because now we have a big staff at Duke men’s basketball, but back then, the ops guy was the academic guy. He was the recruiting guy, and he was wearing so many hats. So I came in and would help out any way I could. Specifically, they were looking for someone that could help on the recruiting side was at the time, again, dating myself, but recruiting mail outs, black and white mail outs.
There’s no video. There was no texting recruits. You’re sending letters and mail. They had had a black-and-white publication called Blue Planet that Quin Snyder has started, now the Utah Jazz head coach. He had started this publication. And it was, you know, whenever they got around to it and they would send it maybe once or twice a year. So I jumped on that, and again, this goes back to learning the PageMaker and, and Photoshop where I done a little bit in high school, not much. But I could figure it out. I went to Barnes and Noble. I got better and better as I went.
And Mike, I think saw on me someone who was eager to help in any way he could, it was my priority. If Duke men’s basketball wanted something that was it, it was going to be done. It could be a Friday night and I could have made me want to do something socially. No chance. Like, if I got an email from Mike, it was like right to my dorm, right to the library, wherever had to be, it was going to be done as fast as it could.
I think Mike saw in me someone that was hungry, that was passionate. I was going to outwork anyone that was involved in Duke men’s basketball, any Duke student. That was my in. That was my chance. I knew I had to do that. And I loved it. It was what I wanted to do. And as I progressed throughout those three years at Duke, Mike gave me a little bit more rope and, and whatever.
My skills had evolved. So I, like, obviously, like the recruiting man. I became a black and white… I went from black and white publication to full color magazine and I think the whole program, the recruiting communications operation got hopefully better through me as a student. So I was about to graduate. Maybe thinking the law school track. And lucky again, we… actually, two secretaries the time on the fifth floor where offices are, one of them was leaving. So I get into her role and not as a secretary but at a low, very low pay rate. I didn’t have an office or whatever. You telling me I can work for whatever, peanuts for Duke men’s basketball right out of college, done deal. I was so excited.
I should have to say, when I was working as a student, like, I never got paid. I never wanted to get paid, and a few times where Mike would bring it up, I, like, refused to get paid. It wasn’t about that. It was never about that. So I think… I, hopefully, I showed, you know, my passion was about the work. It was about helping the program in any way I could, got my foot in the door, got the job offer and kind of… things have, you know, progressed from there.
Okay, so, so it’s a point that you’re getting out of college. It’s an interesting situation, right? You’re… you leave the Northeast. You go down to this prestigious institution. It’s not easy to get into, not cheap. And what did you study?
Sociology. And you’ve been working for the basketball team, amazing opportunity. And now you’re going to graduate. And you could use that degree and the network of Duke to probably go do what a lot of your friends were doing, which was starting to cash in on the education.
But you decided not to, like, was there ever a point early on… we’ll get into what you were able to start doing in the full-time role where you started to think, “Man, should I be doing this?”
It was never that. You know, my parents blessed, you know, parents who were so supportive, back me all the way in any decision I made. It was never… it’s never been about. It’s never about money from my parents. It’s never been about money for me as a result of how I was raised. So I was getting paid enough money to put a roof over my head and I had a single, you know, apartment enough to have a roommate. So I made just enough to, to live.
And at the time, like, that’s all you want. You know, you’re just wide-eyed with the opportunity. Like even starting out, I didn’t really know the assistant coaches. When I was a student, it was like me and Mike Schrage pretty much all the time, Laura Ann, our secretary who is still there to this day.
But it was just… it was just… it was about the work and the opportunity. And it meant so much more in my heart than any money, you know, spending any amount of money could.
Yeah, and that’s the beautiful part about working for purpose is you’re happy because you love your work. So you now have graduated from Duke, you’re full-time. And marketing is evolving. I mean, this whole like 2000s era, before 2010, a lot happened digitally to change the face of marketing. You’re talking about a black-and-white newsletter, even a, you know, colorful magazine version, and some people are listening right now who work in digital or social and they’re like “what?” you know, but I remember that very well.
So talk about the adoption over time from when you graduated through the advent of social media, of new media’s and how you’re able to learn them yourselves and get buy in from leadership all the way up to Coach K.
Yeah, I mean, it… there’s this kind of a pivotal meeting that happens. So my first full-time year was 2004-05. And we had JJ Redick CT, Redick was a 2006 grad, so those are pretty good years and I’m still getting my, you know, getting my feet wet, still new to it as full-time.
And that 2007 season, that was a year for Duke that, you know, we just got… it was a really tough year, young team, 11 losses, but it was some of the worst media coverage we’ve ever had. And, and as I’m progressing at Duke, like any of us, we’re trying to figure out, like, “What’s my niche here? Where do I fit in?” And you’re seeing… you have your head on a swivel trying to figure that out. How do I get this black and white newsletter to become a full-color magazine, something bigger? How do we tell our story bigger?
And Coach called this meeting. And he’s like, “Hey, what can we do? Like, how can we take what we’re doing in Duke Blue Planet? Like, this is literally from the head coach, the GOAT, like, how can we take this and make it better? How do we reach more people? This stuff is so good. So you have the head coach empowering a young guy like me, like, to figure it out. And so, we started at a time, it was a website.
So we made DukeBluePlanet.com. We made it a website. We still did the magazine for maybe a few more years, but we’re evolving towards, you know, for the new media where things are going where I felt like I had, you know, complete freedom and the trust from coach and the coaches to navigate this for us. So that’s incredibly empowering when you have, you know, the GOAT, the assistant coaches, Mike Schrage, so these guys are saying, “Hey, you can do this. Like, we see something in you, what do we need to do?”
So I was, like, it didn’t matter I wasn’t getting paid. I was, like, over…
There was autonomy.
There’s innovation, creativity, and it was done in association with leadership. They had a lot of respect from you.
Yeah, and I think now I… looking back, I’ve gotten older, I recognize there are things that I don’t know now that I knew back then, like, when you’re older, sometimes leaders have a tendency to think they know everything and whatever. Like, in my position now, I’m always trying to align with students, have relationships with, like, help make me stay current. So that’s what Coach was doing. He’s trying to stay current, saw something in me, who was younger, who got it then, or could get it.
On that team, in that tough season.
There’s a guy named Nolan Smith. He ended up becoming a key component, along with several others, including Jon Scheyer, who also was on that team, and winning a national championship taking Duke out of some tough years and back to where they’ve been many times. But they are also with you now.
As an assistant coach and director of operations respectively. And those relationships you built back then helped you stay relevant then. But now, they’re doing the same things with guys now. Talk about the power of those relationships with those guys and it’s a long-term relationship you have.
Yeah, yeah, I mean, the 2010 season, obviously, we won the national championship and historic year for the program raising that banner, but there was more to it than that. And as social media, as YouTube, you know, was evolving, like, Twitter was becoming a thing, Nolan came through right at the right time for our program. You know, one of the things, you know, when Coach asked us, asked me to get our story out more, and the stories of our players out more, the biggest goal then and even now has always been humanizing the program. Getting the personality of our players out. They’re out best storytellers. They’re our best ambassadors by far.
And Nolan was the guy on that, Either the course of the whole squad, but Nolan had an interest in it. And he and I just kind of hit it off. I wasn’t that much old than him at the time. I remember, you know, giving him a… camera phones weren’t a thing. iPhones didn’t have video then or whatever. I don’t know if there’s even iPhones at all.
There was but barely, barely.
So I’m giving him a handheld video camera and he’s just going off on his own and sort of like vlogging before vlogging. He’s shooting stuff himself or whatever, coming back, giving us like raw footage. They were turning out, showing recruits, getting it out. That was the first time I saw, you know, really the power of the personality of the athletes, the power of the athlete in general. Fans responded so well to Nolan, to what we were doing on the court. I think he opened up the eyes of Duke fans, of our coaches. Like Duke was… has always been a pretty buttoned-up program. And I say that in a good way, of course. It’s got the respect that’s it’s gotten…
Yeah, first class.
Yeah, Yankees, maybe, maybe a little Red Sox
That’s tough for you right there.
So… New England Patriots, that’s it, Patriots. They’ve got the Patriots.
Background, I’m a New Yorker. He’s a Boston guy, but we’re just joking.
I would say Pats more than Yankees.
So, you know, so like you want recruits, you want fans to see you guys are having fun too.
Not just this big robotic machine that shows up on ESPN. We got good guys who represent Duke at the highest level. You know, win or not, like, I’ll stand with our guys throughout the years that I’ve been there, good dude, guys you’re proud of, guys you love working with, that’s been consistent. So Nolan was that guy that could help us project, like, the image of Duke and Duke athlete the best way out there. Loved doing it.
So, you know, you start with that relationship, and then you win the national title. So the experiences and the bond that’s built around like, one, building the whole social media kind of empire from the early days and then winning big, like, that’s lifetime… it’s like dream come true. You can’t, like, you could never imagine as a kid from Connecticut or even in Nolan’s shoes, you know, where he came from, you know, the story with his dad, and…
…and winning it back in the same city.
Yeah, he saw it… his dad passed away and we won it in Indy and his dad had won it in the same city. I got a great picture with Nolan afterwards with the logo on the court where that’s that. So we have… he and I from the very beginning it was just like this great bond. Now, he’s come back as the director of ops. He had different roles before that with the program. But he’s always stayed in touch with me and our program. So I think that he and I formed a little kind of a great team within the team. You know, we have different experiences and different backgrounds completely. We’re on the absolute same wavelength. And I think, you know, that relationship and that partnership has helped the program tremendously, you know, hopefully, on the social media side for sure.
All right, so it’s pretty crazy to think about, but there was a day where Duke didn’t have an Instagram account and then they did for basketball. There’s a day where they didn’t have an Instagram… a Twitter account, and all of a sudden, they did. There was a day where you were looking at those accounts and they had a zero. And today, those accounts combined are the most followed in all of college sports—football, basketball—it doesn’t matter, really, almost all sports in general if you start adding pro teams, and you could even go across the pond and compete with those followings in European soccer. Like, do you have to pinch yourself and think about, like, you, you were chosen.
And became the guy that started those accounts and has been able to lead the strategy around creating $45 million in brand value each year on social media, tracking recruits like the ones we’ve seen come through recently. I mean, just…
Yeah, you know, the following, like, it’s cool to flex and, yeah, it’s big numbers or whatever. The successes along the way though, it’s always been those like the micro-level stories, the Nolan Smith story I just told you, you know, meeting with recruits when they come through. When Zion Williamson commits, and he says, “I’m joining The Brotherhood,” obviously, we’ve made The Brotherhood a thing through social media, it’s those experiences along the way, you know, the big wins, the content that you make around the wins, like, all that stuff is what I think of first for sure.
Okay, so let’s break that down because I agree. Everybody else wants the $45 million stat. They want the biggest following stat. That’s how you flex as you just said. That’s what the powers that be want to hear when they’re… they want to look at reports and see numbers, right? And then there’s these anecdotal examples. There’s Roach saying, “I want to go to Duke because I want to be a part of The Brotherhood. I want to build my brand.” And you know that translates back to all the work you and your team are doing. There’s those stories. Tell a few of those stories.
I mean, the Roach one happened recently, and I think that was like pivotal for the entire industry where you have a kid who, unprompted, basically says, you know, that social media was the reason why he chose Duke and he specifically mentions The Brotherhood, he specifically mentions the Duke Blue Planet series that we just started as a long-form video series.
He’s seeing that. It’s on his radar, and he’s mentioning that. Like the first thing he says in the interview after he commits was one of the recruiting gurus and then the recruiting guru Evan Daniels is really well-respected in the industry comes out and tweets, “I haven’t heard this before, you know, but I think it’s actually been a thing, like social media is a game changer when I’m recruiting.” So that’s the win for us. That’s a win for anyone, you know, in my seat at other programs, like, we all thought this. And here you have, probably, the first prospect that I’ve seen coming out and saying it, that was incredible.
You know, I mentioned the Zion story. Zion was a kid, like, a lot of these recruit… recruitments, you can kind of get a feel really early on. Is this kid going to come or maybe he’s going to come or no shot? And Zion was a guy where you weren’t sure. You heard some things. You got some feedback from the group text he’s on with other commits, but like no one really knew.
So I’m in a room, I think, after one of our games. I was in the room with coach, Coach K., Nate James, Jeff Capel, Jon Scheyer, and our video guy, Kevin calling us, and this is like Zion’s commitment. And like, I don’t think anyone really knew.
So that’s on Saturday night.
In fact, he was about to play somebody…
I remember watching it.
Like we… in the room, like, 99 percent of the time you know, and you know it’s good news, you know it’s bad news. And usually, if it’s bad news, you may still watch, maybe not; good news, you’re watching, everyone is glued.
So this comes on. I remember like, time stood still, like, like, he starts this whole spiel and he reaches down and, like, you see maybe the first part of the hat, and it’s like it’s blue and you’re like… people thought maybe it was going to be Clemson, like, no one knew. I didn’t have like high expectations, it’s like, we were on this… we’ve been on a pretty good recruiting run where we kind of have known we’re going to get these guys. We’ve been getting a lot of stars, a lot of studs. It’s RJ and Cam and RJ.
You already committed Ader. You committed…
And, you know, we had bagged… we’ve had a great run here. So he was icing on the cake, you know, getting Zion. But you see this blue hat and then he’s… he says, “I’m going to join The Brotherhood.” And I was like, wait, he’s coming to Duke. And he said the brother… like, everything came together. And you had this guy who you weren’t sure… it was obvious that Zion wasn’t sure. Like, from, well, some guys are like Duke through and through or what Alabama football from the time they were young, whatever it might be, but it didn’t seem like Zion was that guy. Where like he… or at least it did… it hadn’t… publicly hadn’t seen that way. It didn’t seem necessarily seem that way to me. From what I had heard, you knew he had a shot. But he has The Brotherhood. He didn’t say, “I’m excited play for the Crazies.” He’s, he says, “The Brotherhood,” which is, you know, obviously, the social media family deal that we’ve tried to build. And that was, you know, it was obviously really special to me and any of us that have been involved. And what we do is, again, like that shows that what we’re doing has an impact.
Did… does Coach K, when he hears The Brotherhood, does he know that from that hashtag and that’s from the work that you and your team are doing?
Yeah, and I think, I think everyone knows. But the beauty of The Brotherhood, like, I wouldn’t have recommended The Brother… we wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t a real deal. You know, it wasn’t a real thing.
And so, coach has made The Brotherhood, it maybe didn’t have that name, the Duke family or whatever, like a lot of programs have great families.
I think ours is the best. I think ours is really special. But it starts with him. And then we make it cool. We brand. And we come up with content, and we have events wherever we might do. There’s plenty of stuff we do that doesn’t make social media to help build our family.
So he, he, I mean, he may think what… what we’ve done is… is really good. And I think he does. But to… he’s the GOAT and like what we do is because of him.
Right. Yeah, he’s driving it and you’re just branding it.
He’s built this thing. And The Brotherhood is as strong as it is because you get the same guy that’s been doing it for four decades, guys love playing for him and he goes back, you know, we haven’t had this revolving door of head coaches. It’s like the GOAT is iconic and consistent, you know, day in and day out. He’s Duke basketball. He’s The Brotherhood.
So talk about the dichotomy in the role you’re in now versus being in an operations role, running operations.
Yeah, I mean, totally kind of two different animals. I enjoyed both. I think ops is more like being on call 24/7 and doing so for a program like Duke basketball that’s in the spotlight, it’s a lot on your plate. You know, it’s one of those jobs where if everything is right, maybe you don’t get noticed, and if a little thing is wrong tonight, out of your control, it can be tough, it can be a bit of a stressful gig. Loved it.
You know, you’re in the trenches every day and I was in every coach’s meeting from, you know, during my ops… during my time as ops. So learned so much about basketball, learned so much about coach does things that I wouldn’t have otherwise that I think I will always take with me. But in my role now, basically it’s like two jobs in one almost when I was up, I was still running social. Now I can focus, you know, 24/7, my heart, my brain on branding, social and I can do so much more for that because ops, your mind, like you have to be wired and players texting you all hours, things happening. It’s hard to… it was hard to manage both. So I think it’s worked out well for the program.
Certainly for me, where my focus now is all on social, all on recruiting. And I think my position was one of the first and the first in all college sports where a program is dedicating a guy to social, to recruiting, to storytelling. Now you’re seeing football programs where they have a person like mine and multiple graphics, video. But, you know, back in 2004 when I was starting up, that wasn’t the case.
Right. You know, I… obviously, Duke is a client with INFLCR, and I was up in Syracuse, the Carrier Dome and we hung out during the shoot around before the game when Duke is playing Syracuse and it was interesting for me to watch because you were, you know, you were working but you had a squad there that was traveling with the team creating content before the game even began. Of course, that was an interesting game, right, Boeheim had just come off the unfortunate accident. And Zion wasn’t going to play because he was coming off the shoe explosion.
And you guys were there documenting and doing all you’re doing. And it felt like when I walked in, it was like Dave has got a pretty well-oiled machine. I mean, they’re on the road. There’s, there’s a pretty good amount of guys here. Talk about the operation of just what you guys are doing with creative and who was up there, what were they doing from a design, filming, photography standpoint.
Yeah, one of my biggest successes has been sort of selling everyone at Duke on the value here that being a one-man band, how it started out was, was important. And like, people thought of it, like, okay, like we could use more. Like it needs more. It requires more to do it the best in college sports. So that… that’s something I’m really proud of, right.
So you go to Syracuse. So you go on the road and you have, you know, someone like me leading it there, so I’m doing a lot of posting and sometimes shooting stuff on my phone, sometimes shooting stuff with, you know, mirrorless camera or whatever.
Shooting stuff with Gronk.
Shooting stuff with the Gronk if I can… if I can even though he’s wearing Cuse jersey, we had to jump in and get the Gronk outfit. Security guard tried to shut that now but it’s Gronk. So I got the Gronk pic. So, we had a… we have… we travel with two full-time video. There’s one full-time position that we’ve hired that, again, works just for men’s basketball, full-time content creation.
So you have a guy that is completely current and… and in creating video that resonates, that hits on social that, you know, I can work with closely. The Blue Devil Network which serves all Duke athletics video, video board, live events, so they gave us a guy Nolan Elingburg who’s been a great resource to us. So he’s up there traveling. He’s helping with Coach K press conferences. He’s shooting the game. Athletics has a full-time photographer, Reagan Lunn, so he probably spent 70% of his time with us. He is another photog that can cover other sports as well. So he’s at most… all of our games.
And then we have students help who were… they weren’t there on the road for that, but I have, you know, three students that… back at Duke had helped during the season. And you got like a camera-crazy correspondent, an up comer… an up and comer… up and coming video guy, guy knows videos, can shoot video, knows the way around Premiere. And then a kind of a student on the ground, we have a young woman who helps with like Instagram story and all that, also social analytics.
So what started as a one-man band now, we have a pretty, pretty good operation. And then I found… we still don’t have a full-time graphic designer at Duke. So I found a student rising, he was writing senior in high school, about to go to Richmond this upcoming fall. He’s tremendous. So he’s doing work for us, and then we outsource him our graphics too. So, we have, that’s a pretty, pretty big squad that’s about eight or nine people that I just mentioned.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting, right? Like people listening can either get encouraged or discouraged by it, right, like a lot of people here and say, “Oh, well, he’s at Duke and that’s not fair.” But I think the other side is when you started, you were a one-man band. And so, if you’re listening and you’re a one-woman band, a one-man band, take initiative, prove the value in what you’re doing. And you’ll have the collateral to fight or propose help.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Either you can look at, you know, you can look at ours as a model of success. You can look at some of these college football programs who are absolutely killing it now. I mean, killing it. So… and I think…
What’s your favorite college football? You don’t have to say your favorite. I don’t even want you to be biased but give me one or two shoutouts who are killing it.
Yeah, I mean, I’d rather go to the maybe the pro ranks.
So I think the Kansas City Royals lately…
…have made a splash in baseball. I’ve been impressed with what they’ve been doing.
Football, big pat to San, but I like the Dolphins, The Rams and the Chargers have been killing it. They’ve really stepped up their game. And then Carolina Panthers who I follow closely being in state, not a Panthers fan, but they might be the best. I really admire the Panthers. So I would say… then the NBA is well ahead probably of maybe of all league so I could you could name 15 NBA teams.
Yes. So thinking about what we do together, thinking about this whole idea that we talked about, really, you noticed it over a decade ago. But this whole idea of athlete-powered distribution, this whole idea that you’re creative can be great. You can have eight, nine people creating all kinds of content. But if you restrict that content to be distributed just from the team account, you’re missing out on a whole other opportunity to empower athletes, to grow their personal brands, but also tie them back to your cases, do brands. Talk about that whole ideology and how you guys operate. That is
Yes. So thinking about what we do together, thinking about this whole idea that we talked about, really, you noticed it over a decade ago. But this whole idea of athlete-powered distribution, this whole idea that you’re creative can be great. You can have eight, nine people creating all kinds of content. But if you restrict that content to be distributed just from the team account, you’re missing out on a whole other opportunity to empower athletes, to grow their personal brands, but also tie them back to, in your case, the Duke brand. Just talk about that whole ideology and how you guys operate that at Duke.
Yeah, I mean, first and foremost, it helps us as a program, right. Like we said before, our, our players are our best ambassadors, our best storytellers. So you want recruits, you have recruits following RJ, following Zion, following Marvin Bagley, whoever the next wave is, if those guys are having a good experience, if those guys are telling their story at Duke, that’s going to be a bigger win than even what our account is sharing if they’re following our account, because these guys have the ultimate credibility—Zion, RJ; that’s where the high schooler wants to be. That’s where we all want to be.
We all want to be Zion and RJ. So, you know, if we’re taking great photos, if we’re producing great video, why would we not want to feed it to, you know, to our guys to compliment whatever it is, you know, they’re doing on their own through their phone. I mean, it makes complete sense, so that’s selfie that’s helping our program. And then of course, like, you want to help them. Like I’m proud to help. That’s one of my favorite things building, you know, like we said before we started building relationship with the athletes, helping the relationships… helping the athletes learn as they progress at Duke, whether they’re for one year or four, this is an important thing for them in their lives, like, write their brand, their opportunity to tell their story.
Certainly, it’s exciting. It’s something that, that benefits them in a lot of ways, though, beyond just being exciting. There’s a lot of money at stake for them. So if they’re growing their account while they’re at Duke, if they’re learning what that looks like, when they leave, whether that’s, again, one year, eight months or four years, they’re, they’re leaving smarter and more equipped, and in a better position financially, which you’ll love to think about for a kid who’s just getting into college, leaving high school. But, okay, if I do this, like, this can be a six-figure to seven-figure difference over the course of my life if I really want to, like, practice at Duke or wherever you’re going to school, and you can get better at it and… and own it.
Yeah, it’s especially interesting to look at with this last season team and you look at guys like an RJ who had a couple hundred thousand followers and leaves with a million and what that does for all of his endorsement opportunities, or of course, the Zion deal with, with Air Jordan. And I think it’s interesting to listen to some of the folks who are starting to argue for players to just forgo college, you know, and go overseas for a year and start making some money. But look at the value that, that this last team got from going to Duke.
Yeah, I mean, Zion is like the poster child for, like, for Duke but for college basketball in general, for college athletics in general, college football, whatever. You know, he came in. He was seventh in the NBA mock draft at this… like this time last year. And he was known, like all… like, I know… I know NBA people. I know NBA scouts. There are people who were telling me like… and I was open minded. I didn’t know Z at all, you know, but like, you know, what is he like, is he just a dunker, is he… and he has all this attention. Is he just into himself? Like that’s what these people were thinking of this kid.
And he completely transformed his image at Duke to his credit, you know. It was who he was. And we helped him a little bit and the coaches or whatever. We gave him this platform. And he owned it. It was important to him. He saw the value in it from the beginning and did it his own way. So now, number one pick, yeah, but also if you watch the draft, the first thing they’re saying about him, first thing, Bilas, whoever those guys on that stage, “This dude, he’s a great teammate.” So I’m hearing literally like back last April before he got to Duke, May or whatever, from people… NBA people who are in these rooms with GMs making decisions, “I don’t know, like, dunker, I don’t know about his game. And like, I’ve heard he’s… he can do his own…” all that stuff, well, I don’t know where they’re getting that from.
It wasn’t… it wasn’t accurate. I never saw any of that. You saw the opposite publicly, privately. But that’s what it was. It’s just all narrative flip. So, yeah, number one pick, but it was way bigger than that. You know, the shoe, obviously, the shoe deal has gotten a lot of attention, but the dude is the most marketable guy coming out of college, maybe ever, and that wouldn’t have been the case 10 months earlier.
Crazy, crazy story. YouTube, you know, I feel like everybody talks about all the different platforms, but nobody really has owned YouTube like you guys have at the college level.
And Duke Blue Planet is something you’ve used as a hook. You showed a great case study of that at our Storyteller Summit for INFLCR that I think a lot of people appreciated and got a lot out of. Talk about YouTube and just how that plays into… because you can obviously use Twitter, use Instagram to tease and send people to your YouTube channel. But people are going there.
Yeah, and I think I’ve always kind of had like a low-key kind of love of YouTube. Maybe it’s like my favorite personal social media channel going back to when like I’m using YouTube to teach myself and this is such a resource. So I’ve always been kind of fascinated by it. Then you got to prioritize and figure which channels you want to be on. And as I saw the trend of, you know, everyone is going the shorter and shorter content and you want to play to the algorithms on Instagram and Twitter, whatever, 22-second videos and whatever.
And like, the more we did that, the harder it became to really tell the story of the program in a way that I think certainly would help us with recruiting but also the fans would love. So you have a whole another audience on YouTube that you don’t have in these other, other platforms.
So last couple years, I really started to study it even more, you know. Before, it was sort of a dumping ground for some of our content; didn’t try to study algorithm as closely maybe as I have with Twitter or Instagram. Built a relationship with YouTube sports folks and, you know, talked to people in the NFL who have used it well, really tried to wrap my arms around how we could use YouTube better. And, and of course, the linchpin of it was the Duke Blue Planet series. We wanted that to go… to go really well. We wanted our YouTube page to be one of the primary, if not the primary channel for sharing this, this series.
So, you know, it worked… it worked out really well for us. There’s certainly… I think there’s still an audience for that, you know, for that longer-form content. You have people who are looking at their phones or even, even tuning away from cable TV, whether it’s a kid sitting on his bed watching his phone or some people who have smart TVs now, they’re getting YouTube TV, and all the numbers that we’re seeing, you know, YouTube is on the rise and not that… you can’t say that for all the, you know, popular social channels right now.
So it’s been… it’s been fun for us to see that growth and, and to get results from being more intentional about it. You know, sometimes you, you think something might happen and it doesn’t, and you put a lot of time to something and it doesn’t, doesn’t shake out. And in that case, you know, it’s worked out really well and obviously look forward to continuing in for another season and extending to involve on YouTube.
It all started as a black-and-white newsletter.
Crazy, crazy. You should tell that story some time.
Okay, so the Nike rebrand, the uniform… I shouldn’t call it a rebrand but the uniform concepts that you’ve been able to speak into, we were talking about some other things outside of that when you came in, I won’t, you know, release those secrets. But this whole opportunity you’re getting because of the role you’re in with Duke to work, negotiate, strategize, innovate with brands like Nike seems like a really incredible opportunity and experience for you.
And I think that one in particular is one I’d like you to unpack because you’ve initiated really an overhaul for the program when it comes to the uniforms for this season. As we’re about to see, Nolan was involved. How did that all come together?
Yeah, I mean, the Duke, you know, the Duke uniform, obviously, I’m biased, but it’s an iconic uniform in sports, certainly in college sports, but maybe even bigger than that. You know, you think about the Yankee pinstripes, I’ll give you some credit there. You know, the, the Alabama football, the clean look of their uniform.
The Penn State.
The first time Duke had the blue-black uniform, I remember it like it was yesterday.
Yeah, so, so when we talk about like uniform changes, we’re not… we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re not going to come out with something that I think would shock fans. But I saw… I saw, you know, this was… this process started probably something, like, probably at least five-plus years ago but it really got going like four years ago maybe. Like, we had a retro uniform that we wore one time that Nike came up with, and then we had like another white uniform that was like kind of similar to the retro that was our official uniform as being sold in stores.
So I just… I thought we could streamline our whole kind of our whole uniform like inventory so to speak, like the retro, their element of our past that maybe had gotten lost over the years as we switch things, you know, certain, like, very specific details on our shorts are like the blue band on our short, on our waist band of our short. So I think… I thought there was… there was a window there together with the program together and see where this could go.
Like, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We have that iconic, those four letters, but you know, could, could we do this in a more organized way. If we do this in a more efficient way where our uniform sell us for even more than they ever have, so, really cool process. I went right to Nolan and we talked about Nolan earlier on, that’s my guy, you know, picked his brain. He was on board. So I had a student literally print out every, every pro uniform and including some soccer uniforms from, from Europe or whatever and we just looked through, saw, looked around stuff. Saw what we liked. Saw what we didn’t like. And again, we’re just looking for subtleties. We weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel.
Got up with Nike. Nike has a process for… and not just for Duke, for anyone who wants to change their uniform with specific questions to help inform Nike’s designers about what we want our uniforms to do, to be, what stories we want them to tell. So went through a process with, with Nike, filled that out. Made sure our coach are on board. Obviously, coach and his family, you know, they were on board, they gave… they gave input as we evolved, as we went through the process.
And then… and then Nike came back with us, came back to us with some ideas. There were some specific, you’ll see, which I don’t want to say too much now but there’s two completely two… two completely new uniforms that we haven’t had before. Again, they don’t look crazy different, but they’re pretty unique. And those were like kind of Nolan eyes. Those are like our kind of our baby that we’re the most proud of.
So, like, well, what do you say… you brought up… I brought up Penn State, you brought up Alabama, The Yankees, a lot of people think like keep them how they are, like, why would you mess up the tradition, right? And I know you’re saying these aren’t crazy, but obviously, something stirred in you enough, you respect the Duke tradition more than anything, right, like that you really wanted to do this, what do you say to that argument of keep it how it is and don’t disrupt tradition?
Yeah, it’s hard to really answer that because I can’t, you know, they’re not out yet or whatever. But when you see them, like, the two new uniforms are built around like pillars of our program, staples of our program, and I look at them, the full… the full set of uniforms, they all look very cohesive, very consistent. You know, we’re not going to have… it’s not going to be the big devil logo.
That’s not what we’re going for. These are very subtle changes. So it’s… the uniforms, I think., they tell our story better than, than in the past, but in a lot of respect, as much as we look outside Duke, we came back to was more nuances that we love from uniforms past than, you know what we saw in the Yankees or the Chicago Blackhawks, so we like, the Milwaukee Bucks, whoever the uniform that sort of jumped out at you as being new and different or old and respected within their own ways. What we landed on was more just nuances to what we already have, nods to our tradition, you know, things that have happened in the past, so.
So, to wrap it up, the initiative that you took to get to where you are today, the timing and luck even, the relationships, it’s all very inspiring. And all that is a part of leadership. It’s a part of being a front-end leader in any industry, right, to be ahead of the curve. What’s like, is your big goal for your career?
That’s a good question. You know, I don’t… my goal is I don’t I don’t think I have like… and it’s something that I ask people I interview the same question, like, where do you want to be in 5 years or 10 years or whatever?
You just got it right back at you.
Yeah, I had it right back at me. I never thought of what I would say. I think, you know, for me, like, I can go in different directions. Duke… Duke is in my heart. We don’t know where Coach K is going to be, and I hope he coaches another 10 years, you know, whatever.
And I’ll be at Duke as long as Coach is at Duke or as long as Coach and Duke will have me, build a family around Duke. I’m not… I’m not trying to leave Duke. I want to keep Duke at the forefront of social media, of branding. Whatever Duke ask me to do though, I feel like I could do it. I want to do it. There are times or there are things I think I could do more, I think, outside of what I do with Duke or anywhere else. But I want to be a Duke helping Duke.
There’s also… there’s also been maybe some leads or some interest in looking outside of Duke on a consulting level. I think I’ve learned so much and made so many great relationships. And one of the beauties of a place like Duke, you just meet so many amazing people, so many passionate people, talented people. The network is crazy. So I have a network now where I think, you know, there’s part of me like to go into consulting to help our whole industry. I’m very loyal. I’m, of course, Duke is in my heart. Duke first, second, third, fourth, fifth.
But, like, going to a conference like yours, you start to feel tied to, I guess, like, the whole creative, the whole, like the whole social network outside of the people that are doing the same thing I’m doing at other places. That, that relationship is important to me. I think I could help people younger than me that are coming up to get more buy-in from ADs, from assistant ADs, whatever the case may be, how could this industry move, how could it be led better, and those decisions start at the very top everywhere.
Yeah. I love where you ended up because, for me, for our company, for the movement, we want to see happen in college and pro sports, with professionals working in digital, creative, social, I just know that there needs to be more advocates. And the advocates, I think, there’s, there’s two types, there’s veterans, I would put you in the veteran category. We’re both around the same age, sad, but we… we’re veterans nowadays.
You’re really a veteran. I’m just the same age as you. You’ve worked two decades in this industry. People need you to be advocates. And the other side, they need to be advocates for themselves.
And that’s what you had to do early on. And that takes not just having a good idea, but actually showing why it’s a good idea and doing the work to prove it is a good idea.
Talk about the advocacy need, the digital, social, creative need, just to have.
Yeah, yeah, and I wasn’t always… I wasn’t always great at it. I think I’ve learned as I’ve gone. You know, I think a lot of my progress came at Duke, just by, people saw this dude that like worked his butt off.
You know, I wasn’t great about necessarily like coming up with these great reports to show now I got it all wired and I had these reports and I, you know, try to present the reports in a language that coaches, ADs, decision makers can understand. But earlier on, I was just so wide-eyed and happy to be at Duke. I was just there seven days a week doing whatever I could. And I think maybe things could move even faster if I had been more, you know, more thoughtful in that regard. I think when you feel like when you’re younger, it’s not your place. You’re not sure.
Like we said earlier in this conversation, there were things that like you and I don’t know that someone younger than us does know; they have different perspective. So… and you want to be in organizations with people like you or me, hopefully, that’s receptive to those folks now that we’re older vets. But if you’re one of those folks coming up, I think you want to take advantage of all the opportunities but you also want to find, you know, a niche or a path or lines of communication where someone like near you is going to be receptive and then not being afraid then to share. You know, like find, find a groove for yourself in a job opportunity, an organization like where you can bring something that no one else there can, and that’s what I did early on. But those things still exist now. They’re… the communication channels have changed. Those opportunities are still there, and a lot of it is in this industry that we, you know, that we’re working on together here in our own ways.
So, you know, if you’re young, you can’t be afraid to, to seek those opportunities. And then… and then, like, let your voice be heard a little bit.
Yeah. So I love it.
Man, I really appreciate our partnership. Appreciate you making time today and your story as a whole, it’s inspiring.
Yeah, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me, Jim.
Awesome stuff from Dave. And as I said, I mean, his story, the way it starts in the early 2000s, with a black-and-white newsletter and evolves into a YouTube channel, Instagram, Twitter accounts that really have become like their own TV networks and in some cases with bigger audiences than TV networks can provide, let alone the work he’s done with the athletes. And just his journey, it’s an amazing story.
And so, part of his journey, he talked about Nolan Smith. You may remember Nolan Smith from the Duke national championship team and, you know, has an amazing story. Father played in the NBA, and unfortunately, passed away at a young age and Nolan was raised by a lot of his father’s teammates, who helped him develop his skills and win a Final Four in the same city where his father won one. It’s an amazing story and Nolan’s outlook on branding, social media is really incredible. So let’s jump into my conversation now with Nolan Smith from Duke basketball.
All right, we’re here with Nolan Smith. And you had a chance to hear Dave Bradley talk about him and Nolan’s story and how they were woven together at Duke. But first off, Nolan, I really appreciate you taking the time to be here and tell your story.
Nolan Smith: Yes, sir, thank you for having me.
So I want to start before Duke. I think your story has a lot of power in how you grew up. Basketball was a part of your life from a young age. And you obviously had this dream to go to Duke. Tell your story of growing up playing the game, having a father who played pro ball, and just how all of that impacted you to get you to actually play at Duke.
Yeah, so I was, like you say, I was born into basketball, man, and I pretty much from the day as far as back as I can remember, I was around the Washington Bullets. My dad was the coach for them, and he coached Rasheed Wallace, Juwan Howard, Calbert Cheaney and those guys. And as a little fellow, I, you know, just being in those gyms with them and falling in love with the game. I always had a basketball in my hands. And then I was at an early age, eight years old, my dad passed away.
And from that… from there on, really, I don’t know, I took it upon myself to just follow in his footsteps in almost every single way that I possibly could. So I dedicated myself and my craft to basketball. I wanted to be a basketball player even though my mom wouldn’t let basketball define me, even though she always say, “No, you’re not just going to be that. You can be all around. A good person and basketball might take you to different places.” I’m like, “Okay.” Obviously, she put in, she nailed that to my head pretty early.
But, you know, so I just really started working. I grew up… grew up in PG County, Maryland with a lot of talented basketball players so I was pushed by my peers to be the best and always just, you know, wanted to be the best. You know, I looked at rankings, you know, I was always top-three in the state, and I was, at times I was number one. And, you know, basketball was… was what I wanted to do.
And all of a sudden, I started getting recruited, and all of a sudden Coach K and Johnny Dawkins are sitting in my living room offering me a scholarship. And, you know, when I looked at all my schools, I looked at all my schools that were offering me, it really, it was pretty much an easy decision because for me it was always bigger than basketball. And Coach K and what Duke had to offer for me was life after basketball. Coach K always say, you know, “You’re… you’re joining the family,” which now we call it The Brotherhood, and it’s going to run further than your four years of college basketball. And the minute he said that in my living room, my mom, as soon as they left the house, she said, “You’re going to Duke.”
You know, before I could even think about decision, my mom was like, “You’re going”. And I always trusted my mom’s instincts as far as people and who I was around and surrounding myself with good people. So once again, I trusted her in my decision and says, “Duke is the right place for me,” and ultimately end up being the perfect decision because look at my… the way my career went, injuries, I ended up right back where she said I could be after basketball.
It’s an amazing story. And I know there were a lot of people along the way who, after your father passed, stepped up and had an impact in your life. I remember the story that Tim Legler did on ESPN. And talk about some of the people along the way who helped you be that top-three player, that top player in Maryland, help you get to the point where Coach K is sitting in your living room offering you a full ride to play at Duke.
Yeah, I mean, there’s so many people, you know, I think a lot of people during that time, took it upon themselves to just be in my life and… but it was Tim Legler, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Coach Jim Lynam, who is the head coach at that time who now became a mentor in my life to this day, and then obviously, Johnny Dawkins who was the associate head coach who ended up calling my mom first, like, “Hey, Ken, we recruited Nolan.” You know, at first it was, “No, Louisville, Louisville, Louisville.” That’s where I was going to go. Everybody thought it was a done deal, but Johnny Dawkins reached as a family friend and as a former teammate of my dad and it was like, “Hey, is Nolan for sure going to Louisville?” And my mom was like, “No.” And he goes, “Okay, I’m going to call you, I’m going to call you right back.”
And all of a sudden, he calls back and he has Coach K on the phone and they’re like, “Hey, we want to… we want to recruit him.” So, you know, it was many people that just really stepped up and stepped into my life and really just gave me the guidance that I needed, you know. And if anybody has lost a parent, you know, then it’s difficult especially as a, you know, a young man aspiring basketball player, for me, he was kind of like the person that… that giving me the ball was now gone.
So now I had to really follow on so many of these, these people, these mentors, these big brothers, uncles, whatever I call them to basically help me get through that time. And then honestly, when it was all said and done, the biggest one of all ended up being Coach K. He ended up really filling in that role, you know, when Johnny Dawkins left for Duke, I mean, left Duke for Stanford. And at that time, it’s crazy how I almost left Duke and I almost went with him to Stanford. But he told me no. He told me, “Stay at Duke. Coach K is going to take care of you. Trust him. He’s going to get you to where you wanted get to.” And I spoke to Coach shortly after that conversation. And he says, “Son, I got you.”
And every, every single day, every… cool as crazy story. Every Father’s Day, Coach K calls me or text me and says, “Hey, I’m thinking about you.”
You know, that’s, that’s, that’s the type of guy that he is and father figure that he is of stepping into a role as well.
So many thoughts going through my head right now. I lost a parent and I was 30. So I was a lot more mature than you were when that happened. From an age standpoint, I can’t imagine going through it at such a young age, but the love and outreach throughout those years, the amount of uncles as you call them that you have that’s got to be pretty special.
And it’s amazing how things work, right, that you’ve found all these influences in your life that you still maintain strong relationships with to this day, and I can’t help it when I think of Coach Dawkins, the most recent memory that comes into my mind is that crazy second round game this year. And what was it like going up against Coach Dawkins after all the history you have, and obviously, somebody had to come out on the wrong end of that one? I know even for Coach K, that was a tough one.
Yeah, it was one of those bittersweet, bittersweet moments and bittersweet games that you’re like, we’re here, we got to play him. Let’s just… let’s just play and get it over with, and whatever happens, happens.
And, obviously, I’m sure everybody, everybody watching that game could tell Coach was obviously taking it very hard. Their embrace after the game showed that and, you know, he never likes to… Coach for one never liked to beat his own players and play against his own former players. And now the coaching world is just, you know, it’s like, it’s like beating on your little brother or your, or your best friends is… is just different. But to look down that sideline, there was a couple of times I’m just like, man, we’re playing against Uncle Johnny.
You know, he got… he got me sitting on this bench right now.
You know, I wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for him. If it wasn’t for him telling me to trust Coach, you know, when I was only 18 years old and wanting to point fingers and being immature, all those things, he was the one that said, “No, trust him.” And now we’re playing against him and basically having to win this game against him, it was… it was very difficult. And obviously, they’re in a position to where they almost should have… should have won.
They lost by a game of inches and it was just… it was a crazy feeling after the game walking to the bus to hug my Auntie Tracy, Tracy Dawkins, Johnny’s wife, to hug her and just… just… there was a lot of emotion, you know, after that game, just… you hate to see their… that their players were crying. It was just… it was… it was a crazy feeling.
So let’s go back. So you stay at Duke, revolutionary decision for you. Obviously, as you look back now at your career, Duke basketball was in an interesting place, you know, was, you know, early in the 2000s won a title, went into a different direction with wins and losses, and especially after JJ Redick left. You come in as part of this team that ends up bringing Duke back to the Final Four and, you know, winning a title at Duke, being a part of this legacy now. Just talk about that whole experience, bringing Duke back to the national championship level.
Yeah, no, it was… it was a very… it was a very important time for Duke. You know, as I look back on it, you know, come again, my sophomore… my freshman year, they were coming off the loss to VCU. And that was a very difficult time. Things were very tense around the program. And we’re in a place where Coach was like, “Look, we got to win. We got to find a way to win.”
And that year, obviously, had an up or down year and we ended up losing to West Virginia that year. And then we come back the next year, my sophomore year, lose to Villanova. Okay, so now we’re even still under pressure a lot more. And it’s like, what’s happening to Duke; they’re getting early exits in the NCAA tournament. Honestly, we’re still winning 25 or 26, 28 games. So it’s not like we’re terrible, but we weren’t reaching Final Fours or Elite Eights. And on top of that, people really started to talk bad about the players. You know, obviously, going into Duke always… I always heard kind of things that Jalen Rose was saying that all the Black guys that go to Duke are Uncle Toms and their White guys aren’t good. They’re unathletic. So, this is a time now where we were losing, and we were feeling and seeing all of this heat.
And it was like, it was like, man, this isn’t… this isn’t who we are, like, but this is what the world is saying about us. And so then all of a sudden here you have a bunch of guys that have been through a lot. You know, Jon Scheyer who is on that VCU team loss. Then you have myself and Kyle Singler during this, we’re like, “Look, we’ve done a lost early. We’ve been… had our noses rubbed and crapped. We’ve been hurt and seen it all. But we know who we are. We’re talented. Let’s go out here and hoop and let’s win.”
Going into that summer, we were very confident coming back and we just had… we had the biggest chip on our shoulder. We had the biggest chip on shoulder, hey, look, we don’t… we don’t care what people are saying. I think… I think it was a Doug Gottlieb that said, “We were alarmingly unathletic.” So, we saw all that stuff.
So even that year, we were winning, but we were still hearing the negatives and what people were saying about us. That year, you had Kentucky, John Wall. These guys, you had Jared Sullinger and those guys at Ohio State. So there was a lot of good teams that year. And we were still that team, that Duke team that basically had the stigma of we weren’t tough enough and we weren’t going to win.
Yeah. And that… to add insult to injury to those guys like Gottlieb and Jalen, Jalen Rose, you guys played Butler in the national championship of all teams, right. And, and a half-court shot at the buzzer, talk about a game of inches from Gordon Hayward doesn’t go down. You win that title. And 30 years from the time your father won a title in the same city.
Talk about that.
Nah, it was pretty incredible to… when you… when you say it again, every time I hear that, it’s like, “Wow.” And, you know, going into the Final Four, as soon as we reached the Final Four at that moment, in my own head, I knew we were going to win. In my own creepy, psychological way I say, “Okay, we’re going to take Indianapolis. We’re about to win a championship.” There’s no doubt about it because of exactly that.
And when we reached the Final Four, my mom actually gave me my dad’s championship ring to carry with me to Indie. So I had that with me in my hotel room at night to look at, set it beside my bed, looked at it from work the whole time, anytime I was in my room. And, you know, everybody talked about Butler, being the Cinderella, and the great story. But even Coach, in his own way, said that our story was better from what we were going through, what we had been through, our losses, and our ups and downs.
And then I think in a little, in a little way, he was talking about my individual story of my father and I winning a championship in the same city 30 years apart. And, you know, the best picture that I have in my office right now was taken by Dave Bradley, after the game, kneeling down on the 1980 championship Final Four logo with our trophy. And that picture sits in my office, just a very, very proud moment to say, I think, there’s only been two fathers and sons, I think that have won championships. I think it’s Sean May and Scott May, if my memory serves me right. But it’s something that’s very hard to do. And we were able to do that. So it was a special moment.
Perfect segue to Dave Bradley. You’re talking about special moments, and you’re talking about capturing them. And he obviously captured that one and now sits on your office wall. You guys got to know each other throughout your time there because he was a guy just coming out of college, transitioning into the professional world and he became just placed in this place now that… that there’s, there’s a role in every athletic department called creative director, called, you know, director of social media, social media manager, digital. Dave was doing that with… with newsletters at Duke, black-and-white newsletters, right, and… and then as time went on, you know, social media became what it became.
I mean, the year that you won the Final Four, you talk about John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, that Kentucky team, you know, Coach Calipari was one of the first coaches to ever get on social, him and the head coach for football at USC, Pete Carroll, had a challenge on Twitter to see who could get more followers faster, right. I mean, this was like the… really the beginning of social becoming what it is today. And you were thinking about that. Dave was thinking about that. You guys did some cool stuff while you were playing.
Talk about some of the stuff you guys started doing with video and pictures and social.
Yeah, no, Dave… Dave Bradley, first and foremost, he changed… he changed the image of Duke basketball. He 100% did whether it was with me and with our team in 2010, but like you said, Twitter was starting. But he did something different with Duke Blue Planet. And he did it with a handheld camera. And what he wanted to do was show… show us, show the players, show people that we’re human, get inside, inside our head, get inside us outside of basketball, show our personalities. So I remember this… I think it was one of the first where he just gave me the camera.
He’s like, after a game, he’s like, “Here, we’re going on the plane. Here. Go. Go interview some of your teammates or just talk to the camera.” And I was like, “Okay.” So I go back to the back of the plane, and we’re just kind of like, “Hey, man, we just had a great game. How do you feel about the game?” We’re just… we’re just talking but we’re on camera. It’s real, personal. It’s genuine. It wasn’t staged. It wasn’t scripted.
And then from there, he just came up with these brilliant ideas. Just…whether it was Thanksgiving; whether it was New York City, we just won another big game, we’re heading back; we just won a tournament, preseason tournament, talk to the camera. And then he started doing the almost like an MTV Cribs type of thing where he was coming to our dorms, but everything he did at that time was either with… with the player in the camera by themselves or he would be there helping the player with the camera, show off whatever they were showing off. But that right there changed the image of Duke basketball into what it has grown quickly and practically into today by just a handheld camera and Dave Bradley.
It’s amazing. And, and you, the timing of you winning a Final Four, being an athlete, and then you tie that to today, and I’ll fast forward, this past season was just another level, right? It’s not like Duke basketball didn’t already have a digital brand, a social brand that was at the forefront. I mean, going into the season Duke already had the biggest following of any college basketball or football program in America. But it only was enhanced from Zion-RJ camp coming in. And they’re not the only ones. I just named them off the cuff. But it just kind of… it was like, you guys were ready for that.
Talk about how you is director of operations, building relationships with those guys, the guys who’ve previously come in while you’ve been on staff are able to talk to them about their brand, about, you know, how to leverage this small window there at Duke so they can let it echo into their pro career and beyond.
Yeah, no, it’s a big part in our… in what we’re telling recruits because, obviously, a guy like Zion, he’s a big fish. And a big fish needs to swim in a big pond. So when we talk about social media with a guy like Zion, you can go anywhere you want Zion, but social media and branding wise, you’re… you’re going to make a splash, but eventually he’ll make a bigger splash in a big pond.
And that’s what our social media is and was prior to him. It already has a Duke basketball brand. It has the Coach K brand, has the Duke University brand. And now you add a player that has a brand into that, boom. There you go. Now, what do you do with that? What do you put on your social media? How do you portray yourself? What do you want? What do you want to be trade at? You want to be the people’s champ? Do you want to be someone that loves just kids? Do you want to show your family? Do you want to show your little brother, your little sister? Whatever it is, and that’s something that Dave sits down with these guys and talk to them about when they get on campus so they can start building their own personal brands.
But it’s a teaching thing that we teach to whether it’s recruit or our current players that it’s like, “Hey, we’re serious. And we’re interested and invested in who you are and what you do once you leave Duke.” And coming in to Duke and using our social media platform, that is the biggest in all of sports, we’re going to… we’re going to train you and make sure that when you leave here you’re going to have something, whether it’s in basketball or not, people are going to know you and know your face enough to where you might can go get a job or continue playing basketball, but you’re going to get some type of endorsement based on how much you build your brand based off where you are.
Yep. And really, social media has created a digital character of somebody on the internet. And a lot of times people go to their social and judge them for who they are without ever even getting to know them.
Absolutely. Yeah, it tells a lot.
So, I know… an employer, you know, over the last 10 years, how many times I’ve looked at a candidate that I may hire on social before they’ve come in? Countless.
So obviously, you know about us. We’re, you know, partners with, with you at INFLCR and you know what we do to deliver content to your players. Go back to when you’re a player and picture leaving the game, leaving practice, how did you have to get content versus how you’re seeing your players get it now through our platform.
Back then, I don’t even think we were even getting content. I don’t think we even had anything that was possible. I think if I was getting pictures, it was maybe from some somebody, a media person sitting front row that maybe got a good picture during the game and tweeted it out and then I would save it from that.
But now with, with what we have with INFLCR, with their abilities to shoot these pictures out to these guys, like, the coolest thing is that we send them out to the guys and they’re getting them after a big win, on the bus, is to see a player celebrate another player. And that’s something that, obviously, we teach but, obviously, our guys embrace it because they know, a, who we are as Duke and our brand and our culture, it’s not about yourself. And we’re a selfless program.
But to see our guys post another player who might have had a big game or a team camaraderie picture of a nice huddle, to get that right after, boom, post it out, it’s the coolest thing in the world. I mean, I wish I had that to be able to celebrate my teammates that, you know, out there battling with me and show them I love them and show them I appreciate them each and every day we take… take the court. You know, it’s a great thing that we do for our… for our guys.
There’s no doubt I had a chance to catch up with a few of your guys in Vegas at summer league, including RJ and Marques. And, you know, to hear them really say the same thing about the ideology and philosophy of celebrating each other, it’s special. And it means that you have to protect your culture. So I know that, you know, as I build a team for my business just like you guys are building the team there, you got to have core values, you got to have something that defines your culture. Because not everybody is taught to do things that way, to celebrate others, to be a true team player. How do you guys protect your culture at Duke?
We protect it just by a lot of conversation, a lot of teaching, whether it’s social media teaching, team bonding teaching, and just making sure our guys understand who we are and who we are as a culture and who we’re going to be, you know, continuously. You know, we continue to harp on it throughout the year. And I think that’s just… it is constant, constant pounding it into the head as far as who we are as a program.
So back to the branding piece, we kind of wrap things up, a lot of people will continue to talk about players whether they should be… have to go to college, whether they should get paid, all these different topics. But it’s clear to me that Zion Williamson, we’ll keep using him as the example, I could use a lot of your players as this example, got a lot of value from going to Duke last year.
Sure, Duke got a lot of value from having a player like Zion, but Zion Williamson, and I think he’d be the first to tell you… to tell people, got a lot of value from going to Duke. I always like to use the comparison of the Bazley kid who didn’t go to Syracuse, I’m a… I’m a Syracuse guy, so we’ll use that. Decides not to go, gets a million-dollar payday from New Balance. Sits the year out, right? Zion, this time last year was the seventh projected pick in the NBA Draft. He ends up being, at no dispute, first pick of the NBA Draft.
So I don’t want to get your opinion on those topics people argue about, but what I do want to get your assessment on is how much value can guys get from the platform at a school like Duke? And how are you continuing to allow recruits to understand that? Because I know the Roach kid who just decided to go to Duke even cited the value of the Duke brand.
Yeah, no, the brand is huge. And, I mean, like you’re saying, Zion… Zion definitely knows that coming into Duke increased his, you know, just from the platform that he was going to be on. Every single, every single game, every single night is showtime. But then our brand and our following, everybody got to learn about him. And honestly, nobody ever could say a bad thing about him because they saw him, they saw him on our social media. Oh, he’s always smiling. He seems like the happiest kid. Whether it was postgame interviews and he’d bring in our walk on Michael Buckmire, and he was joking with him. You know, so everybody… everybody got to see who he really is.
You know, basketball spoke for itself, but it was the other things that he was allowed to… allowed to showcase. And that’s something I think a lot of guys coming in are excited about, you know, they get to showcase other, other things than just being a basketball player. And that’s, that’s their brand. And they… every high school kid now is coming in understanding what branding is all about.
I think Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, all these brands at their, you know, own camps and tournaments, they’re teaching brand. So now they’re… they have a better understanding of what that means. So now you see a guy like Jeremy Roach talking about Duke Blue Planet, Duke MVP, you know, the brand. You know, it’s bigger than basketball, and it’s the business of basketball that guys are starting to understand more.
You’re more than a player obviously. You’ve grown into a director of operations. But if people go to your Instagram, for instance, which is ndotsmitty, they’re going to see a lot about you. You live out what we’re talking about as far as telling your story, being more than an athlete. You’re a father. You’re a husband. Talk about yourself off the floor and… and also help people understand your big goals in your career.
Yeah, you know, so my, my end goal is obviously to be a head coach and affect lives, you know, with, with the game of basketball, the game that gave me so much. And I do a lot of stuff. If anybody sees my Instagram, they probably like, “Man, he’s everywhere.” He’s, he’s always involved in different things, and that’s… that’s just who I am. And I’ve always wanted to be hands-on and out in the community.
I’m in Durham and Durham is home for me, so I obviously want to do a lot of stuff here with whether it’s the Teen Cancer America and Duke Hospital, and so many different things. So with my social media, I want to portray everything that I love. You know, obviously, my, my sort of philanthropy work is something that I really love. But obviously, you see my wife, you see my new baby girl Cameron. You see my family. You see Duke basketball, you know. So, one day when I do want to become a head coach and I go for a job, some people are going to… they’re going to already know who I am, you know. They’re going to already have most of their questions answered before I even sit down to do an interview. And that’s all thanks to social media.
Man, no, I really appreciate you joining us. Great stuff. So many good stories, so many takeaways for people who are listening to apply to their own career. I’m looking forward to seeing you this season. I’m sure I’ll get out to a game and we’ll get to connect face to face. But once again, appreciate you making time today.
Yes, sir. Appreciate you, man.
Well, basketball season is here and I’m only more excited from those interviews on this episode. Man, David Nolan, they bring so much wisdom to the table when they talk. And so, all the takeaways, the top key points from this episode are available at INFLCR.com, that’s I-N-F-L-C-R dot com. Go to the podcast option, you’ll see this episode. And you can go through show notes that we’ve prepared for. You can go through a whole transcript of the show as well. You can follow Dave and Nolan and Duke on their respective social media channels. And of course, follow us at INFLCR, I-N-F-L-C-R, and follow me Jim Cavale on social so that you can stay in-tune with what’s going on with our company and what’s going on with this podcast as we continue to push out new episodes.
INFLCR does present these I Want Your Job episodes, and we like to check in with an INFLCR athlete each episode to let you in on their philosophy and branding, and how they get a chance to use content to build a brand on social media, and this episode is appropriate, we’re going to talk to Marques Bolden formerly Duke, now in the NBA about just that.
So, Marques, talk about how big it was that Duke decided to invest into a tool like INFLCR so you could get your content in real-time after practices, games and whatnot throughout the past season.
Marques Bolden: I mean, it was very convenient. Obviously, it was convenient for us to have these because, you know, it’s a lot of social media things going around now and social media is… we’re in the age of social media. So it’s really big. And so, for us to be able to get content right away with like great quality pictures, really not, no watermarks or anything like that, it helps you like promote your brand and everything. It was… it was great how they gave us kind of just the head start in that part of life, our progress.
And then, lastly, now that you’re a pro, because of USA Today doing a partnership with INFLCR, you’re going to be able to getting your pictures and you’re going to play out on national TV a lot, you’re going to get photographed by a lot of other media companies, how big is it for you to be able to continue getting your national media photography through INFLCR?
I mean, it’s amazing. Even though we are like the athletes and the pro athletes that are making these moves and playing on this court, we sometimes need to get a charge for our own likeness. So… but, we’ll just be able to, like I said earlier, get content the way we want it and at the seed we want it, and it’s amazing. And I’m looking forward to just working with them in the future.
Always fun when I get a chance to sit down with INFLCR athletes. We now have more than 11,000 athletes active on the INFLCR app in a given day sharing content, growing their brand, and playing for the teams that we get to partner with here at INFLCR. So really thankful that Marques was able to give me some time to chat and you’re going to have a chance to hear an amazing interview in our next episode.
We’re going to be talking to Allen Greene, the athletic director for Auburn University. He had a chance to be in our office for this interview. That’ll be Episode 8, and we’ll also have a surprise guest in that episode. We’ll have one of the former Auburn athletes who led them to the Final Four joining us. So really, really excited about how this show is evolving as a podcast. Really interested in folks who feel like they know somebody that should be interviewed on I Want Your Job. If you have a submission, hit me up on social at Jim Cavale and I’d be happy to consider any nominations for guests as we continue to take the show to the next level.
Until our next episode, I’m Jim Cavale, and thank you so much for tuning in to I Want Your Job.