Football is a complicated, brutal game, a sport that is violent, almost feral, but also meticulously orchestrated and constructed. It requires 11 massive men all moving in concert, each understanding what the other is doing and why they're doing it while also making sure that they, individually, are either cracking the skull of another human being or avoiding having their own skull cracked. It is insane that this is still our national sport -- that one of its most popular incarnations involves not paying the people having their skulls cracked -- but our national sport it remains, for now.
Because this game is so inherently contradictory, because its impulses for chaos and control are in constant battle, college football coaches -- the ringleaders of this lunatic circus, the ones benefitting from this as much as they can before someone comes and turns out the lights -- have to try to make it look simple. These are college kids, after all, and there is only so much their brains can process, both on and off the field. (UCLA's Josh Rosen understands this and is more honest about it than most.) So coaches try to boil it down to something as basic and elemental as possible. They narrow it all down to a catchphrase.
Here in Athens where I live, this has become a cottage industry for Georgia football coaches. Former coach Mark Richt was famous for his "Finish the Drill" phrase, which was on every video board, hashtagged on every Tweet and screamed at every player in practice. Richt, a fundamentally decent human being nonetheless in a profession that can't help but challenge that decency on a daily basis, even morphed this phrase into something he believed could help his players not just on the field, but off it.
When Georgia fired Richt before the 2016 season, new coach Kirby Smart came in with his own slogan. Now it is not about the drill that must be finished. It is now about the day that must be attacked.
A . T . D .- Georgia Football (@FootballUGA) March 31, 2016
As far as strategies to get a bunch of college kids on board with doing the same violent thing at the same violent time, giving them an easily remembered, vaguely motivational catchphrase is not the worst idea. I'm not sure exactly what "attack the day" means in a macro sense - I don't mean to sound like a sensitive ponytailed man here, but I'm more of an embracer of the day myself - but if it's enough to inspire a college football player to go run through a wall for no pay, I suppose Kirby Smart must be doing something right by using it.
The whole thing feels cut from the cloth of an airport bookstore's "Motivational" section, in which some dude looking like Anthony Scaramucci smiles at you and tell you how only you can change your life ask him how. Which, all told, isn't that different from being a college football coach, really.
The most famous of these of recent vintage, and certainly the most personally successful from a branding perspective, was Western Michigan's "Row the Boat," which he used to help captain Western Michigan to a 13-0 regular season record and a trip to the Cotton Bowl. The slogan was such a massive hit that Fleck took it to Minnesota with him in the offseason, though not before Western Michigan fought him on intellectual property rights, ultimately settling on Fleck giving $50,000 to the school. If you were wondering how much these slogans are worth, they are apparently worth $50,000. That seems … a lot.
As far as these slogans go, though, there is no one higher on his own supply than P.J. Fleck.
Row the Boat actually has three parts!
1. The Oar. "The energy you bring to your life, your family, your relationships, your work," Fleck explains. "It's the only thing that actually moves the boat."
2. The Boat. "The boat is the sacrifice," Fleck says, and it is worth noting that this is not what a boat actually is. Perhaps you can make an argument that an oar is, in fact, what provides the energy to move a boat. But I'm afraid the boat as "sacrifice" is when this particular metaphor breaks down. That is not going to stop Fleck, however. He's on a roll.
3. The Compass. "This is the direction of your life, set by the leader of your life," Fleck says, and while most people would consider the leader of their life "themselves," I'm pretty sure that Fleck is going to insist that leader be him. Also: I have never, ever been in a rowboat that has a compass. Why would a rowboat need a compass? How far are you going in this rowboat?
While Fleck has taken "Row the Boat" with him to Western Michigan, the Broncos are not going to be left slogan-less. Though it takes a village to replace "Row the Boat," or, more specifically, two slogans: "We Will Reign" and "Let's Ride." It is not clear what vehicle the Broncos are riding, or whether or not it will end up being The Sacrifice.
This is clearly the new trend in college football, and why not: It just got P.J. Fleck out of the MAC and into a fancy Big Ten job, after all. Here are some of my favorites from this year so far:
Charlotte: "Rock Solid."
Illinois: "We Will Win." (Note the future rather than the present tense there.)
North Carolina: "Origin of Flight."
Kansas: "Earn It."
My favorite has to be that one, Kansas' slogan. Earn It. Kansas football has won 11 football games this decade. I'm not sure the current players are the ones who have to learn anything.
I know it's easy for this 41-year-old to snark on this stuff, but hey, if it works, it works. The rest of the world is turning into a big hashtag: Why should motivating college football players be any different? The oar is the energy. The boat is the sacrifice. The compass is the direction. The ceiling is the roof.
Subscribe to Will's weekly newsletter and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.