Episode 20: Ashley Robinson, Jackson State University
Cody Junot 00:00
Welcome to a New Gameday, powered by Nevco, changing the game in scoreboards, video displays and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot. And in this podcast series, we chat with college athletic leaders and administrators about a new game day, as we all return to play amidst the COVID-19 virus. Today, we’re going to discuss what that new game is going to look like, what it’s going to feel like and how athletic administrators are already adapting to our new world and surroundings. After spending five years as the Director of Athletics at Prairie View A&M, our guest today is in his second season leading Jackson State University and pleased to be joined by Ashley Robinson. Ashley, thanks for taking the time. How’s everybody at Jackson State?
Ashley Robinson 00:56
Everybody’s doing well, thanks. Thanks for having me. You know, as I said, I always tell people it’s prime time here at Jackson State University. So we’re having a great time engaging our student athletes and making a good student athlete experience, student-first campus. And that’s what we’re all about here at Jackson State University.
Cody Junot 01:14
Yes, indeed, it certainly is prime time for you guys. And we’re going to talk a little bit about Coach Prime, as he’s affectionately known a little bit later on. But first, let’s go back to March, and maybe even a little bit before that, but where we were from March to here now, in the middle of October towards the tail end of October, and communication, you know, you go back to, I think of the great moment that you guys had with Stacks, and all of the press that you got from that and communication, how you were able to get that story out. And then dealing with the buyer specifically. So let’s talk about that communication and communicating with your fans, your alumni. You know, how do you guys and your team keep everybody aware of all of the changes that were happening? Forget week-by-week, or even day-by-day, but hour-by-hour as things were changing and we were learning new things every day?
Ashley Robinson 02:06
Right, well it starts with great teamwork, great leadership, from our university president and also from an athletic standpoint. March was very trying times for us. We was in the middle of on our way to men’s basketball first round conference play. We had our first rounds on campus, and the third, semifinals and finals are in Birmingham. So we, you know, played Tuesday night, Wednesday morning, you know, we were on our way to Birmingham, and about an hour and two, we get a call from the commissioner, emergency call, and, you know, everything is cancelled. So, you know, that’s just weeks before, you know, Stacks had hit the big shot. And that was, you know, a lot of media attention with that, and couldn’t happen to a better young man. Grew up around Jackson State from a little boy, you know, grew up and attended here and was a student manager, you know, for a long time. So, you know, a great young man just graduated and now he’s working on his master’s, but, you know, that communication piece was very, very important. And that’s one of my five C’s that I use to make sure that we communicate what our alumni supporters are saying, our fans, and you know, most important our student athletes and our community. We used our Associate AD for sports media Dennis Driscoll, and his team did a really good job of getting that message out via social media, you know, our website, various calls, to our leaders, as well, and all our leaders and donors, but we kept a good communication line with our student athletes, as you know, zoom calls and Google meets. I’ve learned to use all that technology now. But we stayed engaged with them. It was funny, just today, you know, I had a Google meet with our soccer team, just to talk to them and tell them how I thanked him and how patient they are and to talk about academics during these trying times, so our communication team starts with administration with our coaches to make sure we communicate with them on a day to day basis, weekly basis, and also communicate with our student athletes, and then it trickles down to our alumni, supporters and fans on things that we’re doing. And those communications are something that I think is very, very important, but you have to keep those communications with those top people to make sure that things are done well and make sure that people up to date on what’s going on in athletics. As you know, each university in each state have different guidelines and CDC guidelines on what you can and can’t do. And we want to make sure that we stay within the guidelines of the state of Mississippi. And we also want to stay within the guidelines of Thomas Hudson, who is our president here at Jackson State University. I was able to be a part to be the leader of our task force for the university, not just for athletics alone. We had about 30 individuals and we were able to put a task force together for the university. So you know, we did a lot of these to make sure our student athletes were safe, to make sure all our students were safe when it came to testing, when it came to temperature, when it came to materials needed to be safe. And also that educational piece just, you know, educating, educating our students, our staff, our coaches, and our community on how to be safe. And I think those pieces are very, very important. So we kept a great communication line through social media, through our websites, and all our media outlets to make sure that we updated, and also, a bunch of phone calls, a bunch of Google meet hang calls, with our coaches, our student athletes, our fans and our supporters to make sure, and a lot of messages, social media messages and things out there to make sure that we communicate and they know exactly what’s going on at Jackson State University.
Cody Junot 05:40
You talked about the social pieces there, and zoom calls and getting messages out through various mediums and channels. Was that a change for you and your staff? Or was that something that your team was already leaning into?
Ashley Robinson 05:54
Well, you know, the Zoom calls and Google meets was a change, it was a change. We normally have in-person meetings, when that’s something that we had to go to. So that was a big change, that was a challenge. And that’s something that we had to do. But you know, I told them some of the things that we’re going to use moving forward, I think those Zoom calls and Google meets, I think worked very, very well, because, you know, I’m a big fan of not bothering coaches during the season. You try to make sure that they have that that time with their student athletes, and I like to put everything in place in June or July. And then when the season starts, we try not to bother coaches unless it’s an emergency. We do our update meetings, we make sure our sport supervisors update them and meet with them, you know, weekly to make sure everything is going well. But, you know, as far as policies and procedures and changes with the department, we try to do that in June, July. So those are the things that we have a lot of in person meetings, but now with a lot of zoom, and Google meets, and they worked out very, very well, very, you know, from a technology standpoint, I thought those things work really well. So some of those things we’re going to continue to use moving forward. You know, when these when everything is hopefully over with, but you know, those, those were some great times, and I thought they were very efficient, very structured, very organized. And I think we got great feedback from our coaches and our student athletes, as well. So those are some of the things that we did use. But those were very beneficial.
Cody Junot 07:23
Clearly, keeping your coaches and student athletes informed of all the changes from March to back when the SWAC decided to move football to the spring, and all of those things moving forward incredibly important. But when it came to your fan base, you know, how did you keep those folks informed? And was it a change in which the way you were normally used to communicating with them?
Ashley Robinson 07:44
Yeah, a big change. And we have a very passionate fan base, as you know, we lead the FCS in attendance, over 30,000 fans, over 50,000 alums, we travel very well. So we have a very passionate fan base. So I try to make sure that I keep that communication line with them. You know, we used a lot of our website and our social media. And also our staff made individual calls to our season ticket holders. We sent letters out updating them on what we was doing and the changes that was going on. So we kept that communication line, whether it was on our website, whether it was social media, whether it’s that call to talk to that season ticket holder, we went down our donor lists and our staff and my staff did a really, really good job of keeping that communication line and keeping them updated on a day to day basis of what we was doing.
Cody Junot 08:33
And you talk about that fan base. And it’s always prime time at Jackson State these days. Let’s talk into that. Let’s talk about the hiring and naming of a Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and head football coach. Just take me back through that process and how it came about?
Ashley Robinson 08:49
Well, well, you know, you know, we decided to go in a different direction. When it comes to football, you get a bunch of calls and emails and we had a lot of coaches that was very interested in the job and had opportunity to talk to the Coach Sanders, Coach Prime and from the first time we talked, after we made that change, you know, that first conversation went really, really well. And one of the things that really, you know, that really I love about Coach Prime is his passion that he has for young men and young women. His that he has for the community, his passion that he has that he wants to help. He’s had a lot of success. He’s a very optimistic coach. He knows football Xs and Os. I mean, the football piece was I was not really concerned about you know, but you know, when you’re looking for a football coach it’s more than about football, you know, it’s that overall person, you know, I call them the CEO of your program, each head coach because you have more than just to worry about your sport. You know, you have a management level. You know, you have a student athlete piece. You have, you know, a peace in this a lot of things involved in being a head coach and one thing I can say about Coach Prime from that first conversation, Coach Prime did his homework. I mean, he knew everything about Jackson State, he knew about the four Hall of Famers, he knew about how many players drafted to the NFL, he knew the tradition of Jackson State, he knew we had a rich, rich tradition. And you know, we have a tradition that a lot of HBCUs don’t have. We’re a blueblood program, you know, one of the best running backs in the country went to Jackson State University. We have more Hall of Famers than anybody in the state of Mississippi. We have over 99 players get drafted to the NFL. So we have a lot of tradition here, a lot of passion here and talking to Coach Sanders, you know, we was a program that really could hold the capacity of a Coach Prime, you know, we have over 60,000 seats in our stadium. Our alumni base is over 50,000. And, you know, we support and we’re very passionate. This was something that, you know, when I talked to him, things just got better and better as we talked week in, week out. And then we got to a point, it was, ‘Hey, let’s make this happen.’ So I went to my president and got his approval. And, you know, we had some meetings with Coach Prime, and, you know, things just work together. That’s the thing that I look at. I look at the teamwork. A lot of people look at, you know, the celebrity status and look at the Hall of Famer and look at the Super Bowl, but you look at he is a passionate and a great professional. He’s very professional in what he do. And my mission is those young men and young women out there on that field and in the academic classroom, and seeing them having the success on their face and we had that same passion. And I think as a team, you know, Coach Prime and I work really, really well together. I think the teamwork and some of the goals and the passion that I have, he has as well. And also our alumni and supporters in Jackson State have. It was great as we met week and week, it got better and better every day. We started talking, it went from every two or three days to every day, and leading up to it and we just thought we got together and said, Hey, let’s make this happen. So, got with my President, got his approval, got with Coach Prime and, and we came together, we made this happen. But you know, Coach Prime is one of a kind. I look at this as one of the biggest hires in the country, I don’t care if you’re a power five, mid-major, HBCUs, whatever you want to say, I want to be able to show people in the college world that an HBCU can do this too. You know, we always talk about resources. And we talk about what we can and can’t do, you know, resources about communication. Resources are about getting in the community, Resources about meeting with people. And when people meet, resources by honoring tradition of your institution and show people that you have a passion and that you care, and making the right hires when it comes to athletics, and showing that your student athletes and giving them their best experience showing people that it’s all about the student athletes and resources will come if you follow that lead and do those things and follow up and communicate with people. And for me, you know, that’s the story of Coach Prime. And we looked up on September the 21st. And notice that everything is done on the 21st now. We start our first game on the 21st. But you know, that’s a great marketing tool and it shows the things you know that the bigger picture that Coach Prime has for the program. I love the conversation that we have every day, I’ve saw some of the things you’ve done. And we’ve saw some things he’s done in the country. And I mean, this is just a great hire, football hire in the country. And we’re going to show people that it can be done at Jackson State University. Show people that we can run a first class program, we’re going to show people that we can support our student athletes, and we can grow as an institution with the leadership of Thomas Hudson, our president, with the leadership of myself, and with the leadership of one of the best coaching head coaches in the country, not just Coach Prime, but you can check out all our programs. We got some great quality head coaches, and great tradition here at Jackson State University.
Cody Junot 14:04
You kind of touched on the next question there and mentioning the resources. Obviously, there’s going to be a shot in the arm anytime you hire a new football coach. And when you hire Coach Prime, I imagine that shots a little bit stronger. How is this hiring going to help Jackson State off the football field as much as it does on the football field?
Ashley Robinson 14:22
I think is very, very big. I mean, you look at all the hires across the country. And you look at those power five hires, and it’s not all about football. But you know, for me, it’s not all about athletics. It’s about Jackson State University and helping us grow from a growing standpoint, I think it’s going to be really, really big. From a marketing and media standpoint, I think it’s going to be really, really big for Jackson State. But this hire helps us out. It helps Jackson State University grow. And for me, that’s my goal. That’s my passion. This is going to really help us grow from a growing standpoint, it’s going to grow from a national exposure standpoint, and from a media and branding. I mean, it’s going to be outstanding. So you know, those are the benefits of a hire of a Coach Prime.
Cody Junot 15:09
And that’s going to potentially lead to more revenue, which going back to March and the NCAA canceling the basketball tournament, everybody’s revenues across the board took a major dive. So when we look at those revenue opportunities, not just with Coach Prime, but maybe in the new ways that you’re going to approach the game day, how have you worked with your partners, to ensure that you can still drive value for them?
Ashley Robinson 15:29
Our partners have worked with us very well. And we meet weekly, as you know, the meetings have picked up since we made the announcement. But we have great partners here in the City of Jackson and in the state of Mississippi, and they’re really about the community, and they’re looking at the growth, and we have a we have a big fan base, and we have big supporters, our alumni base, and now our season ticket holders and everything increasing, you know, our partners really wants to support Jackson State University, and we work closely, very closely, with our partners weekly, to ensure that, you know, their partnership with Jackson State fits what they’re trying to do, and also fits what we’re trying to do here at Jackson State University. So that’s been a close relationship, you know, we’re looking at over 38 to 40 partners, new partners, since we had and we had about 15 to 18 partners in my last two years that we’ve been working very, very closely with. So we’re looking to work closely with our partners and our partners work really well. Starting with the city of Jackson, in the state of Mississippi.
Cody Junot 16:34
We talked about digital communication, leaning into social media and that space that’s presented, I would have to imagine, some new opportunities for your partners and some potential new revenue opportunities there. So what opportunities have presented themselves in a digital space that maybe weren’t there before, but have almost become a necessity because of COVID in the way in which we are now communicating with, you know, fans and alumni?
Ashley Robinson 16:57
Digital space, have really, really increased when you come to knowing this pandemic time, you know, from a social media standpoint, you know, a lot of people want to get that, you know, social media, that’s very big. I think that’s one of the number one things when you come to that, but also even with your digital things with the way that you watch and support your teams. Season tickets with online streaming something that’s not on ESPN, I think that has increased, a lot of people have increased on the fan side of we have started this process to where you’re able to be at the game. We can put your picture up and that’s another digital piece that we’re in the process of working on. But you know, we signed wit Blue Frame, which is the online streaming technology. We signed with Open Door for our student athletes, something to increase their visibility as well. But the digital piece has been very, very popular and a lot of our partners are really happy to take advantage of the digital piece during this pandemic. It looks a lot different from what you had in the past, but that’s the going thing now. And we were looking to do some different things with our digital to support our partners, but not only for our partners before our student athletes as well.
Cody Junot 18:18
So the SWAC is going to play football this spring. So we’ll get to see Coach Prime a little bit sooner than in a normal year. Having had the opportunity to watch football over the past six weeks or so, and talk with athletic administrators across the country, hat are some of your takeaways that you’ve seen from how folks have had to adapt here in this fall that you are going to implement when you guys play football in the spring?
Ashley Robinson 18:47
The fall has been very, I ca say it’s been very different. You know, I had my calendar set with all of our football games, and I didn’t take them off my calendar. So sometimes on Saturday, I get a buzz that said, Hey, we got a football game at two o’clock. And you know, it’s very, very different in the fall. I think this might be the first time you know, where I’ve not been a part of a football program as administrator in a long time, probably back to my college days. And I was a part over there as a GA, as well. But, you know, I look at the spring and I look at it as a benefit and a lot of people look at it as we’re playing football in the spring, but what the way I look at it is we’re going to have a lot of events going on every weekend. You know, from softball to baseball, to men’s basketball, women’s basketball, our tennis programs. I look at it as a benefit for our alums to come in and you can catch all sports coming on Thursday, Friday, and you can catch three or four sports for the weekend. So I look at it as a benefit to marketing your program. It’s a lot of work in place for that, but that’s what athletic administration’s are for. That’s how you enhance your program. You continue to grow and you have to put in the work, but from a student athlete, a fan, a alumni, a supporter, and the community, I look at it as putting a lot of different things to do in the community and also given our alumni base and our fans opportunity to come on the weekends And not only just catch football, but now I can catch baseball, and I can catch softball, now I can catch a basketball game, now I can catch a volleyball game, I can catch a soccer game. So, you know, all of our sports would be competing, you know, in the spring. So I look at it as a benefit for our alumni base to come in and kind of look at, starting to see other sports while they’re coming to football game. So I think it’s very, very beneficial. You know, we’re in a unique situation. We have five home games during the spring, kind of got out ahead of things and worked on some things. And we’re going to open up the season on February 21, on a Sunday with a one o’clock kick. So I’m looking forward to that, as well as football, but I’m looking forward to all those weekends. And being a part of seeing all our sports compete, and seeing our alumni come together as one to support all 16 sports.
Cody Junot 21:01
It’s going to be a fascinating time, this spring, watching all of those sports unfold at the at the same time. I get the feeling you’re going to have to do a Houdini act and find a way to be in not just two, but maybe three or four places at the same time. But I’m sure you’ll find a way to pull it off. Last thing for you, Ashley. Since March, and here we are through, you know, mid-October now. What’s the one message that you’ve been driving home to coaches, student athlete fans, and alumni as we gear up for a season with so many unknowns?
Ashley Robinson 21:34
Well, you know, the first message right now is safety. You know, that’s the first thing that I talk about. Of course everybody wants to talk about revenue, want to talk about why we’re not playing. But you know, the safety is the number one thing I talk about with my alumni and fans right now, as we start, you know, and making sure that we do everything and put everything in place to make sure we’re safe first, before we do anything. And that’s protecting my student athletes, that’s protecting my coaches, that’s protecting my administration, that’s protecting Jackson State University, we want to make sure that we put a lot of emphasis on safety, you know, in the way we do things in the training room, the way we enter buildings, the way we go to the weight room, the screening process, the testing weekly that we do, we want to put a lot of things in place, you know, providing materials, masks, sanitizing wipes and things to our student athletes to make sure they’re safe, we want to put that in place. And the second thing is, you know, this is a time that I don’t care if we have a season or don’t have a season, that every alumni should come together to the purchase season tickets, and make that donation to your program. This shows the passion that you have for just a university in your program. But this would be a time that we all come together, we put some things together during the pandemic, we have a COVID-19 Relief Fund, that we did. We asked 10,000 alums to give $250 during August to December, which is, you know, $50 a month, which would be about a $2.5 million revenue stream to support our student athletes, support the safety and the revenue loss during the fall. Alumni and fans, you know, have done a really good job of supporting that piece will stop in December. We’ve put together a first phase for our facilities, which was dropped last week. And we’re looking at the first phase of that as well to support that. And we’re going to start looking at some naming rights here coming up, as well. You know, before that we did a day of giving, which went really well. And we had a golf tournament to support our athletes. So I can say my alumni, my supporters, the city of Jackson, the state of Mississippi, you know, and the administration, my staff, they have done a really good job supporting us. And that’s been our message. And that’s been our mission. We’ll continue to work, we’ll continue to work, we’ll continue to get things out, we’ll continue to support our student athletes, we’ll continue to put a safe environment. I tell people there’s no COVID-19 free environment, but we can take steps to make sure that we are safe. We’ll put emphasis on that. And that’s one of the things that, that’s a message that I have to all of my alumni and supporters that I talk to you. First, we want to talk about safety. And then, we’re going to talk about season tickets, we’re going to talk about facility upgrades COVID-19 relief fund that we have in place and talking about supporting. Now’s the time, you know, no other trying time ever, now’s the time for all of us all to come together. And as I call it JSU strong. You know, it’s no better than in over 50,000 alums coming together to support their university. And I think we can be the strongest university in the state of Mississippi. And I say that again, the strongest university in the state of Mississippi. And I know we got Power Fives in the state of Mississippi, but Jackson State University is very, very unique, very, very unique, very passionate fans, and we have a big alumni base. And now’s the time that we all can come together as one. We’ve made some great hires. We made some great strides. I have a great staff. We have great leadership with Thomas Hudson as our president, so now’s the time that we come together to support Jackson State university. And that’s my message. JSU strong baby.
Cody Junot 25:07
That sounds like a great time to be a Tiger. Ashley, appreciate you taking the time and opportunity to hang out with us here on a new game day.
Ashley Robinson 25:14
All right, thank you, and I appreciate you for having me.
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