Pitt creatives lead new fight in recruiting wars


Joy Cao | Staff Photographer

Alex Geiger serves as assistant director of creative content as a member of the Pitt men’s basketball coaching staff.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

With ESPN’s Doug Sherman narrating, Pitt basketball’s sophomore star Xavier Johnson breaks loose and finds his trailing junior teammate Ryan Murphy during a mid-January contest versus UNC. The sharpshooting Murphy cocks back for a 3-pointer and the home crowd draws a collective inhale as the ball is suspended in midair.

“The steal by Murphy… Here comes Xavier Johnson, back to Murphy, from the corner…”

“He’s got it!”

The crowd erupts and the players continue as if the flashing lights and deafening noise around them does not exist.

In that instant before, while the rest of the arena was frozen in anticipation, one basketball staff member was doing his most important work — packed in with other photographers along the baseline, watching the action through his camera. As assistant director of creative content, Alex Geiger is only one year out of college and already an official full-time member of the Pitt men’s basketball coaching staff.

Geiger is a one-man division — one of many fighting on a new front of college athletics’ recruiting arms race. High school players can now connect with programs and coaches from thousands of miles away, meaning that in recruiting the next generation of athletes, schools have to find digital media creators who can make their social media as flashy as their stadiums, locker rooms and game day atmospheres.

For many program leaders, like Pitt men’s basketball head coach Jeff Capel, it’s an adjustment to learn new technology and meet players 20 to 30 years his junior halfway — but it’s also necessary to keep pace.

“I was one of these people who didn’t understand social media,” Capel said. “I wasn’t really on it. And I learned about the power of it [at Duke] and the importance of it in what we do … It was all for recruiting. It was all to get young people excited about our program … Not about where we have been or are just coming off, but new, fresh, exciting. Endless possibilities.”

This is where Geiger comes in.

During games, he wanders the arena — from sidelines to seats up to the Pete’s catwalk — to find appealing angles. As the team’s unofficial documentarian, it’s his job to follow the team during the game’s slim two-hour window of action and capture themes and messages that he and Pitt basketball’s marketing staff collaborate on.

With the access he has, Geiger is able to capture a more authentic view of what life in the Pitt basketball program is like. For now, that means selling the world on the face of the program — Capel himself.

“This year we’ve been focusing on nailing down our brand,” Geiger said. “And a lot of that is focused around who coach Capel is as a person … Especially now because we’re doing fine, but not winning every game … We don’t have all these insane highlights after every game so it’s challenging. But [Capel’s] personality has become our brand.”

Because of the infancy of his field, Geiger taught himself through Youtube, driven by a desire to document his adventures during a semester abroad. His predecessor at Pitt, Cody Isern, was also informally trained and one of the first of his kind. After graduating in 2017, he moved to Columbia, Missouri, and took over as content producer for University of Missouri athletics. There, he was the only employee in his department, meaning he had to create content for every Tigers athletic team.

His days at Mizzou were marked by harried trips around athletic facilities and long stretches away from home.

“I was kind of the first content creator they had,” Isern said. “Once we got into football season it was fast paced … The overlap with football and basketball was crazy and almost burned me out really quickly … I was maybe at my apartment two or three times a week and the rest I was travelling.”

These days, the formerly skeleton crews that Isern manned at Mizzou have multiplied, especially in football. The long fields, towering stadiums and seemingly endless rosters demand a more heavily populated process.

Recruiters are trying to create an individualized approach, which is difficult with the number of players football programs require. So people like Taylor Wilhelm, director of creative media for Pitt football, have to take relayed info about a player and tailor pieces to their interests.

This practice spans sports. While Geiger may be preparing highlights of a former star Capel has coached set to a recruit’s favorite song, Wilhelm may be creating a graphic that promotes a particular academic program or Pitt’s shared practice facility with the Steelers.

“Most of the time it goes by the player to show them a more defined theme,” Wilhelm said. “We want to show how they would be a good fit with our school, our team.”

Wilhelm deals exclusively with static graphics, but Panther Vision, a division of Pitt Athletics, adds another dimension to the story. Max Hahn, the assistant director of broadcast and video production for Pitt football, works with a crew of as many as eight on game days.

Some follow the game action, others the players on the sidelines. Following every football win, Hahn and his team create the Field Pass videos, a cinematic retelling of the game that receives tens of thousands of views when posted.

These videos have underwent a few changes since their inception in 2015. Previously just a high resolution, alternative-angle highlight film, Hahn and his team decided to take on a more holistic retelling of Pitt’s all-too-often agonizingly close wins.

In addition to incorporating the voices of Bill Hillgrove and Pat Bostick from radio broadcasts, Pitt’s struggles are highlighted. Against UCF this past season, Pitt pulled out a win on a last-second trick play — immediately deemed the Pitt Special — and Pitt’s affinity for late rallies became a focal point of the Field Pass videos.

“This year in the field pass of the UCF game, we have audio of coach [Mark Whipple] calling the Pitt Special,” Hahn said. “There was a line before where one of the receivers said, ‘I’m going to score.’ And we didn’t end up using it, but I knew, ‘Okay, No. 6 Aaron Matthews is going to be involved somehow,’ … Little did I know he would be throwing one.”

Identity became a commodity, a selling point for fans and recruits alike. These pictures, videos and graphics have become a new currency in the marketplace of college recruiting, but it’s an inexact science.

“I struggle with it a lot, because no recruit is going to say they chose a school because they saw a cool video,” Geiger said. “So it’s a subconscious thing. They’re seeing our content, they’re seeing our videos and it reinforces what the coaches are saying to them.”

The future of a program is now linked to its social media accounts. Pitt is trying to channel that power, and according to Capel, with one goal.

“Get Pitt on their mind.”

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