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Furman athletics embraces the new virtual normal

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With the fields closed, stadiums locked and games cancelled because of the novel COVID-19 pandemic, the Furman Athletics Department faced two choices: Hunker down and wait for things to go back to normal, or redefine normal.

The choice was an easy one for Executive Director of Athletics Development Erin Wissing and her team, which went to work immediately turning the very real possibility of irrelevance into a seized opportunity for unprecedented exposure and public presence.

“Really, this quarantine has given us all a big chance to work on a lot of areas in our professional scope when it comes to social media,” Ty Osborne, Furman’s director of athletics marketing and fan experience, said. “The best way to put our message out there and to stay connected with everyone is social media, so we’ve been thinking of different ways to make it fun and it still be connected to Furman Paladins.”

As anyone who follows a Furman account on social media knows by now, the athletics department has rolled out a slew of new hashtags and virtual events coupled with eye-popping graphics over the past two months. Among the most popular are the #BernadiChallenge at-home workouts, an “Attitude of Gratitude” segment throughout April and the launch of a virtual “Lunch & Learn” series on Tuesdays.

The #BernardiChallenge began as a way for Furman Director of Speed, Strength and Conditioning Andre Bernardi and his wife, Kaitlyn, the assistant director of speed, strength and conditioning, to give athletes ways to work out at home before being adopted by the larger Furman community. Below is an example of what they have been putting participants through:

Attitude of Gratitude highlighted the historical accomplishments of teams and supporters, while the Lunch & Learn series allows fans to join a Zoom meeting with Furman athletes and coaches. The most recent featured cross country runner and track athlete Savannah Carnahan ’20, women’s tennis player Katarina Kozarov ’20, football player Bo Layton ’20, and men’s basketball player Jordan Lyons ’20, while a Mother’s Day-themed Lunch & Learn gave coaches Jackie Carson ’00 (women’s basketball), Rachel Whitten (women’s lacrosse) and Michelle Young (volleyball) the opportunity to share what it’s like to simultaneously raise children and lead a college athletic team.

According to Wissing, an average of 120 people have logged in to participate

“It’s been really cool,” Osborne said. “I think people have really picked up on the idea that you get to hear things that you wouldn’t get to hear about.”

A Furman Athletics Follow Friday graphic

This is an example of a Follow Friday graphic used by Furman Athletics on social media.

Other initiatives that have by now become familiar include #FollowFriday, “On This Date in Furman History,” and #TeammateTuesday. Wissing credits Osborne and Creative Services Director Carly Rose with being the masterminds behind many of them, and the results have been tangible: According to data tracked by SkullSparks.com, Furman ranked anywhere from 11th to 23rd nationally, depending on the platform, among FCS schools for social media interaction in March and April.

That’s an impressive accomplishment for a university with one of the smallest enrollments of any NCAA Division I school in the country.

“These are places that have 20,000, 30,000 students with a lot more alumni … Still getting so much engagement is a testament to our fans wanting to stay tuned in to what we’re doing,” Osborne, a Presbyterian College graduate who came to Furman in August after stints at Marshall University, the United States Naval Academy and Florida State University, said.

Furman Athletics Director Jason Donnelly has stressed community and teamwork internally during a time of unprecedented challenge facing athletic programs everywhere, and the embrace of that has helped his team rise to the moment.

“I think our department has gotten stronger,” he said. “The three things I’ve been emphasizing have been communication, productivity and accountability. And it’s really been focused toward are we supporting our student-athletes, are we supporting each other, and are we connecting with our community? … We’ve had an opportunity to focus on things that we weren’t able to focus on before, and my hat’s off to our external team led by Erin Wissing, Ty Osborne, (Associate Athletics Director/Athletic Communications) Hunter Reid and Carly Rose.”

Perhaps nothing has been a bigger hit to students than the “FUSPYS” in April. The FUSPYs, inspired by ESPN’s ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) Awards show, have become an annual tradition, and the athletic department was able to pull off the banquet with virtual technology.

In fact, the highlight was an award that was only possible because of virtual technology: A TikTok challenge between the teams. TikTok is an app for making and sharing short videos, and the FUSPYS crowned women’s cross country as the champion.

“You just have to find a creative means when you get a situation in front of you to adapt and react,” Osborne said. “That’s been the rewarding part for all of us is seeing the interactions and engagements with our student-athletes and knowing that even though they’re in different states and even around the world we’re staying connected.”

Watch the 2020 Virtual FUSPYS below:

Last updated May 15, 2020
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director