At first glance, cross country coach Mick Byrne does not seem he would be a social media maven. The sixty year-old hailing from Dublin is a legend on the collegiate running scene. At tiny Iona College, he led the Gaels to 17 conference championships in his
24 seasons as head coach and a 2nd place finish at the 2007 NCAA meet—no school with a smaller enrollment has ever placed in the top two. After that season, he took on a new challenge and moved halfway across the country to Madison, WI to lead the University of Wisconsin Badgers. In May 2009, he joined Twitter.
He used the platform as effectively as any collegiate cross country coach. His initial usage focused primarily on sending out live observations and results from track meets. His initial stint on this budding social medium proved to be short lived: after 2009 track season wrapped up, he would not tweet again until the spring of 2011:
Thursday, April 14, 2011 – Let’s give this Twitter “thing” another go! Weather is awesome. We open up tonight with ‘chase and 10k.
— Mick Byrne (@WiscoByrne) April 14, 2011
At a time when social media usage was in its infancy in college athletics, Byrne’s used Twitter’s direct and real-time nature as additional tool to market his program to potential recruits at a time when many other head coaches ignored this platform that many teenagers had flocked to. Live tweeting race commentary alongside meet results helped give potential recruits a view into his style and the team, something that is rare for a sport that doesn’t garner media attention beyond the athletic department Sports Information staffer assigned to the team.
After sticking strictly to track at first, Byrne soon infused his personality into tweets with musings on:
His own running fitness:
I just ran for 13 minutes w/ lads on their PM shakeout. Mo tried to drop me. Not a chance. This old guy still has it. Now I’m balloxed.
— Mick Byrne (@WiscoByrne) June 8, 2011
The consequences of allowing a team of cross country runners to spend a week’s per diem at one store:
Arrived in Fish Creek (Door County) for XC Camp. Stopped off at Sturgeon Bay for grocery shopping. Now that was an experience for the ages.
— Mick Byrne (@WiscoByrne) August 26, 2011
A favorite Wisconsin tradition:
Heading to English Pub right next door to hotel for all you can eat Wisconsin Fish Fry.
— Mick Byrne (@WiscoByrne) August 27, 2011
Just discovered Erschen is in Love. Guys are busting on him hard.Erschen alone at Gills’s Rock http://t.co/zwpJLpo
— Mick Byrne (@WiscoByrne) August 28, 2011
Standing up for his team members:
Yo Rubis, what’s up with the neg comment on my boy Finn? Thought you are the #1 Badger fan. You hurt me feelings
— Mick Byrne (@WiscoByrne) June 5, 2012
While Byrne’s use of social media wasn’t his core recruiting strategy—winning the 2011 NCAA title and not losing a Big 10 meet this century until 2013 work fairly well—it helped paint him as a progressive coach to potential recruits. This would have been more difficult in the pre-social media era, especially as his training schedule is rumored to be as difficult as any coach’s in the country. His ability to showcase a sense of humor and seem down to earth helped the Badgers capture top recruiting classes even as they have been out of the national title hunt for the last few years.
As social media practices have advanced to the point where it seems like every team has its own hashtag—with many feeling totally forced—Byrne and Wisconsin cross country have one that is in alignment with their core values. While #BadgerTough was first used by the official Badger Track and Cross Country account @BadgerTrackXC in 2014, Byrne had been saying the phrase on Twitter (sans hashtag) since 2011. #BadgerTough is used as the team’s mantra when they put in miles during Madison’s brutally cold winters and are competing for points in the homestretch of a race. #BadgerTough represents the culmination of a coach’s social media strategy that, from the beginning, has been authentic.