Canzano: A peek behind college football's playoff curtain
Events, VIP parties, and the Oregonians behind it.
Chip Kelly had a couple of cats when he was winning all those football games at the University of Oregon.
Did you know that?
Tony Fisher did. He was going to school in Eugene and working as a student intern in the UO athletic department at the time. His duty as a member of the Oregon “Teamwork” crew was to assist coach Mike Bellotti — and later Kelly — with recruiting events.
Fisher became so trusted that he drew the assignment of watching Kelly’s cats while the coach was on the road making home visits. Fisher even peeked into Kelly’s refrigerator once.
“Gatorade and dipping sauce,” he reported. “The whole place was bachelor-style.”
The cat sitter is 39 now. He graduated from college, fell in love, got married, bought a house and had kids. After several years in the workforce, he and his wife took a leap of faith in 2020 and founded their own event company.
“We just locked hands and jumped,” Fisher said. “For a hot minute, we thought we hit cement when COVID came.”
That company — called “REVERE” — not only landed on both feet, it was responsible for 14 large-scale events in Houston at the College Football Playoff national title game a couple of weeks ago. The fingerprints of that Oregon-based company were all over the CFP.
The offerings included the team welcome receptions for Washington and Michigan, player lounges, alumni parties that included an on-stage appearance by DJ Steve Aoki, a pregame bash, and the VIP lounge that CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock used to entertain sponsors and special guests.
Brian Kappel, the creative director and designer of the events, walked me around the NRG Event Center hours before kickoff of the championship football game happening across the street at the stadium.
I was standing inside the giant room that housed the Huskies pre-game alumni party when Fisher picked up a walkie-talkie and ordered the doors to be opened.
Said Kappel: “The floodgates are open.”
The event was supposed to host, entertain, and feed 4,000 UW fans. That number swelled to 7,500 only three days before the game. Washington called and asked if they could add more. Fisher and his team scrambled around Houston locating more tables, chairs, and signage and expanding the catering menu. And as the crowd poured through doors on that Monday afternoon, Kappel eyeballed the sea of purple and said: “Looks closer to 9,000.”
The entertainment for that particular party became a tricky negotiation. For a few days, it was going to be Macklemore, the Seattle-based rapper. “He was in,” Fisher said, “then out.” Then, Aoki got involved. “Again,” Fisher said, “Aoki was in, then out, then back in again.”
UW wanted to throw a raging party for its alumni. Michigan’s event was more of a gentle gathering. The Wolverines didn’t hire a famous DJ. Both schools contracted directly with REVERE after winning their semifinal games. There were essentially only four business days to pull the party off.
The CFP is a massive undertaking. The layers of sponsorships, VIPs, and events is staggering. I asked Fisher if he and his wife, Jessica, had a chance to stop and soak up the accomplishment.
“We went to a corner, hugged, and had a moment,” he said. “We’ve been through this ride together. To think where we came from — it’s wild. We both left school with $50,000 in debt. We had friends bringing groceries over to our house. This whole thing is absolutely nuts.”
Brian Kappel, who lives in Beaverton, is a creative genius.
I’ve seen his work up close for years. He contracts privately with a variety of clients, including sneaker companies, events, high-end brands, and professional athletes to create specialized visions and themes. He’s worked the Super Bowl, the CFP, and track and field championships, among other events.
Kappel is 47. His brain is a Wonka-like workshop. If you could stand in it, it would be the coolest space you’ve ever been.
“I kid you not…” is a frequent Kappel phrase.
He designed special coins, for example, for VIP guests at one of the CFP parties. The coins were scanned at the door and used as “tickets” to gain entry. He created belt buckles, too, because — after all — the football game was being played in Texas.
“A creative director will usually just set the theme and designers will bring it to life,” Kappel said.
He performs both duties.
Kappel’s wife, Michele, worked the CFP event, too. She took the lead on the special guest lounge. And their daughter, Emma, a recent Penn State graduate (Photography and Art History), is a blossoming professional photographer. She worked for the Nittany Lions football program and the school of Arts and Architecture for the last couple of years, taking photos.
As I toured the CFP venues, it struck me that the sweat, brains, passion, and creative energy of two Oregon families were anchoring and fueling what might otherwise be disguised as a corporate event.
Is this part of the Phil Knight effect?
Think about it.
Fisher told me he reported to Knight as a student intern at Oregon. He was charged with giving the Nike founder and a few other high-level parties quarterly recruiting updates at UO. After graduation, he went to work at Nike for a year before moving into the event industry. And Kappel is among a long line of creatives who have benefitted from having Nike in his backyard. He’s done frequent work for the sneaker company. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but trust me. If you’ve looked down at your shoes, you’ve seen it.
Our region is known for rain, nature, green trees, quiet hikes and loud politics. But the creative juices oozing and emanating from Nike’s world headquarters — and the headquarters of nearby Adidas and Columbia Sportswear, too — is our biggest and coolest export.
America’s marketing rosters are filled with “Oregon” products. It’s not just sports, either. A company such as Wieden+Kennedy doesn’t just dream up Nike women’s World Cup television commercials, they get KFC and several others, too. Our relatively small market features a line of amazing ad agencies, creative spinoffs, marketing consultants, design firms, apparel startups, and event companies.
“That has always impressed me,” Kappel said.
Bill Hancock reads this publication. He’s a subscriber. I discovered that when he emailed me once to tell me he’d read something I wrote about the College Football Playoff.
Hancock engineered and oversaw the transition from the Bowl Championship Series to the CFP system. The Michigan-Washington national title game was the 10th playoff title game. As Hancock walked to the VIP lounge that Tony Fisher’s event company was paid to create, design and execute, he strolled past a wall commemorating each of the 10 events.
The Monday night broadcast of Michigan’s win over Washington drew a television audience of 25 million viewers. Hancock will tell you the CFP office didn’t have a copy machine when they started a decade ago. The playoff has now become the second-biggest sporting event in our country, behind only the Super Bowl. It’s expanding from four teams to 12 next season. That can’t come fast enough. But the playoff has become more than just a sporting event.
It aims to include more teams and conferences next season. The hope is that a swath of the country — the Pacific Time Zone — won’t be left out. It was, too often, under the original format. Maybe a more “wide-open” field will capture some of the magic of the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it won’t. It’s possible the SEC and Big Ten will never lose a title game again.
It’s easier than ever to become jaded in sports. Money drives all the big decisions. College athletics has lost its mind — and its way. I’ve always viewed the limited “four-team invitational” scope of CFP as part of the problem. But with an expanded format coming, I’m wondering if the event might help the sport rediscover some of its regional charm.
I walked around those CFP events in Houston and shook my head at the scale of it. I visited with Fisher and Kappel. As the doors to that fan event opened, Fisher was carrying two walkie-talkies and also taking crisis-management calls on his cell phone.
A couple of weeks later, they’ve moved on to their next project. Fisher’s company is working on VeeCon in Los Angeles in August. REVERE is doing the VIP spaces for the marketing and pop-culture event. It’s also handling sponsor activations for companies that include Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi, Frito-Lay, and even Jessica Alba.
He’s a long way from Chip Kelly’s cats.
It’s like Fisher said: “To think where we came from...”
I appreciate all who support, subscribe and share this independent writing endeavor. Please consider a paid subscription or gift a subscription to a family member or friend here: