Ep. 61: Executing the Northwestern Football Vision with Cody Vedja

In each episode of The Playbook presented by FanFood, host Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment and hospitality. We invite industry veterans to talk about how customer expectation have changed in today’s world, and how businesses need to change accordingly for greater operational efficiency and better guest experience.

Ep. 61: Executing the Northwestern Football Vision with Cody Vedja

Cody Cejda, Football Operations & Strategy at Northwestern University, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how the Northwestern football program executes their vision by innovating, engaging, and staying ahead of the curve. What new technology have they used to help the program succeed and better connect with players and fans? How are they able to do more with less? How do they uphold the standard that Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald sets? How do they think about engaging the Northwestern fanbase and what role does social media have? How are they responding to the new challenges that have been presented to college football?


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Listen to the Gameday Playbook on:

  • Ep. 61: Executing the Northwestern Football Vision with Cody Vedja
  • Ep. 61: Executing the Northwestern Football Vision with Cody Vedja
  • Ep. 61: Executing the Northwestern Football Vision with Cody Vedja
  • Ep. 61: Executing the Northwestern Football Vision with Cody Vedja
  • Ep. 61: Executing the Northwestern Football Vision with Cody Vedja

Rob Cressy: (00:08)

Welcome to The Playbook presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment, and hospitality. I’m your host, Rob Cressy. And joining me today is Cody Cejda, football, operations, and strategy at Northwestern. Cody, super excited to have you on the show.


Cody Cejda: (00:32)

Thanks, Rob. Super fired up to be here.


Rob Cressy: (00:35)

Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do?


Cody Cejda: (00:39)

Yeah. My role is as Director of Football Operations and Strategy and my job is to be our head football coach’s, right-hand man. To help him create and execute the vision for our program and overseeing every area off the field, which includes recruiting, operations, logistics, short and long term scheduling, and budgeting.


Rob Cressy: (01:00)

So, let’s start with create and execute the vision for the program because it stands out to me because it’s something that is so foundational that trickles down to everything else. And I think it’s extremely applicable to the world of business and the world of digital and technology and social media because I don’t know if everyone has a strategy or a vision. Sometimes we can get caught up in execution mode where we say, Hey, I’m going to keep going and going and going without realizing, wait a second. What’s the rudder? Where am I trying to go? What is the goal I’m trying to accomplish? So, help me understand at Northwestern and with the football program, how the vision is set because I think there’s a lot of good things we can learn from that.


Cody Cejda: (01:44)

Yeah. It’s your point. We’re trying to figure out the destination of where we’re trying to go and the best way to get there. And like you said, to try to figure out the best rudder to help us get there. So, we look into the future into 2023, 2024, and how we want to try to better differentiate ourselves with recruits with fans. We try to think about different ways that we can do that. And historically we’ve done it in creative ways on social media. With recruits, we’ve developed very strategic plans of how we’re going to communicate with them that is very different from a lot of our counterparts across the conference in our academic peers. And in other areas of the program, we’re always looking for what’s next and how we can get there before everyone else. So, one example of that is a couple of years back we realized that there was all of this data that was being tracked at the professional and collegiate levels of pro football focus. And we were one of the first programs to implement pro football focus, to look at some of our own personal tendencies and then our opponent tendencies, and to try to use our data to make better decisions and to improve our game plan and our overall management of the program.


Rob Cressy: (02:57)

I think one thing that’s important is the culture and the mindset of this. Because I don’t believe every organization or team is forward-thinking enough to say, wait a second. How can we differentiate ourselves? How can we find and look for what’s next? How can we use data? So, take us into sort of how that manifested itself or came to be.


Cody Cejda: (03:21)

Pat Fitzgerald, our head football coach has really set the tone in our organization that he wants to do everything we can do within the rules to win. So, let’s find creative opportunities to do things differently than other people. And when you have carte blanche like that as a staff member it’s really motivating to go out there and to try to find something that you can do that the other programs aren’t. So, going back about 10 years we decided to get on Instagram as a football program. And we had a lot of people asking us why college football programs would ever be on Instagram. Now, it’s probably the best way for us to connect with our recruits and market the program, but it really just started with Fitz. And from the top down in the athletic department, encouraging us to figure out what we can do to give us those creative edges before other people get there. And then just to relentlessly be looking for those opportunities that we can continue to get incrementally better in every area of the program.


Rob Cressy: (04:22)

And I love what you just said there because it’s so important, incrementally better. When I look at success, success is about the micro. It isn’t about attention to detail. It is the things that most other people may overlook, or oftentimes it can be things that are inefficiencies where you say, you know what. We’re going to add a little bit more personalization to things. Why in the world with this football program be on Instagram? Well, you know what? Our fans and our recruits and our athletes, they may feel a little bit closer to us by doing this thing that nobody else is doing. And I really like it. And I also like what you mentioned about saying relentlessly looking because I think a lot of times organizations or teams or companies can rest on their laurels. Oh, you know what? We just launched a podcast, we’re good. Or, Oh, we’re on Instagram, we’re good. Without saying, well, what else is the next thing? But because I believe with innovation, you constantly want to be pushing the boundaries and testing because it becomes a mindset in that seeps through your entire culture. It’s not just a one-stop shop of we’re doing this thing once and say, Hey, everyone, when you’re doing your role in a variety of different roles, let’s constantly looking for ways to innovate.


Cody Cejda: (05:40)

Absolutely. And that’s something that we feel really strongly about in our program and always looking for ways to do things differently or better. And one example I’ll share with you that I love to do in our program is annual to host a, what we call a cat bash. Where we get together as a collective staff and we bash all of the areas of the program that we don’t like. And obviously we’re not talking about staff members or personnel, but we’re talking about the frustrations that we have. And for example, we don’t like the way that our indoor facility is marketed. We don’t like the way that we have to walk recruits around campus. We don’t have golf carts. And we try to use those pinpoints that we identify to create innovative solutions. And that has helped me shape the different resources that we’re going to seek out there and try to figure out what the most successful organizations in those areas are using to maximize their potential.

Rob Cressy: (06:36)

And you know what I love about that. It is not easy or fun oftentimes to look at your own weaknesses or pain to say, you know what? What are we not doing a good job of? It’s a lot more comfortable to say, you know what? I’m good, I’m just going to let somebody else handle that. But when you can have a mindset and culture of continually saying, you know what, in the name of improvement, and for me, one of my core values is candor. And I think this would very much go along with it. Whether I’m going to be candid with you, but at the same time let’s be candid about our organization. What are the things that need improvement? Because you can think of it like holes in a boat. Are we just going to be plugging the holes right there? Or are we going to find a way to significantly improve the boat where we’re not just constantly plugging in the holes all the time?


Cody Cejda: (07:23)

Absolutely. How can we make the boat go faster? How can we get the boat where we want it to go? Absolutely. We completely agree with that sentiment.


Rob Cressy: (07:31)

So, you mentioned communication both with the recruits in the fans and how you guys do that differently. Can you give us an example?


Cody Cejda: (07:41)

Yeah. The first example was just how we started marketing to recruits back in that 2010, 2011 in that timeframe on social media. We also, at the time have created a social media hub that was a different type of website that brought together our Instagram page, our Facebook, and Twitter accounts and we used that for several years. Just to have a one-stop-shop for recruits and fans to learn about our program and to see all of the different content aggregated in one spot because realistically the parents are on Facebook. Some parents might be on Twitter. The recruits are on Snapchat. Recruits are on Instagram. So, how can we get all that information in one place to make sure that they’re not missing any of that valuable content that we’re creating? To build off of that in the mid I believe like 2014, 2015 timeframe we created a behind the scenes show that we called the hunt. At the time I believe it was one of the first all-access shows that were created internally by a respective program. And we use that to highlight all of the things that we think differentiate Northwestern. And we just had consistent creative meetings of going through the different areas that really differentiated our program and we tried to highlight those areas of what really makes our players and our program special.


Rob Cressy: (09:00)

No, what I find so interesting about this is Pat Fitzgerald’s role among other things is to essentially win games and get the people to a program. But look at how many things that we just talked about that blend into his world and the outcome because you’re talking about how you engage fans and recruits. Why in the world does that matter? Because the recruits are going to see the stuff. So, now we need social media and we need the content hub and we need to be forward-thinking. And while many people may just see us as an X’s and O’s thing, this is like an entire business and organization designed to help achieve a specific desired result on the field.


Cody Cejda: (09:42)

Yeah, you’re exactly right. And don’t let his title confuse you. He is the chief executive officer of Northwestern football, and he spends the majority of his time managing all these different areas of the program. Not only just managing the current and the former players managing the staff, but then managing all of these different departments that we just referenced.


Rob Cressy: (10:02)

How important is it that Pat Fitzgerald is like that as opposed to what if there was an older school coach. Someone who might be 70 years old, not as technologically savvy. Not is relatable to the recruits and athletes to the modern-day right now. What sort of advantage do you think that is for Pat or a disadvantage to potentially older coaches?


Cody Cejda: (10:27)

Yeah, I think there are some coaches like that in the industry. And in those situations, you have to have very strong individuals on your staff who can take over those areas on the head coach’s behalf. All the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, or recruiting area. But to your point, I think it’s a distinct competitive advantage for Northwestern Football and for coach Fitz, to be able to connect with these recruits because realistically, what is the main question that prospects and our parents want to know? Who is the man responsible for running the program? And that ultimately comes down to the head coach. Realistically as a prospect, as a recruit, why are you going to decide where you’re going to spend the next four years if you don’t know the person who is shaping the program and shaping what your life is going to look like day in and day out?


Rob Cressy: (11:13)

You know what I like about the Northwestern football program is there is a perception from my side of things of doing things the right way. Getting more done with less. Overachieving. Effort. There’s a thing about it that’s wonderful and I think it speaks volumes of the Northwestern program and how Pat Fitzgerald consistently gets the most out of it. And I think it’s a unique value proposition and it really speaks to how great you guys are because not every organization is like that, but you know, every year when Northwestern comes, it’s not going to be easy to play against them. And typically the results are better than you expect.


Cody Cejda: (12:02)

Absolutely. And I think that is Fitz’s trademark and Northwestern is what most people on the outside would say doing more with less. And that’s something that we take a lot of pride in. We really enjoy almost that underdog David versus Goliath mentality of we’re going to be different than anybody else and we’re going to use that as a competitive advantage. We’re going to use that to beat all of these other programs on recruits or to your point on Saturdays on the field when people aren’t necessarily expecting us to dominate the way that we have in recent history.


Rob Cressy: (12:35)

Oftentimes, those are little micro details where one team overlooks another team, whereas one team is hungry or they’re more disciplined. And I love the psychology of football and success, and leadership. And I just get excited about it. Here’s a question that I have for you about the current landscape that we’re dealing in right now, the challenges of college sports and how you guys are able to respond to them. I think obviously over the last six months we’re in an unprecedented time of a lot of uncertainty. And I’m curious how you guys handle these new challenges.

Cody Cejda: (13:13)

As I mentioned, Fitz is our CEO. And I think one thing that really speaks volumes to him and his leadership ability is how he engages all the various stakeholders in times like now. When you have so many different people who touch the program, who are impacted by what’s going on and Fitz does a tremendous job of developing relationships with all those different individuals. So, not just current players, former players, staff members, but donors, media members, everybody who touches our program and getting to know those people in a way that he can reach out to them and you can have candid conversations and people can be unfiltered with him. And once he gets to the bottom and as a program, once our staff gets to the bottom of whatever issues that we’re facing or we’re navigating, then we can work through it and we can prioritize the biggest issues and the biggest concerns that we have. We can systematically work down those priorities and make sure that we address all the concerns and all the issues that we’re facing at the moment.


Rob Cressy: (14:15)

So, can you really systematize the unexpected new challenges? So, like with everything that was going on right now it’s difficult for a lot of organizations today. They’re like, Oh man, what in the world do we do? But I know on my end, the one thing that I’m defaulting on, the thing that I’m working most on is systems and processes. Systems and processes are the things that are scalable and allow you to grow and in uncertain times, at least your wheel can keep on going.


Cody Cejda: (14:45)

Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why for me personally, I use a lot of lists. If you come into the office I have a large whiteboard that’s probably 15 feet wide by six feet tall. And I have every single department in our program listed up there with items underneath it. And whenever we’re navigating situations like this, I always look at that board and I always try to anticipate how those different departments, how those different stakeholders are going to be impacted by what’s going on. I’ll be at the COVID situation, we’re navigating the social injustice. And we try to make notes on all of those different areas. And we try to make sure that we’re at least thinking of all the different potential disruptions and potential solutions. So that way, if something does come to fruition that we have to work through, then we’re prepared for it. And we’re not necessarily just reacting on our heels.


Rob Cressy: (15:34)

Yeah. One of the quotes that I like, prepare for what’s difficult when it’s easy. Not saying that it’s easy right now but if you can have, in your mindset in your culture, you know what? We’re going to be prepared for rougher waters. And if, and when those come, you know what? We’re going to be good. It’s not always the most fun thing to do right now when you’re like, wow, everything’s going well. Why are we doing this? But guess what? I think that that’s what forward-thinking organizations do as they prepare for all of the different contingencies. Let’s jump over to the technology side again, because I’m interested in that. And I think about football and we used to see the quarterbacks. They would have these printouts of just like a single play on there and they’re diagnosed in them. And now we’re seeing the Microsoft tablets and things are done in real-time. From your perspective, I know we talked about the data. What else is there that has caught your eye that we should be paying attention to on what’s on the horizon from a technology standpoint?


Cody Cejda: (16:35)

Sure. I’m a big fan of Pete Carroll. And one of his phrases that he’s used over the years is to learn the learner. And as a football program, we try to learn our players and our recruits and how they best learn. And we have found that the majority of our group likes to learn either being on their feet, walking through different scenarios or walking through different situations, or trying to immerse themselves in different situations. So, we’ve invested greatly in the use of virtual reality over the past few years. And it’s not necessarily just the VR where you’re going to put on the headset and you’re going to look through the Oculus headset, but also having space where you can actually use some of that virtual reality footage for a group walkthrough. So, imagine that you can go to a space large enough for an offense or a defense to walk through some concepts while being able to see a widescreen that is displaying that VR footage.


So, that way instead of just looking at X’s and O’s on a playbook, you’re actually seeing these different concepts coming to life. And you’re sitting there walking through different offensive or defensive concepts or stunts and you’re saying, this is the complication with installing this. This is what you need to know. And you can teach so many more of those because of that type of technology. Building off of that, trying to create different ways that you can be a better instructor to the players and to the staff members when they’re away from the program. Because at the college and professional level we have a very limited amount of time with their group. So, how can you create tools that they can use to quiz themselves and to study beyond just having a playbook that you flip through and try to memorize? Like realistically, how can you make that fun? And there’s one terrific solution out there right now at our level, it’s called learn to win. That’s being used in college athletics. It’s also being used by the government to train pilots. And I think it’s a great tool out there that essentially meets the learner where they are and gives them the opportunity to invest as much time as they want as they’re willing to invest to get as good as they can be in that area.


Rob Cressy: (18:43)

Is there gamification of learning a playbook?


Cody Cejda: (18:47)

There could be. I mean, we could easily build our playbook into Madden or I guess NCAA 2014 because it’s been a couple of years.


Rob Cressy: (18:56)

A lot of times when trying to learn something, if you can gamify anything and I’m just trying to think of how much someone would want to learn. Let’s say someone’s a newly recruited transfer. It’s like, boom, I got this giant playbook there. Instead of this daunting task, I’ve got to read 500 pages. What if there is a way that attributes a score? What I love about gamification, I think about something that a friend of mine told me years ago. He’s like, I downloaded this casino app and it was free and every day that I came there and I pulled the lever on the slot machine. Every consecutive day I did it, I got another multiple. But if I didn’t come back the next day I lost the multiple. So, he was like at one point I got to 24x and I was like, well, I’m not going to not come back the next day because I don’t want to go back to 0 and upon that moment a gigantic light bulb went off for me. I was like, ding, ding, ding. All right, what can we do to gamify things? And I look at the way their communities are being built right now. Peloton is doing a great job of the way that they’re gamifying fitness and we’re wearing a trackable so I’ve got like an Apple watch on right now. So, we’re putting a number on my walking into my activity level. So, could this same thing be done for ramping up someone to your program in a way that’s going to help them learn more?


Cody Cejda: (20:24)

Yes, absolutely. When I look at our demographic that we work with are primarily 18 to 23 year old, highly competitive, highly successful males. And the more that you can make it a competition, the more that you can pit players against each other in a positive way, the more they’re going to engage with the interior point. Like the more that they’re almost going to get addicted to that challenge and that opportunity to learn and get better.


Rob Cressy: (20:49)

Can a playbook be more interactive and I’ve never looked into a playbook and I don’t know anything about them, but I have built courses and I do teach people. So, if you’re trying to get a concept, would there be a way where Pat Fitzgerald, if we’re going to get to the next section of the playbook, boom, here he is on video. And he’s like, I got a quiz for you. What would you do in this scenario? Sort of like what we see on how Jon Gruden was doing the football thing on ESPN where it’s like, Hey, drop me on this play there. Is there a way that you could all of a sudden make it more interactive by creating some upfront content that could then be repurposed?


Cody Cejda: (21:28)

Yes, absolutely. And one recent example I can share with you is that over the last six months we’ve had all these virtual zoom position meetings. And one thing our offensive coordinator implemented that’s been terrific is quizzes. So, our offensive quality control analyst would go in and would input all of these different plays and would quiz the players. They get more points based on how quickly they respond. We did that for a series of months and our players absolutely loved it. They were trash talking to each other. Coaches were giving the players a hard time if they weren’t getting concepts. For example, our offensive line coach was giving the wide receivers a really hard time if they didn’t understand the run game concepts. So, it was a really positive way to one, just infuse some fun and positivity into the program and two, to really make sure that players are engaging with the material you’re giving them. And they’re not just sitting there nodding without actually understanding the concepts you’re sharing with them.


Rob Cressy: (22:25)

Because for you, you can have a better athlete if you’re able to identify, wait for a second, that guy has a 58 score. We need him to be at a 75, whereas he may have just said, you know what, I’m reading the playbook, but all of a sudden the quizzes are telling you he’s falling behind so now you can put more resources into ramping him up.


Cody Cejda: (22:43)

That’s exactly right. And if you just sit in our quarterback position media room, that’s what our offensive coordinator does. He really just quizzes the quarterbacks constantly. And it really is pretty revealing in the Kahoot quizzes, but then also in those meetings about who is on top of it. Who can respond quickly and who can realistically respond in the heat of the moment in the game and know what’s going on and know what the correct answer to the problem is.


Rob Cressy: (23:07)

And two last things here. One, we’ve got to give a shout out to the Northwestern fans and we’ve talked about some fan engagement, but what do you see as the opportunities right now to continue to build the Northwestern community and fan base in these uncertain times?


Cody Cejda: (23:26)

I think Northwestern football is a very compelling story that most people still don’t know about. So, the best thing that we’re trying to do on a day to day basis just creates more and more exposure to our program. Seeing behind the scenes. And obviously more programs are doing that, but we’re trying to do it in a way that we can actually show you, well what going on inside of our coaches position meeting rooms? What’s going on inside of our staff rooms? Realistically the head coach of your Northwestern Wildcats. Well, what does he like on a day to day basis? Is this the same man that you see on the sideline? Is this the same man that you see in the post-game press conference? What we start to show and what we need to continue showing is the fact that our program is full of people who are really passionate about the Northwestern community. Who are really passionate about winning games in the Big Ten. And becoming Big Ten champions and we do it the right way. And we have really intelligent, really motivated players who are really, really fun kids to be around too. So, it’s been a really fun challenge to try to better educate our fans and even people who might not know as much about the program, about why they should support Northwestern what makes Northwestern so special.


Rob Cressy: (24:37)

Last question here, you mentioned the Pete Carroll, learn the learner. Is there something that Pat Fitzgerald has taught you that you could share with us?


Cody Cejda: (24:47)

Oh, he’s taught me so much over the years. It’s pretty difficult to narrow it down to one thing. I would say that the biggest thing with him that he has shared with me has been the concept of learning the difference between mouse turds and elephant turds. So, when you’re navigating problems, right? Diagnosing the severity of the issue and dealing with the most serious issues first and systematically working through those to make sure that I don’t get bogged down dealing with a lot of the small details that really don’t make much of an impact in the program. And that’s an approach that I’ve really used in operations and recruiting and in every other area of the program and really trying to make sure that we’re focusing on the most important task at hand at all times.


Rob Cressy: (25:36)

And I can tell you that is always a challenge and it will never stop. Our get-to-do lists are only going to continue to increase. So, our ability as leaders in organizations to say, wait a second, how good can I get it prioritization knowing that that is always going to be changing.


Cody Cejda: (25:57)

That’s exactly right. And actually, I’m going to share one more with you. If you don’t mind. Fitz always talks with our players about getting to know their teachers on campus. And he has this saying, people do things for those they know and like. And that is something that I think is incredibly applicable and relevant in the business world as well because it’s a relationship-driven industry and the people who are going to be most successful are the people who have developed the most developed relationships. The best relationships with people in a variety of areas and can rely on those people when different challenges present themselves.


Rob Cressy: (26:35)

And welcome to marketing 101 that people do things or work with people that know and like, and we can even take it to the next level, love. So, how can you create these opportunities? It’s like, well you know what, Rob? Social media doesn’t work for us. Really, is it social media? Or is it the messaging around it in the various opportunities? It’s why we do this podcast right here because you can feel us. We have the ability to have a conversation so you can know and like us. Butt more importantly, so that we can deliver value for you. And then we say, what are the various ways that we can continually do that? So that we can continue to show up in your life and build that relationship? Because at the end of the day, organizations, companies, and people, we want others to think of us like we are their friends.


Cody Cejda: (27:25)

Absolutely. And that is exactly what we try to accomplish on a day to day basis with our current players, with our prospects, and with our fans.


Rob Cressy: (27:34)

Cody really enjoyed this conversation. Where can everybody connect with you?


Cody Cejda: (27:39)

You can find me on Twitter and Instagram with my first and last name, Cody Shayda.


Rob Cressy: (27:44)

And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. There is so much good stuff here, but you know what I want to know? I want to know one little nugget or euphemism like Cody shared with learning the learner. Doing this would allow us to give knowledge to each other in this community because I think there’s so much goodness inside each of us. You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodondemand. On Instagram @FanFoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy.