Illinois advertisement for Penn State game garners negative publicity

Deadspin claimed Illinois’ ticket office as its latest victim Thursday.  

A Valentine’s Day promotion for next week’s men’s basketball game against Penn State garnered negative publicity following a perceived association between the advertisement and the events involving former Nittany Lions’ assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky by the sports website.

The advertisement in question, sent via email, features Illini head coach John Groce and his son, shirtless in the photo, reveling in the moments following Illinois’ upset over No. 1 Indiana on Feb. 7, along with the message, “No matter who’s your Valentine, surprise them with tickets to the game.”

It’s not the promotion itself, however, but the context in which the photograph is used, that caught Deadspin editor Jack Dickey’s attention.

“But why they chose a photo of head coach John Groce hugging his shirtless son? And why they slapped a ‘no matter who’s your Valentine’ slogan on there? That’s a mystery,” Dickey wrote.

Referencing Sandusky and the Penn State child sex scandal that broke in 2011 was not the intention of Illinois’ marketing team, Kent Brown,Associate Athletics Director for Media Relations, said in a phone interview Thursday.

“It was a very quick turnaround,” Brown said of the advertisement’s conception. “There was a number of us who certainly saw it, and I don’t think anyone’s apologizing for the ad. A week ago, that picture was lauded for a possible sports photo of the year. ... The fact that some people interpreted it as anything other than that is very unfortunate.”

Various members of Illinois’ athletic department viewed the advertisement prior to its distribution, Brown said, including the marketing staff, sports information directors and members of Illinois’ ticket office. Brown declined to name the person responsible for final approval of the advertisement, saying, “It wouldn’t be fair considering the number of people who saw it.”

“It was certainly not discussed in that context until it was posted by Deadspin,” Brown said.

Deadspin’s article fits into the framework of the website’s often-irreverent maxim: “Sports News without Access, Favor, or Discretion.” Illinois alumnnus Will Leitch founded the sports component to the Gawker Media family in 2005, though he left in 2008 to become a contributing editor at New York Magazine.

Brown said Illinois has yet to receive criticism from fans regarding the advertisement.

“I think the people who saw that certainly saw a strong photo that was very popular after last week’s game,” Brown affirmed. “That’s all there is to it.”

Jeff can be reached at and @jkirsh91.