May 17, 2022

Grupomodo

Exercise makes you strong

BYU football: What does a director of player experience Billy Nixon do?

BYU football: What does a director of player experience Billy Nixon do?

Before Billy Nixon’s high school football team at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Virginia, played in the district championship game, the sophomore who had been called up to be the varsity’s long snapper stayed up all night getting his teammates’ helmets ready.

“We had these white helmets, and they were all scuffed up from games throughout the season,” said the man who is now BYU’s executive coordinator of player experience and equipment operations. “I spent the night before the playoffs polishing all these helmets, making them clean, because I wanted them to glisten under the lights.”

Looking back during a recent interview with the Deseret News, Nixon believes those days serving his teammates in the mid-2000s laid the groundwork for what he does now for the school he loves.

“I think about it all the time: ‘Man, how did I end up at this place?’” Nixon said. “I didn’t think I would ever end up here, but I have always had a love for serving. Even as a varsity player, I would help the ball boys for the junior varsity games, just to get on the bus and help out any way that I could.”

Now, everywhere he goes — at least since April 1, when his promotion and additional responsibilities were announced — Nixon gets asked one particular question all the time:

What does a director of player experience do, exactly?

And he’s happy to provide a long, detailed, passion-filled answer.

“I was born to do this,” he said. “It is a labor of love.”

‘An extension of Kalani’s love for his players’

In short, the player experience part of Nixon’s job, he says, “is to help be an extension of coach Kalani Sitake’s love for his players.”

That means getting the players involved in all aspects of their experience with the BYU football program — from what their recently renovated locker room at the Student Athlete Building has to the uniforms they wear on game days to the lettering on their practice jerseys.

In addition to ensuring a positive player experience and managing the equipment room and all that entails, Nixon also serves on BYU’s name, image and likeness (NIL) committee for the athletic department. That means he is heavily involved in Sitake’s and BYU’s Built4Life program that was unveiled during football media day in June.

“I feel like I have the best job in the world, I really do,” Nixon said, joking that he does everything from helping with player development and finding them internships and job opportunities to counting their shoelaces.

“OK, I don’t really count shoelaces,” he said. “But I might be the only equipment manager in the nation that does those other things.”

The point is well-taken. Nixon has emerged as one of the most recognizable members of the football support staff (noncoaches).

Nixon “will work closely with our players, helping mentor them not only during the experience here at BYU, but also in the transition to their next steps after college,” Sitake said in a school news release when Nixon replaced Mick Hill, who retired earlier this year after a 39-year career. “I feel Billy’s experience, background and training will help take us to new heights in these areas and be a catalyst to help set our program apart from others in college football.”

Assistant head coach Ed Lamb often tells the support staff that every person on the staff has the ability to coach and “love up” the players, and Nixon takes that charge to heart, Sitake said during media day.

“Billy’s energy and love for the players and for BYU is amazing,” Sitake said.

Recently, Nixon posted pictures on social media of BYU players helping out in the equipment room. Quarterback Baylor Romney was helping with the helmets; Offensive lineman Connor Pay was helping with the laundry.

“It is really the culture that we are trying to build with our open-door policy,” Nixon said. “It is fun because our players come in and they feel like this is their equipment room, and this is their equipment. We just manage it for them. Right? Again, it is about heightening that player experience, getting their input on everything we can.”

One of his secrets: “We focus on making it a better experience for every player — not just the star player, but the 123rd player on the roster as well.”

How it began

Although he played high school football and his father played collegiately at UNLV, Nixon didn’t come to BYU to play football. Lacrosse brought him to Provo “because it gave me more opportunities to come out to BYU,” he said.

After a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Bangalore, India, Nixon played lacrosse — which is a club sport at BYU — for four years and received the “Cougar Spirit Award” in 2011 and 2012 for leading the team with energy and a positive attitude.

He graduated from BYU in 2014 with a degree in recreational management: experience design. He got his master’s in education from Utah State in 2016 and a doctorate in sport management from Troy University in Alabama in 2020.

Yes, Nixon might be the only equipment manager in college football with a Ph.D.

“What has been fun with this job is how close I am with the players, and how I have the opportunity to support the players and love the players from a very nontraditional coaching role,” he said.

Having always wanted to be a football coach, Nixon was the head football coach at American Leadership Academy in Utah County from 2014-16 and the head boys lacrosse coach at Spanish Fork High from 2017-18.

He returned to BYU in 2016 to work under Hill, who retired in March.

Nixon now toils in the “Mick Hill and Floyd Johnson Equipment Room,” which honors the legends (Hill succeeded Johnson).

Nixon was able to hit the ground running.

“The last four years I have taken tons of notes on what I can do to improve the players’ spirits, and I saw how important the equipment operation was to the culture of a football program,” Nixon said. “At the end of the day, it has been fun to see the culture change with the equipment.”

Putting the Ph.D to work

While he was watching the movie “Moneyball” one night with his wife, Chelsea, the thought struck Nixon to do his dissertation on college recruiting and retention, “which is the moneyball” in college football.

Quarterback Justin Fields had just transferred from Georgia to Ohio State, and Nixon became fascinated by what causes student-athletes to leave a school they originally sign with for perceived greener pastures elsewhere.

He began researching schools’ retention rates and recruiting successes, and quickly saw a pattern emerge.

“It became evident that it was about the players’ experience at the school,” he said. “All these variables that athletes were drawn to and satisfied with programs, it all came back to their experience they had with that program, or the perceived experience they could have going to that program.”

Having graduated from BYU’s experience design, he decided to focus what he learned in that program with what his doctorate work taught him, and a new job description was born.

“I took a traditional, transactional view of equipment, and I said, ‘let’s heighten player experience through equipment.’ That was our focus,” he said. “A lot of that role is very unique to BYU. Right? And a lot of what I do for the football program now extends outside of just traditional equipment.”

The Built4Life program was piloted through football, he said, with the program built on the idea that identifying the “touch points” that are most important to players leads to designing an experience that helps BYU retain players in the day and age of the transfer portal and NCAA rule changes allowing student-athletes one-time transfers without having to sit out a year.

“I have become a lot more quantitative (due to his doctorate work), but I also do qualitative research,” Nixon said. “I study what a lot of what other schools are doing. I will survey our players. And then I will also bring in players for focus groups.”

The equipment room is where those ideas are hatched.

“Players come in and I just ask them on the spot about what I am thinking about. And I get their opinion,” he said. “A lot of what we do now is player-driven. The gear that we picked out this year for our players, we got players involved in that. All the uniform combinations we are going to wear this season, we got the players involved in that.”

Nixon was able to show other BYU athletics leaders how important uniforms are to recruits when they are picking a school. It is also important, he said, to have the uniforms reflect the program’s tradition. That’s whey the famous Nike-designed “bib” uniforms of the early 2000s didn’t work, he said.

They didn’t adhere to BYU’s traditional look, and they bombed.

“Players want tradition, but they also want innovation,” Nixon said. “So that’s why our whole uniform system now — being able to have a different combination every game, but still reflect our rich tradition and connect with 100 years of college football is so important. … Players care deeply about how their uniforms and helmets look.”

Even if it takes staying up all night before a big game to make it happen.