Quirky stories are fun, but usually not enough to win powerful media coverage or attract attention from legislators and other key stakeholders. But University of Maryland, Baltimore County, proved that piece of conventional wisdom wrong by tying its own quirky story to a fundamental element of its identity. The school prides itself on being a place where it's "cool to be smart," says Charlie Melichar in UMBC's News & Information department. Hence, when the chess club - that's right, the chess club - scores a major win, it is celebrated in the same way other universities celebrate major football or basketball wins. The team is lauded with pep rallies, a band, and, naturally, cheerleaders. Melichar took the tale of chess and cheerleaders to NBC correspondent Mike Leonard, whose beat is the "overlooked territory of everyday American life." Leonard loved the story and made all the obvious comparisons between UMBC's pep rallies and those for major sports teams while clearly focusing on the message that UMBC honors brains as well as brawn. The light-hearted story made for a five-minute segment on the "Today" show, and parents, educators and legislators immediately began calling in to express their appreciation for the university's culture, which celebrates smarts. "Some parents even asked how their son or daughter could get involved in the chess team!" Melichar says. "The story was a perfect fit for all involved. It was quirky but had a strong message: We need to focus more attention on the life of the mind. More importantly, it was custom- pitched to a reporter who covers just that kind of story." We'd just like to know how those students whose parents were pitching them for the chess team felt about all this. (Melichar, 410/455-6380)
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