Athlon Archive: Behind the Scenes with ESPN's College GameDay in 2001

As GameDay faces a changing of the guard, we look back at a crazy week in 2001

In 2015, the most iconic pregame show in college sports, ESPN’s College GameDay, will undergo a changing of the guard. Chris Fowler, who has hosted the show since its inception in 199, will move full-time onto the ABC primetime game of the week, a role he first started last season in conjunction with GameDay.

 

Hosting GameDay will be Rece Davis, the voice of ESPN’s featured Thursday night game and GameDay Final. Analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit are still on the team, but the field has expanded over the years to include additional reporters and analysts, a guest picker and an extra hour. More changes may be afoot in coming years as Corso, 80, nears retirement.

 

As GameDay was well on its way to becoming a fixture for college football fans, Athlon’s Mitch Light joined the team for a broadcast during the 2001 season. The broadcast turned out to be “definitely the craziest weekend we’ve had at GameDay.”

 

A week earlier, Nebraska and Oklahoma appeared to be on track to play in a game with BCS championship game implications in the Big 12 title games. Both ended up losing, turning the focus on the Florida-Tennessee rivalry in Gainesville.

 

The following story appeared in regional editions of the 2002 Athlon Sports College Football preview.

 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Chris Fowler had been watching college football for more than 10 hours. He’s been talking college football since reporting to the set just outside Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after 7 a.m.

 

There is a throng of jubilant Tennessee fans waiting for Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso to film their next SportsCenter segment. But that won’t happen for another 30 minutes. Fowler can sit and relax and watch his alma mater, Colorado, battle Texas in the Big 12 title game from the relative comforts of the ESPN trailer adjacent to the GameDay set.

 

This has been a typical fall Saturday for Fowler, Herbstreit, Corso and the traveling road show known as ESPN’s College GameDay: attend meetings and rehearsal, broadcast the 90-minute live show, watch games on television, go to the on-site game, watch more games, film SportsCenter segments and watch more games.

 

Not a bad way to spend 17 hours.

 

“Doing the show is phenomenal,” says Fowler, who has hosted GameDay since 1990. “It is incredible. That is what you remember every time you whine about a missed (plane) connection or you whine about the hotel check-in desk. You just remember that you are incredibly blessed to be able to do this. Anything you have to do or put up with to make this happen is trivial.”

 

Fowler has witnessed GameDay grow from a struggling studio show “that was kind of on life support” to arguably the most popular pregame show in sports. “I never would have imagined this,” he says. “It is a unique show. I think the people who watch it have the same passion for the sport that we do and appreciate that we take them to the site of the biggest game each week.”

 

This week, the GameDay gang is in Gainesville, Fla., for the annual Tennessee-Florida grudge match. The game, normally played in mid-September, has been pushed back to Dec. 1 due the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Fans begin gathering around the show’s set at 6 a.m., nearly four-and-a-half hours before the 10:30 airtime. The crowd eventually swells into the thousands and includes Scotty Spurrier, the 14-year-old son of the Gators’ coach. “The atmosphere is incredible,” Fowler says. “It is very hard to show up and give a lame effort when the atmosphere is like this. It is impossible to give a low-energy show.”

 

GameDay is in Gainesville for the sixth time in the past five years, yet there is still a tangible excitement around campus. “We have been here quite often, but we still had a front-page headline in the Gainesville Sun : GameDay is in Town,” says Steve Vecchione, the show’s coordinating producer since 1994. “The excitement here is great. I don’t think people take us for granted. It is still exciting when we go to a place for the fifth or sixth time.”

 

Rachel Shapiro, a 2000 Florida graduate, flew down from New York City to watch her beloved Gators — and be a part of the GameDay experience. “The most exciting part of the weekend is the people coming out to watch, getting that GameDay feeling,” she says. “This is the best part of living in Gainesville and going to school here. There is just no better feeling that having a GameDay in Gainesville for a big Florida football game.”

 

“Like Rock Stars”

 

GameDay’s popularity has turned Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso into celebrities. In Gainesville, they receive a police escort for the short walk from the ESPN trailer to the stadium. Fans scream their names and reach out for a handshake and high five.

 

“They are like rock stars,” says Tony Barnhart, a college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who is a regular guest on the show. “Everywhere they go, people go nuts. It’s been great for college football and great for the show.”

 

Herbstreit, a 1993 Ohio State graduate and a former Buckeye starting quarterback, receives the most attention from adoring fans. He stops for every autograph and poses for as many photographs as possible. “It is part of the business,” he says. “I don’t mind it. I don’t love it, but it’s part of what we do. We are out there in front of people. It is important for us to show how much we appreciate them and the fact that they like our show. We would be silly not to recognize those people who come up to us.”

 

Herbstreit is known for his youth and good looks, while Corso (top right, pictured in 1982 as head coach at Indiana) is “like your crazy uncle or your crazy grandfather,” according to Herbstreit. “Lee has a unique relationship with most fans across the country. They have a love-hate relationship with him. People get upset with him, but at the same time, they love him to death.”

 

Corso, a former head coach at Northern Illinois, Louisville and Indiana, has a cult-like following from the younger generation of college football fans. Just off the GameDay set, one young Florida woman holds up a ‘Lee, I’m Pregnant’ sign. Another sign reads ‘Lee Corso is my father.’ The Pike House flies a banner taunting Corso, an alum of the hated Florida State Seminoles. “Kirk always picks (Florida),” Shapiro says, “and Corso is usually the devil’s advocate. It is fun. It fires everybody up.”

 

Corso shines in the final moments of each GameDay broadcast when he dons the mascot head of the school he is picking to win. The tradition began in 1996 when in Columbus, Ohio, when Corso noticed Brutus Buckeye stroll by the GameDay set. “I decided I wanted to put that head on when I picked Ohio State,” Corso says. “So I asked Kirk’s fiancée (now his wife) Allison, who was a cheerleader, and she went and got the head. We got a great reaction and thought we were onto something. I started putting mascot heads each week and one time I went 16 straight mascot heads without a loss. I was lucky.”

 

Corso has been with GameDay since 1989. Fowler joined the following year, and Craig James, the former All-America running back at SMU, came on board in 1992. “When we started doing this, the show really didn’t rate very well,” Fowler says. "It didn’t have good games to lead into and the show didn’t know what it wanted to be.

 

“But then we began to hit on something. The chemistry and liveliness of it kind of jump-started things and people started taking notice. Then we convinced management to take the show on the road and that is what we did in 1993 and that is what has led to the increased popularity.”

 

South Bend, Ind., was the site of GameDay’s first remote broadcast, and they could not have selected a better game. Second-ranked Notre Dame knocked off No. 1 Florida State in one of the great Irish wins of the Lou Holtz era. The game might have been a classic, but GameDay’s first road show was a rather meager production. “We were set up on the floor of the (College Football) Hall of Fame with a rope around the set,” Fowler says. “And there were some curious people wondering what the hell they were seeing.”

 

The first show, however, was a huge hit with the viewers, and ESPN decided to take GameDay on the road on a more frequent basis. There were six remotes in 1994 and an average of 10 per year ever since. “We are budgeted for 11 road shows (per year),” says GameDay coordinating producer Barry Sacks, who estimates each show costs “somewhere in the $200,000-250,000 range.”

 

The on-location setup for each show begins Thursday morning when the stage is assembled. By Friday afternoon, the road show crew has swelled to 50 and consists of on-air talent, an operations manager, two directors, three producers, five cameramen, technicians, a researcher, a make-up artist and a catering company that provides three meals a day to keep the staff well-fed.

 

"This is a major circus on wheels,” Fowler says. “Our crew is phenomenal. Those guys have been doing this for years and they do their jobs well. They love this sport and they love the idea of doing this show.”

 

A Great, Gutsy Hire

 

The show took a hit after the 1995 season when James left to become a studio analyst for CBS’ college football broadcasts. Fowler admits he was concerned James would be difficult to replace. “I understood what Craig did,” he says. “He had a huge opportunity, but I felt we had just hit our stride. We were going to have a hard time finding somebody to jump into that role.”

 

Fowler’s fears subsided after he met with Herbstreit (pictured in 1992 with Ohio State), who had served as a sideline analyst for ESPN’s college football broadcasts in 1995.

 

“Kirk was a great, gutsy hire,” Fowler says, “because he didn’t come from a real experienced background and he wasn’t a big-name player. But he was a natural and he had a knockout audition. He seated immensely. He was like Robert Brooks in Broadcast News. He has grown so much and that has been so much of the reason for the popularity of the show. Lee and I have been here and Kirk comes in and brings a real young, energetic, hard-core football mentality to it.”

 

Herbstreit formed an immediate bond with Fowler, the savvy host, and Corso, the wacky analyst. “You either have chemistry with a group of people or you don’t,” says Herbstreit. “You can’t fake it. You hear football coaches talk about a special chemistry and I think we are fortunate to have that on this set.”

Herbsterit was a loyal GameDay viewer during his playing days and still has the same passion for the game now that he is on the other side of the camera. “We absolutely love what we do,” he says. “We love talking about the games. We are just thrilled that people are enthusiastic about the sport. Even if I had an opportunity to do something else, I would stay in this position because I love college football and all of the emotion that goes with it.”

There is still plenty of emotion on the sidelines in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when the Gator sand Vols take the field for the opening kickoff. Fowler and Herbstreit are situated on the Florida side, while Corso opts for the Tennessee sideline. Simultaneously, Fowler and Herbstreit scan the 85,000-seat stadium and smile. This is the biggest game of the college football season to date in one of the great environments in sports. “This is incredible,” Fowler says, “We love doing the show, but the gravy is getting to watch probably the best game every week from the field and being able to witness places like the Swamp and Tennessee and Nebraska. We get a great opportunity to see the best teams close up. It helps us with our assessments of teams. It helps to get to know the personalities of teams besides just watching them on TV.”

 

Your Program Has Arrived

 

When College GameDay shows up on your campus, you know your football program has arrived.

 

“There is a certain truth to that,” Fowler says, “because in a sense if we are there, then it is the biggest game in the country and if it is the biggest game in the country then your program has arrived.”

 

Lou Holtz lobbied for GameDay to bring the show to Columbia, S.C., for the Gamecocks’ SEC clash with Florida last November. “I pick up the phone one day,” Sacks says, “and this guy says, ‘Barry, this is Lou Holtz from South Carolina. I just want to let you know that it would be important to the state of South Carolina and to me personally for you to bring your show to South Carolina.’”

 

GameDay did in fact make its first appearance at South Carolina on Nov. 10, 2002, remarkably just two years after the Gamecocks completed an 0-11 season. “In my first year on the job,” Holtz says, “we asked some of the underclassmen what they hoped would happen for the team before their careers were over. One of the things they mentioned was they wanted to have GameDay come to campus. They said when that happened, they would know the program really arrived.”

 

GameDay in Columbia attracted an estimated crowd of 10,000 for a pregame show that ended seven-and-a-half hours prior to kickoff. “Coach (Holtz) promised me a great atmosphere,” Sacks says. “I knew there would be. They have great fans.”

 

Nebraska currently holds the GameDay attendance record (15,800 for the Oklahoma game last October), while Kansas State has drawn two 15,000-plus crowds in the past several years. “It’s all unofficial and all in good fun,” Vecchione says.

 

Fowler enjoys being a part of the college football experience each Saturday, but he never wants the show to be bigger than the games. “I don’t like to get too caught up in what we mean,” he says, “We are never going to be the show. The game is the big deal and that is the way it should be. We are just happy to be a small part of it.”

 

The show, however, influences public perception. When Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso speak, people listen. “What happens on this show reverberates all through college football,” Barnhart says. “That is a statement about them and the people that put on this show.”

 

GameDay’s influence isn’t limited to the sport’s passionate fans. Coaches and players often tune in on the day of the game to see what is being said about their program or their conference.

 

“If we have a night game, the whole team is up watching (the show) in the morning because we all want to know what Corso, Fowler and Herbstreit have to say about not only us, but all the games that day,” says Ronyell Whitaker, a cornerback at Virginia Tech. ”And if we have a noon game, we’re all bummed because we know we can’t watch the show.”

 

And often, things said during a 10:30 a.m. GameDay telecast can serve as motivation for a game later that day. On Dec. 1, the Tennessee Volunteers watched from their hotel in Gainesville as Herbstreit and Corso picked the Gators to roll past UT with relative ease.

 

“Guys started yelling and banging on the walls of their rooms (after the picks),” UT defensive end Bernard Jackson told The Tennessean. “It got loud at the hotel. We wanted to play them right then.”

 

Tennessee’s players weren’t the only ones fired up about the perceived anti-UT comments. Long after the Vols secured their 34-32 win — the program’s first victory in Gainesville since 1971 — that throng of jubilant Tennessee fans is still waiting for Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso to emerge form their trailer. It’s almost 11 p.m., but these die-hards have been waiting all day to throw the predictions back at the GameDay experts.

 

When Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso take the stage for the final time, they are overwhelmingly complimentary of the Tennessee program for its gutsy win at the Swamp. Volunteer fans erupt in the background and belt out a few rounds of ‘Rocky Top.’ And just as another ESPN GameDay comes to a close, Corso puts on a bright orange Tennessee cap. It’s a little late to change his pick, but Corso has jumped on the Tennessee bandwagon.

 

 

From Dallas to Blacksburg to Gainesville

 

During a wild weekend near the end of the 2001 season, GameDay settled on three different locations. Here’s the behind-the-scenes look:

 

Friday, Nov. 23, 2001

 

Barry Sacks settles into his living room in Southbury, Conn., to watch the annual Colorado-Nebraska showdown. Like most college football observers, Sacks, the senior coordinating producer of ESPN’s College GameDay, is confident Nebraska will wrap up its fourth Big 12 North title in six years. A trip to the league championship game in Dallas is looking very good for the Husker nation. And with Oklahoma playing host to 3-7 Oklahoma State Saturday afternoon, the dream matchup featuring Nebraska (No. 2 in the BCS) and Oklahoma (No. 3) will soon be a reality.

 

And this is very good news for Sacks and the entire GameDay gang, who are planning to take their show to Dallas — the site of the Big 12 Championship game — on Dec. 1. Plans for GameDay in Dallas began 11 months earlier after Oklahoma completed its national championship season with a 13-2 win over Florida State. “When the (2000) season ended,” Sacks says, “we were already thinking about Oklahoma-Nebraska playing for the (2001) Big 12 Championship. We want to go to the biggest game each week with the biggest national championship implications. And all along, (throughout) the whole season, it looked like the Oklahoma-Nebraska rematch would be another Game of the Year. Obviously, that is where we try to be.”

 

So the plans are set. Plane reservations are made. Hotels are booked. College GameDay is coming to Dallas.

 

But just in case something strange happens, Sacks and Steve Vecchione, GameDays coordinating producer, have been working on alternate plans of attack. “We have (the games) ranked,” says Sacks. “We are going to Oklahoma-Nebraska. But if one of them loses, we are probably going to Miami-Virginia Tech (in Blacksburg) because Miami has a chance to clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl.”

 

It becomes clear in the opening minutes of the Nebraska-Colorado game that the contingency plan might be needed. Colorado’s power running game is completely dominating Nebraska’s defense. Early in the second quarter, Colorado has rolled up 301 total yards and leads the stunned Huskers 35-3.

 

Sacks calls Vecchione at the office to discus Nebraska’s meltdown. Vecchione is still in favor of Dallas, despite the Huskers impending loss. Colorado has been playing as well as any team in the country and Oklahoma is still very much alive in the championship race. Sacks agrees that Colorado-Oklahoma, because of the Buffs’ dominating showing against Nebraska, is now a viable option, but he isn’t quite ready to commit to any game.

 

“Colorado-Oklahoma is intriguing,” he says. “Maybe people think that Colorado, coming off their win, can beat Oklahoma, too. But let’s see what happens tomorrow.”

 

Late Friday night, Vecchione and Sacks dismiss the possibility of moving the show to Gainesville for the epic Tennessee-Florida battle. “There is no way we’re going to Gainesville, right?” Vecchione asks. “As for right now,” Sacks says, “it is not even on the radar screen.”

 

Saturday, Nov. 24, 2001

 

All GameDay-to-Dallas discussion ends when Oklahoma State, a 27-point underdog, completes its stunning 16-13 win over Oklahoma. With both Nebraska and Oklahoma no longer in the equation, GameDay bails on the Big 12 Championship Game. “The Texas-Colorado game, though a nice game, really doesn’t have the national championship implications by itself,” Sacks says.

 

With all of the crazy happenings, the Florida-Tennessee game, which wasn’t even on the radar screen 24 hours ago, emerges as the biggest game of an important Saturday of football. Florida now has a clear path to the Rose Bowl: Beat Tennessee and win the SEC Championship Game. Tennessee’s road is a bit more difficult, but the Vols still have legitimate national title aspirations. “Gainesville is not only not the radar screen, as a start thinking about it, it’s almost a no-brainer,” Sacks says.

 

With the decision almost official, Vecchione calls the Florida athletic department to inform them GameDay will likely be making its sixth trip to Gainesville.

 

Sunday, Nov. 25, 2001

 

It’s official. The executives at ESPN agree with Sacks, Vecchione and Chris Fowler, the show’s host, that Gainesville, Fla., is where GameDay needs to be on Dec. 1.

 

“It was a good decision,” Sacks says. “It was definitely the craziest weekend we’ve had at GameDay. (Gainesville) went from a place were not going to, to the place where we had to be. It is the only one of the three games we considered that we had not booked travel for because there was no way anybody on our show’s staff thought both Nebraska and Oklahoma would lose. That was the only way we were going to Gainesville. Friday night we were going one place, Saturday night we were going somewhere else.

 

“To me, that is what makes the show as special as it is. We are at the biggest game of the week, regardless of what it takes to get there.”

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