Big Men on Campus
How did three guys whose average age is 48 become the life of the college football party? SIOC hits the road with the ESPN Gameday crew for a weekend to find out
By Austin Murphy
They are the magi of their sport, a trio of traveling wise men whose wisecracking presence on your campus means one thing: On this Saturday you are at the center of the college football universe. To spend a couple of days behind the scenes with ESPN's College GameDay crew of Lee Corso, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit is to realize that their on- and off-air personalities are virtually indistinguishable. They laugh, they argue, they insult each other. Corso actually exclaims, while slicing the air with his right forefinger, "Not so fast, my friend!"
When they come to campus, they are seen as friends by folks like Drunk Guy in the quad at Alabama, where the Crimson Tide's Sept. 6 tilt with top-ranked Oklahoma drew the GameDay circus. "Dude, I just talked to Chris Fowler!" he brayed into his cell phone. "You want to talk to Fowler?" With that, the gentleman from whom the smell of booze wafted in waves thrust his phone at the ESPN anchor, who was just coming off the set.
"Say hi to Joe," said Drunk Guy, holding the phone to Fowler's ear. While he would have been within his rights to utter a different two-word reply, Fowler took the request in stride. "Hello, Joe," he said, throwing in a bonus "Roll Tide" before noticing the OU on Drunk Guy's hat and correcting himself -- "er, Sooners."
It's refreshing to see that none of the GameDay guys is ever in any hurry to escape the public. They sign, they pose for pictures, and in the case of Herbstreit, politely decline invitations to sorority parties.
While chemistry may be a strength for this group, geography is not -- for Corso, at any rate. During a lull in the run-through an hour before the show in Tuscaloosa, the senior member of the trio found himself reminiscing about his days as general manager of the World League of American Football's Orlando Thunder in the early 1990s. "We had a game in Barcelona, France," said Corso, 68, beginning an anecdote he never got to finish.
"Uh, Lee, you mean Barcelona, Spain?" said Herbstreit.
"Then we went to New England," Corso continued, slightly flustered. "I mean London."
"I hope someone else handled team travel," cracked Fowler.
Corso laughed as hard as anyone, and why not? The guy should be happy. After 27 years in the salt mines of coaching, he has achieved far more renown as an analyst on what, over the last decade, has become the gold standard for college pregame shows. Though GameDay launched in 1986, the show really began to register with students the first time it went on campus, in 1993. Since then, the GameDay gang has witnessed firsthand the extent of its appeal. In 1999, with only minutes remaining in Gainesville and host Florida driving for a potential tying touchdown against No. 1 Florida State, Gators quarterback Doug Johnson signaled for a timeout. As he jogged off the field, Johnson spotted Herbstreit on the sideline. "Kirk," Johnson yelled, "were you out with my friends last night?" (Final score: Florida State 30, Florida 23.)
The GameDay franchise has become so popular that this season the show will be on the road every week. It's a serious grind. The day before the Oklahoma-Alabama game, Herbstreit and Corso roll into the 1 p.m. preproduction meeting looking slightly bedraggled: They had worked the previous night's contest between Alabama-Birmingham and Southern Mississippi. When Fowler shows up, everyone takes a seat around a table with foldout legs in an underwhelming trailer that is part of what can be described as GameDay Land, the veritable ESPN theme park that springs up wherever the show drops anchor -- in this case, on an oak-shaded quad in the shadow of Denny Chimes. In addition to the trucks and trailers, there is a Madden Cruiser wannabe (a gleaming coach paid for by Home Depot) and a state-of-the-art "concert set," featuring five massive cameras, that is covered by a mesh netting necessitated, if we may speak frankly, by the extent to which Corso pisses off the drunks.
"At Michigan State a few years ago," says the Coach, "a can of beer came flying over my head, just missed Kirk and broke one of the cameras. At LSU" -- after Corso picked Alabama to win, waving a Crimson Tide pennant -- "they threw golf balls and hit Kirk."
Thus the net.
Later that afternoon the crew crowds into a trailer and plows through a seven-page, single-spaced document that serves as a rough outline for Saturday's show. It's interesting to see the differences in the way they work. Fowler fills index card after light-blue index card with his small, compulsively neat print. These cards will serve, basically, as his script. While Corso and Herbstreit are free to concentrate on the strong opinions they will serve up, Fowler, 41, is the show's genial moderator and traffic cop, guiding the group into and out of each break. He does it exceptionally well, and without a net: Fowler is legendary at ESPN for his ability to do a 90-minute show without a teleprompter.
Herbstreit, 34, also takes notes in the meeting. To augment his encyclopedic knowledge of his sport, the former Ohio State quarterback spends the early part of the week phoning coaches and players all over the country. Then there is Corso, whose muse alights on him even as he sits at the table. While the others talk, Corso scrawls the points he intends to make in black Sharpie on a legal pad. As he scribbles, he enunciates aloud the words he is putting on paper -- "Maurice...Clarett...is...toast" -- that all might share in the bounty of his wit.
Afterward Corso retires to his hotel room while Fowler and Herbstreit head to Bryant-Denny Stadium to do their radio show. The three will not reassemble until the next day.
On Saturday morning Fowler is back in the trailer before eight. The show will start in 90 minutes. Already assembled is a small crowd whose most unhinged constituents arrived the previous night. As 9:30 nears, the crowd swells to several thousand. corso is a sexy beast, says one sign. has auburn scored yet? says another.
As the talent takes the stage, a megaphone-wielding woman announces, "It's 9:15, and Texas still sucks!" At 9:21 Corso, who cannot help himself, shouts "War Eagle!" and grins as he is showered with derision. Fowler knows all too well the intensity of passions that GameDay stirs. In 1997, after Michigan's Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy, Tennessee fans, who believed the GameDay crew had stumped against the Vols' Peyton Manning, bombarded ESPN with hate mail. On a national radio show Fowler referred to the harangues as a "trailer-park frenzy," which stirred more vengeful correspondence. It was a rare -- perhaps the sole -- display of brashness by the even-keeled Fowler, who quickly and publicly apologized.
The show begins. Corso gleefully tweaks 'Bama fans' noses, praising Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione (who left the Tide 10 months ago). He is like the Bill Murray character in Little Shop of Horrors who gets off on having his teeth drilled sans anesthetic; he thrives on jeers. In the end Corso dons a hat shaped like the Sooner Schooner and picks against the home team. Considering the prognosticating luck he's had lately, this isn't necessarily a bad thing for Alabama. If one 'Bama fan says it to him over the course of the day, a hundred do: "Thanks for picking us to lose."
The trio spend the rest of Saturday resting and watching games on the bus. Every time they emerge to head to the set or the stadium to tape a segment for SportsCenter, they are accompanied by the usual fanfare. As 11:30 p.m. approaches, the crowd is down to a few hundred hard cores. "C'mon, you guys," a frat boy yells, channeling Will Ferrell from Old School, "we're all gonna go streaking in the quad!" In that instant it becomes clear why these young students -- why thousands of GameDay fans -- would stand 20 feet away from three men they've never met and address them in such familiar terms. To watch Corso, Fowler and Herbstreit work for any length of time is to feel like you do know them, to join the fraternity.
Issue date: September 23, 2003