The best road team in college football visited Gainesville, Fla., last Saturday, surrounded by all the trappings of a major program. Training table. Headsets. Police escorts (two per man). Even heckling. "Two shirts, four shirts, six shirts, a dollar!" the rabble outside Florida Field yelled, zinging Florida State's Peter Warrick (convicted last month of theft from a department store) and making it impossible for the three-man ESPN GameDay crew, seated on a platform just outside the stadium, to hear one another. "All for the Gators stand up and holler!"
Against a din that would have caused lesser squads to jump offsides, host Chris Fowler ( Colorado '85) and analysts Lee Corso ( Florida State '57) and Kirk Herbstreit ( Ohio State '93) embarked on another weekly installment of GameDay, the preview show that attracts larger on-site crowds on Saturdays than many Division I-AA games. "Our passion for college football carries through on the show," says coordinating producer Steve Vecchione. "The students who camp out overnight to see us—for free—identify with us."
Since first taking the show on the road, to Notre Dame in 1993, GameDay has increasingly thought, Road trip, dude. This season 11 of the first 13 Saturdays were spent in places like Austin; Blacksburg, Va.; and Madison, Wis., as opposed to ESPN's Bristol, Conn., studios. "When we go on campus, it's like being on Broadway," says the histrionic Corso, who tabs winners by using props such as a mascot's head. "You feel the thrill."
Whereas Corso and Herbstreit played quarterback in college, Fowler is the field general here. A 10-season veteran, Fowler uses no prompter—the anchor's equivalent of a no-huddle offense—for the hourlong program. Herbstreit plays it straight with his insights but has become a matinee idol among the sorority set. On the sideline before halftime at the Florida-Florida State game, a mellophone player in the Seminoles' band asked, "Who's that blond guy? He's the hottest sports announcer on TV," and then got Herbstreit to sign her glove.
"We aren't the story," insists Fowler, a tad uncomfortable with the show's cultlike popularity. "The game is." He's right, but sometimes the lines get crossed. Midway through the fourth quarter of last Saturday's game a Florida holding penalty nullified a first-and-goal play. Frustrated Gators coach Steve Spurrier spotted Fowler and Herbstreit standing 10 yards down the sideline and said, "That's not going to get it done."
Even the most intense of college coaches, on his own game day, turns to GameDay.