Orlando Pace, Lee Corso (donning the head of Brutus Buckeye), and Kirk Herbstreit on the set of 'College GameDay' on ESPN before last year's Michigan game. ESPN IMAGES
The circus started rolling into Bloomington, Ind., on Tuesday.
Truck after truck, person after person. The only thing missing were the animals.
ESPN’s traveling carnival College GameDay is equal parts chaos and custom. In the near quarter century since it’s traversed the country’s campuses, GameDay has become a tradition in its own right, part of the fabric of college football.
“It’s basically like doing a rock concert every week,” said producer Drew Gallagher, who has worked on the show since 2008. “It’s such a big spectacle, and I think that’s what makes GameDay so special.”
Tonight the show will usher in the 2017 college football season with its first-ever visit to Indiana University. The two-hour special will lead into No. 2 Ohio State’s game against the Hoosiers.
From Maine to California, Washington to Florida, alarm clocks are set for 9 a.m. Eastern and 6 a.m. Pacific during the fall so as not to miss a minute of GameDay, a six-time Emmy Award winner. Rece Davis, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard, David Pollack, and Maria Taylor receive a chorus of praise when they appear on-set.
What ensues is a three-hour party and analysis of all things college football, with an inevitable cameo by Tom Rinaldi that creates activity in the tear ducts.
“There’s an apprehension when we go somewhere we’ve been several times before,” Davis said. “The thing that always brings you back and gives you great respect for the passion people have for the sport and the show is just when you're afraid the crowd is going to be flat or smaller, someone will turn up and do something unbelievable. The fans continually find a way to surprise you and make you feel grateful.”
Week after week, from August until December, tractor trailers will be loaded and unloaded after driving across the country. The GameDay set will be constructed and broken down, and it will all happen all over again. More than two million people each Saturday watch the show, which is produced by 70 people.
When GameDay comes to your city, it serves as validation whether it’s Columbus or Tuscaloosa, Bowling Green or Kalamazoo.
“Certainly the Ohio States, Michigans, Alabamas, USCs of the world, everyone understands their place in college football,” Davis said. “But there are also other places that are important to the DNA of the sport that have great appreciation for their programs. It’s great to be able to showcase those programs.”
The show first aired in 1987, but it wasn’t until it went on the road in 1993 for the Florida State-Notre Dame “Game of the Century” that it became a cultural phenomenon. It has since visited 68 sites. Alabama has hosted a record 16 editions of GameDay, while Ohio State’s 15 are second most.
The show has been to Michigan 12 times and Bowling Green once, in 2003 when the No. 23 Falcons hosted 10th-ranked Northern Illinois.
“Our goal every week is to go where the best story in college football is at,” Davis said. “That may not always be the best game of the week.”
The crew already has the season mapped out. Of course, because it’s college football, havoc is sure to alter those plans. The outcome of one game on Saturday can change the destination for the following week.
”When we’re lucky and when we’re doing it right, we’re planning weeks in advance,” Gallagher said. “But you just can’t predict college football, and that's part of the beauty of it.”
For the producers, football season doesn’t just signal trips to the week’s most intriguing game. It’s the beginning of a relentless five-month stretch that includes work if you’re awake. Many of the features that air are shot the week of the game, which means there are logistics to solve and editing to be done.
“It’s hard to say how many hours I work during the week because I’m constantly thinking about the show and I’m constantly tinkering with the show, except for a couple hours in the morning with my son and a couple hours around dinnertime with my wife,” Gallagher said. “The beauty of it is it doesn’t feel like work; we all love college football.”
No matter where the participants go, even if it’s a location that’s seen GameDay a dozen times, the reception is one of adoration. Fans flock to the set before dawn, some camping out in tents, just to get a front-row spot.
Signs have become one of the show’s hallmarks, a breeding ground for a creativity. “The Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals” was a weekly sight in 2016, prompting a comedic copycat in Seattle whose Happy Gilmore-inspired sign read, “Shooter McGavin blew a 4-stroke lead on the back nine #neverforget.”
“Everyone loves the circus, right?” Davis said. “People like to come and not only enjoy the show, but I believe they like to show off their program and their passion for their team and show they’re the best fan base. The cool thing is how everyone tries to one-up each other on the signs. My favorite signs are the ones that have nothing to do with the game or build on something they saw the previous week.”
Washington State is perhaps the most anticipated GameDay site that the show hasn’t visited. Why is a school in the Pacific Northwest with little football tradition such a hot commodity? Because a Washington State flag has been flown at 191 consecutive airings of GameDay, one of the show’s endearing charms.
“The loyalty that they have shown with flying that flag, it’s just unbelievable,” Gallagher said. “We can’t wait until the first time we get out to the Palouse and reciprocate that loyalty.”
There’s a similar hysteria surrounding today’s show at Indiana. In 2015, Indiana and No. 1 Ohio State were both undefeated when they met in Bloomington, leading to a grassroots effort from the IU faithful, which mimicked a presidential election, lobbying for GameDay to visit. It didn’t work.
But today all the build up comes to an end. Corso, the show’s resident jester, was Indiana’s head coach from 1973-1982 and is beloved in Bloomington. He’s been busy the past few football seasons — Corso has been on GameDay since its inception in 1987 — so this will mark his first trip to IU in more than 30 years.
The only downside? Indiana doesn’t have a mascot, eliminating the possibility of Hoosier headgear.
“It’s a huge game,” Davis said. “Great storylines on the field with Kevin Wilson going back to Bloomington, Ohio State opening on the road in the conference, then you add in the bonus of Lee going back to Bloomington. It’ll be really cool to see how they honor him. I know the fans will show their appreciation for him. He’s the heartbeat of that show. He keeps the chemistry going. And the moment when he puts on that headgear, it doesn't feel like Saturday’s games can start until he does that.”
Life on the road
ESPN's 'College GameDay' set attracted a crowd when it taped at Bowling Green before a 2003 game. BLADE PHOTO
Former Western Michigan player Gregg Jennings, left, and Lee Corso both select WMU to defeat Buffalo during a broadcast for ESPN's "College GameDay" in Kalamazoo, Mich., last November. KALAMAZOO GAZETTE via AP