Scores of rowdy fans arrived at Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium Saturday. They cheered their own and booed their rivals, held up signs and waved flags, and two even showed up painted head-to-toe in school colors. All the while, cheerleaders did their routines and the Goodyear blimp flew overhead.
And that was just the pregame show.
ESPN’s College Gameday long ago left behind the studio, and not just by taking their show on the road each week. Plenty of shows have done that and failed, from ABC’s NBA pregame to Fox NFL Sunday. Where Gameday has achieved success is by generating an energetic atmosphere that rivals an actual game.
“College Gameday now has become an event,” ESPN analyst Lee Corso said during a media availability session on Friday. “It’s the atmosphere. The students get into it, that’s why it’s so much better.”
Indeed, the students at Florida State had the kind of energy at 9:00 AM on Saturday that they are far less likely to have at 9:00 AM on Monday. It was Gameday’s first trip to Tallahassee since 2008, but their first to Florida State since 2003 – when, as host Chris Fowler noted, many of the current students were still in grade school.
After eight years off the Gameday radar, Florida State’s fans did their part to show that absence truly does make the heart grow fonder. Word circulated Saturday that the crowd was the second-largest in the history of the show. Those in attendance cheered Florida State graduate Corso and reporter Erin Andrews – though the latter, a University of Florida grad, was greeted by at least one sign imploring her to “go back to Gainesville” – and vehemently booed ESPN analyst and former Florida coach Urban Meyer (or “Urban Cryer”) when he appeared via satellite.
“It’s a big deal,” Tallahassee CBS-affiliate WCTV reporter Jerry Askin said of Gameday’s presence, “Usually when we’re out here, it’s not as serious. There’s not as many people out here.”
If the presence of College Gameday was a big deal for Florida State, one could forgive the show’s cast if for them – to paraphrase the late Raul Julia – “it was Saturday.” But even after traveling to rowdy sites week after week for years, the stars have not become jaded to the excitement generated by the show.
“It’s a circus, the guys are rock stars,” Andrews said Friday, “They walk around campus, and kids are so excited to get near them and talk to them and take pictures.”
Andrews recalled when Gameday visited the University of Florida while she was still a student. “I camped out. I wanted my picture with Kirk [Herbstreit] and Chris, and I was freaking out when they’d come to town.”
Corso, the only member of the cast to have been with Gameday for all twenty-five of its seasons on the air, likened the experience to being on a Broadway show.
“If you’re an actor and you’re doing movies, you do them in a confined area like a warehouse. But you do a show on Broadway? It’s live, it’s action, it’s a live crowd. That’s the same thing with College Gameday. It’s become an event for the student body and alumni.”
Of course, atmosphere is not the only factor in the show’s success. Like any good studio show, there must also be chemistry between the members of the cast.
While Fowler, Corso and Herbstreit have now worked together for fifteen years, other members of the show – Desmond Howard, David Pollack and Andrews – are relative newcomers. Howard, who joined the show in 2005, spoke of the importance of not jeopardizing the show’s existing dynamic.
“Obviously before I joined the show, those guys had started something that was just fantastic, and they welcomed me with open arms and allowed me to work my way in, to fit in. My whole goal was not to mess up their chemistry.”
That goal would seem to have been achieved. “We genuinely like each other,” Howard continued, “We genuinely get along.”
The strong relationship between the cast was perhaps best exemplified last year, when Corso accepted an award for contributions to college football at the 2010 College Football Awards. Corso, who suffered a stroke in 2009, became emotional when thanking Fowler, Herbstreit and Howard for their support during his recovery.
In its 25th season, the elements that have made College Gameday a success are enduring. No studio show can quite match the amount of energy and interest that Gameday generates on a weekly basis, and the show’s chemistry is rivaled by few – Turner’s Inside the NBA and perhaps Fox Sports’ Fox NFL Sunday come to mind.
The show’s status today could not have been predicted two decades ago.
“In 1990, we were a half-hour show in a studio with a couple of guys leading into very, very low-level football games,” Fowler noted. “It’s evolved into a road show and kind of almost invented a genre of pregame shows.
“We’ve helped nationalize the following of college football. Now people from around the country know a lot about programs that are from completely different conferences, and I think Gameday’s a part of that. We’re proud of it, we never could have expected the growth of the show.”