College football fans everywhere look forward to that time of year when Saturdays are dominated by tailgating and marching bands and crisp autumn days and big matchups between long-standing rivals. And, whether they tune in to watch it on TV or turn out to catch the live taping, ESPN’s College GameDay also has become part of the tradition.
Now three hours long and originating from the campus of a featured game every week, the show includes information and analysis about the day’s upcoming contests in addition to celebrity pickers, stories about players, coaches and sometimes fans and analyst Lee Corso’s much-anticipated headgear selection at the end. The show even has its own theme music, an intro performed by country music duo Big & Rich which now features rap artist Travie McCoy and Lzzy Hale, lead vocalist of the rock group Halestorm. And, of course, hundreds of fans, as well as the school’s cheerleaders and mascots, show up to the on-campus site every week cheering loudly and waving flags and hand-painted signs.
Oh, how times have changed.
Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 13, 1993, to be exact, Notre Dame and today’s opponent, Florida State, collided in one of the biggest matchups of that season — the No. 1 Seminoles versus the No. 2 Irish at Notre Dame Stadium with national championship implications on the line. It also was the first time College GameDay hit the road for a telecast after being an in-studio show since it began in 1987. And it paled in comparison to today’s glitzy, longer version.
“I’ve said this many times before but we really didn’t know what we were doing,” remembered Chris Fowler, GameDay’s host from 1990-2014. “We had no idea what kind of mics to use, what kind of crowd to expect or even who was going to show up. There was just kind of a velvet rope around the set, which was on the floor. It wasn’t raised like you see it now with security barriers. We had our backs to a trophy case and there were people milling around, but you couldn’t see any of them in the camera shots. It was really crude and primitive at that point, but we had a lot of fun.”
When the 30-minute show premiered in ’87, Tim Brando was the host alongside commentators Corso, a former head college football coach, and Beano Cook, who had served as the University of Pittsburgh’s sports publicist in addition to a myriad of TV and radio stints. They gave an overview of the day’s college football games. Several years later, the show appeared to be heading for the chopping block.
“When I started in 1990, it was still a very small show and not a priority for the network,” Fowler said. “They were actually thinking about doing away with it because it didn’t have much of an audience or much of a profile.
“We had done it on the road at bowl games in the post-season but never during the regular season. It was expensive, about $50,000 which is a modest sum compared to what it costs now, but that was the investment they had to make. And finally when that game came along in 1993 it had all the ingredients: one versus two, two high-profile programs and at Notre Dame no less, north versus south in November, (Irish head coach Lou) Holtz and (Florida State head coach Bobby) Bowden. So with that kind of game the network decided to take a chance. That was an important day for us.”
It wasn’t just game day that was exciting. There was a buzz and flurry of activity all week on the Notre Dame campus. Members from ESPN started arriving several days prior to the game and the University was inundated with additional media requests. A constant stream of coaches and players filed in and out of the Athletics and Convocation Center (now known as Purcell Pavilion) for interviews and to tape SportsCenter segments. Notre Dame’s sports information director at the time, John Heisler, even remembers putting together a detailed list of restaurants for media members who weren’t familiar with the area. By Thursday morning of that week, Heisler was fielding one of the oddest requests he’d ever been asked to fulfill.The first ESPN College GameDay road show set up in Heritage Hall in 1993 prior to the game between No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 1 Florida State.
“Somehow Lou Holtz shows up in my office and asks what the media people have been doing at night,” Heisler said. “I told him they were probably finding places in South Bend to have dinner or whatever, and he said, ‘What if we invite them all over to my house for dinner?’
“That wasn’t what I expected, but somehow we got the info to the media people, we had BBQ and some adult beverages and we watched a little football at Lou’s house. It was mindboggling. This is arguably the biggest football game (Notre Dame) had played in a while and this is what Lou Holtz wants to do on Thursday night? But then again, they had been off the previous week so, in some ways, that’s how comfortable they were from a football standpoint and a preparation standpoint.”
Fowler doesn’t remember attending the shindig but says that get-togethers like that were common back in those days when media groups were smaller and tight-knit. Still, like Heisler, many were surprised by the event.
“Now that I think about it, it was pretty incredible that it happened,” noted Tim Prister, senior editor at IrishIllustrated.com, who had been on the Notre Dame beat for 12 years at that point. “Those kinds of things don’t happen anymore, and I think that just kind of explained the magnitude of the whole week. And it was the perfect day for ESPN GameDay to be there because that game was just that big.”
By contrast, the actual taping of the show turned out to be a small, low-key affair. Heisler recalls the network not wanting to take a chance on the weather in northern Indiana in November (even though the temperatures reached the 60s that day), so the set was inside on the second floor of the ACC in Heritage Hall near the Monogram Room.
“It wasn’t a huge gathering,” said Tim O’Malley, a Notre Dame junior in 1993. “A lot of people were passing through like any other time, just looking at the monogram names and trophies. We knew who Fowler and those guys were, but it certainly wasn’t a big deal. Now they have celebrity status. There were no signs and there was a spattering of applause once in a while.”
“We went for the last segment they taped after the game,” added James Carrig, a Milwaukee lawyer who was in his last year of law school at Notre Dame at the time. “There were probably about four other people up there besides me, my now-wife, my friend Eric and his now-wife and our friend Frank.
“We actually had a chance to talk to Beano Cook after they were done and packing up. We talked about the Ivy League schools and about the best route back to Chicago to catch their flight out of O’Hare (Airport). It was very casual, and they were very approachable.”
Notre Dame, of course, went on to win, 31-24, and ESPN had a hit in the making.
“I think we felt like it was worth doing again, we learned a lot from it and it was a blast,” Fowler said. “I got to watch from the sidelines, and it was a game that didn’t disappoint. So the network viewed it as a success and we went on the road six times in ’94 (the first was a matchup between sixth-ranked Michigan and third-ranked Notre Dame in which the Wolverines came out on top) and then every week the next year. We went from zero to 100 percent in a short period of time, and that game 25 years ago was the spark to all of it.”
Including this year’s season-opener against Michigan, the Irish are now 13-16 in games where GameDay has been on location. Some memorable games and others that Notre Dame fans would prefer to forget:
- A 38-10 thrashing of fifth-ranked USC by the No. 17 Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in 1995
- The 36-20 toppling of No. 5 and co-defending national champ Michigan at home in 1998
- The “Bush Push” game versus No. 1-ranked USC in ’05 in which the Trojans prevailed
- The 20-13 overtime victory over No. 17 Stanford in 2012 in which the Irish stood up the Cardinal four times at the goal line (the record has since been vacated by a discretionary NCAA ruling)
- The driving rain from Hurricane Joaquin during Notre Dame’s first trip to Death Valley in which it came up just short against 12th-ranked Clemson in 2015
Through it all, GameDay has grown and improved, but its most basic elements have stayed the same.
“You want to start wide and then narrow it down to the essential information — who’s going to win and why,” Fowler explained. “Everything kind of builds and then you get more serious as it gets closer to kickoff because that’s what the audience wants. The show has gotten longer, but it’s a formula that hasn’t been messed with a whole lot. It has a very strong identity, and a very good connection with what the viewer wants.”
Happy anniversary ESPN College GameDay, and here’s to many more.