College GameDay returns to Gainesville


Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.

ESPN's College GameDay returns to Gainesville for this Saturday's South Carolina-Florida game.

Florida is making its 35th appearance on the popular show, a number that leads the nation. This will be the program's first appearance in Gainesville since Nov. 28, 2009, a 37-10 Florida victory over Florida State. UF has already appeared twice on the program this season in consecutive weeks, a 20-17 win over Texas A&M in College Station on Sept. 8 and a 37-20 victory over No. 23 Tennessee on Sept. 15 in Knoxville.

The show, with a 10 a.m. start, will be stationed outside the North End Zone of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Former Gator swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte will be the celebrity guest picker on College GameDay.

GameDay airs live from Gainesville

*Editors Note: This article published on October 9, 2006 after No. 5 Florida defeated No. 9 LSU 23-10.

The countdown begins four minutes before airtime.

Here, inside a white tractor-trailer bed, a bank of more than 100 monitors displays a collage of college football enthusiasm.

There's plenty to choose from. Tight shots of orange-and-blue-clad students screaming madly. Wide shots of the palm tree-lined entrance to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

As the digital clock counts closer to 9:57 a.m., assistant producer Lee Fitting opens his microphone, which feeds into the earpiece of ESPN GameDay show host Chris Fowler.

"Big open, here, Chris," Fitting said. "Really sell it."

As 10 a.m. quickly approaches, the crew of eight inside the cramped trailer stays loose. "Just sit back and enjoy yourselves," coordinating producer Michael Fountain said.

In the final 30 seconds, director Scott Flavora readies the cameras for the rapid-fire shots that compose the opening of the show. Go time. Flavora begins with a wide shot of the crowd, dissolving into the introduction. Fowler sells it, as he's done the past 20 years.

To many, ESPN's College GameDay is the popular pregame show that sets the stage for pigskin fall Saturdays. It centers on the enlightening and entertaining threesome of Fowler and analysts Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso.

That's what the country sees. What's behind it is a production that involves close to 70 staff members, five trailers, three satellite uplinks and more than 1,000 feet of cable.

"It's a big operation," said Craig Lazarus, ESPN vice president of studio production, who has overseen the show the last two years. "In terms of putting it all together, a lot of it is teamwork. When everyone works together, it clicks."

In its 20th season overall and 13th on the road, the live show has been interrupted just once. Lightning struck near the set four years ago when GameDay went to West Point, N.Y., to feature an Army game.

Other than that, it has survived weekly throngs of passionate fans, wacky weather and other surprises. The Sun went behind the scenes during the GameDay broadcast this weekend for the Florida-LSU game to see how the show comes together.

The day before

Herbstreit and Fowler arrive at their rooms in the Hilton hotel via police escort early Friday afternoon after their connecting flight from Atlanta into Gainesville was delayed. Because the plane lands at close to noon, the two have to contend with Homecoming parade traffic.

Fowler thumbs through numerous highlighted SEC game notes and two stacks of paper, each about 2 inches thick.

"This one is the top secret pile," Fowler said, referring to information obtained exclusively through ESPN's research department.

Fowler said he often catches up on research during flights or on long nights in his hotel room. Often, he stays up until 2 a.m. the night before the show and wakes up at 6.

Corso drives from his home in Orlando and makes it to Gainesville early Friday afternoon. All three are prompt for a 2:30 p.m. planning meeting inside the cramped on-site trailer. During the hourlong meeting, the three review storylines with Fountain and Lazarus.

To the left of the door inside the trailer are buckets filled with assorted pick-me-ups - candy bards, vitamins, Nutri-Grain bars, Advil, cough syrup, wheat bread. There's also a shelf filled with sunscreen, which comes in handy for warm-weather sites.

Researchers and assistant producers pound away at four laptops, scouring databases for information. One researcher, Chris Falica, alerts Fowler on the status of Florida running back DeShawn Wynn, who is questionable with a knee sprain, and receiver Percy Harvin, probable with a high ankle sprain.

"Even (Saturday) morning, we'll be scanning the articles," Falica said. "It's rare something breaks, but if it does we'll hand him a card. Usually, it's injuries. That and weather. We check weather.com to try to get the latest weather at certain sites."

The set is ready on Friday for three taped shots to air on SportsCenter and ESPNews. Construction began Thursday night and concluded Friday morning under the watchful eye of operations manager Don Larick. It took a crew of 30 nearly five hours to put it together.

The set travels from its home base in West River, Mich., via tractor trailer to 14 different sites throughout the season.

"It's a traveling road show," Larick said. "For 14 straight weeks, we build a stage and put it down."

Between smatterings of cream applied by makeup artist Donna Martin, Herbstreit acknowledges the grind of his current schedule. On Thursday night, Herbstreit and Fowler were in the broadcast booth for N.C. State's upset of Florida State. Herbstreit also has been calling Saturday night prime-time games for ABC.

"You do it for so long, you kind of forget people, places," Herbstreit said. "You're still thinking about that rental car not working, the hotel room not being ready, the flight being delayed.

"On Sunday, you go back home and you're just comatose. You take the full day to rest. Then Monday it's another conference call, another planning meeting.

"It's still a dream job. I just get caught up in the excitement of the crowd and the buildup to the game. Besides my family (Herbstreit and wife, Allison, have four young sons, ranging from 6 to two months), my passion is college football."

Earlier in the afternoon, Herbstreit phoned Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe to gain some insight on Florida's defense.

"I do a lot of calls to coaches," Herbstreit said. "I really like discussing the different philosophies, the different strategies. Reading articles provides some of the background, but for the most part I view my job as telling the audience who is going to win and why."

With the makeup session done, Herbstreit heads to the set for the first of the three tapings. Corso wears faded blue jeans and white Air Jordan sneakers to go with his navy blue sportcoat and red tie. Herbstreit and Fowler wear shorts and sneakers with their suit jackets.

An associate producer gives Corso a quick rundown of what he will be talking about during the first taping, "Just a quick rundown on Miami," the producer says. "Where are they? Where do they go from here? Is their season over?"

About two dozen onlookers from the W. University Avenue sidewalk watch as the cameras roll.

"Miami, not dead yet," Corso says. "You've got North Carolina, Florida International and Duke coming up - all three winnable games. Then at Georgia Tech, and at home against Virginia Tech. You want to win the ACC, Miami, here's your chance. It's right there in front of you."

Unlike Herbstreit, Corso said he rarely talks to coaches.

"I know it," said the 69-year-old Corso, a former college head coach at Indiana, Louisville and assistant coach at Florida State. "I've lived it. About 80 percent of the situations that these coaches have been in, I've been in."

Saturday showtime

Staff and hosts arrive for a 7:30 a.m. production meeting. By then, crowds already are starting to gather, in search of prime positions in front of the sponsor-draped bicycle racks that serve as fences. Many are students, some in tank tops, some shirtless with body paint.

Corso, Herbstreit and Fowler reach the stage amid raucous cheers for a 9:20 a.m. preview of the upcoming show, which airs live on SportsCenter. This time, all three wear full suits.

About 10 minutes before airtime, Fowler addresses the crowd, which has grown more than 30 deep to near the stadium entrance, "It's great to be back in the SEC," he says. "It's long overdue. Last time we were here, it was three years and most of you were probably in high school."

Fowler then surveys the signs and instructs the crowd, "Keep in mind that it's two hours and it's a national show, so we can't talk about Florida all the time. We want you to be loud, but be respectful. Show the country why you are the best fans in college football."

Assorted signs spring up. One reads "Even FEMA can't stop this Leak." Others include "Geaux Tigers" and "Leak for Heisman." There's even a random Washington State University flag waving in the distance.

Florida coach Urban Meyer doesn't make an appearance on the set, but his wife, Shelly, does. She's hoisted into the air by UF male cheerleaders, visible in the camera shot behind the set where the GameDay triumvirate is perched.

There are three cameras on stage, marked one, two and three, and one on a boom that's hoisted up and down for wider crowd shots. A second camera held up on a boom takes shots of a crowd from behind the set. Both are operated by freelancers hired by ESPN and balanced with close to 250 pounds of free weights.

A hand-held camera takes shots of the crowd gathered on W. University Avenue. Students light up when the cameras approach. Many scream "Go Gators" and point to their Florida gear.

Also on the left corner of the stage is a zipped, blue duffel bag. It holds the mascot head that Corso will wear when he picks the Florida-LSU game, which has become a staple of the show.

During the broadcast, the analysts make salient points. Herbstreit declares LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pellini as "the best defensive mind in college football." Corso ranks his top four college football defenses. The crowd lights up when he ranks Florida fourth. But boos follow when SEC rivals Georgia, LSU and Auburn are ranked third through first respectively.

At 11:40, the blue duffel bag moves behind the set, as the show winds down to its final picks segment. A taped feature on Florida's use of quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow precedes the picks. Fowler then sets up Corso and Herbstreit on the big games of the day, with Corso and Herbstreit disagreeing on Oklahoma-Texas (Corso picks Oklahoma, Herbstreit Texas). Then, as the clock ticks to noon, Herbstreit chooses LSU, based on the strength of its defense. The duffel bag opens and out pops the Gator mascot head. A deafening roar follows. Corso puts on the mascot head and extends his arms in a Gator chomp, to the delight of the crowd

Quick change

Shortly after Corso dons his Gator head, crewmembers surround the stage. Part of the conditions for broadcasting GameDay from its W. University Avenue location was to clear the promenade entering Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in time for Gator Walk, when Florida players enter the stadium.

The crew has an hour to strike the stage. Before the end of the live show, some non-essential lights and cameras already were cleared. Then, it's lifting 15 four-by-six-foot plastic panels. Each one weighs 150 pounds. Below are eight, black-colored iron supports that are cleared to the side, away from the stadium entrance.

It takes about 20 crewmembers a little more than 20 minutes to dismantle the stage.

"We may have done it too good," Larick said. "Now they might ask, maybe we could have done a little more taping. But it was the first time we ever tried anything like this. There was the unknown there, and we wanted to leave ourselves enough time."

Crew member Justin Enders takes a well-deserved lunch break after helping strike the set.

"It went very smoothly," Enders said. "A lot of us have been working together seven, eight, nine years or more, so I wasn't surprised."

Fowler, Corso and Herbstreit head toward the orange bus parked across the street in front of the Delta Tau Delta house. Police escort them across the street. Herbstreit recalled an incident at an earlier Gainesville show when a woman tried to jump on his back.

"The police formed a tunnel for us," Herbstreit said. "It can get a little scary at times, but for the most part, I always feel like we're well-protected."

To ensure safety, close to 30 uniformed Gainesville Police officers and Alachua County Sheriff's deputies work the GameDay detail.

After some obligatory pictures with sponsors and VIPs, the three TV hosts then step into the bus. Inside are five televisions, where the three can break down different games from the afternoon.

"The best part of my job," Herbstreit said. "I'm a fan like anyone else, yelling, throwing things at the TV. And you're rooting for the teams you pick because the fans hold you so accountable for it. If Lee and I pick opposite teams, we'll be throwing things at each other, yelling at each other. It's all in good fun."

Later in the afternoon, Herbstreit will take in the Florida-LSU game from the sidelines. "That's something I'm looking forward to," Herbstreit said. "Doing the ABC games at night, I usually don't get the chance to get the feel from the game down there."

Winding down

It's 9:15 p.m., a little less than two hours after Florida's 23-10 win against LSU. W. University Avenue is strangely silent.

Crowds are gone. On stage, a solitary camera remains. Herbstreit is scheduled for a 9:45 p.m. shoot for halftime of ABC's Oregon-California game.

Crew-members already begin striking the set. Cables are disconnected. Cameras are disassembled. Sounds of carts being wheeled and boxes being shut echo through the still, October evening.

"If all goes smoothly," Larick says. "We'll be out of here by midnight."

Already, the focus shifts to next week. Crew members speculate they'll be at Auburn for its game with Florida, thanks to the UF win. Had Auburn, an upset victim to Arkansas earlier in the afternoon, and Florida both lost, then Michigan-Penn State would have become the stronger option.

Lazarus said the decision on the site occurs during a Monday morning conference call. Herbstreit, Fowler and Corso all have input. Eventually, ESPN executive vice president of production Norby Williams needs to sign off on the decision later that morning.

Choosing sites can be tricky and is sometimes second-guessed by fans who feel like their teams are being slighted.

"It's all part of the formula," Lazarus said. "We're looking for the best game. We're looking to mix in all of the conferences. We've been to five different conferences in five weeks.

"With Kirk doing the night games for ABC now, that certainly plays into it. You want to try to make things convenient for him. Earlier this year, when we did Nebraska-USC, it was an intriguing matchup because the two teams hadn't played since 1970. We also did the Bayou Classic (Grambling-Southern) last year. So we're also looking at different sites, games that are unique."

Wherever GameDay ends up, a set will again need to rise from nothing. Cables will re-connect and more candy and vitamins will fuel the staff through the day. When you live this carnival existence, the show, as they say, must go on.

Contact Kevin Brockway at 374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com.

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