GameDay’s makeshift conference room is in a curtained-off, circular space on the second floor of Auburn’s Student Activities Building. The carpet is ugly. The wood table is round, hollow and strewn with wires, devices, snacks and beverages. It is TV, so silent minions scurry around with lunch orders in Styrofoam containers.
The atmosphere is familial, but not in a clichéd, bullshit way. It resembles an actual family. Power dynamics are settled. There’s no need for excess conversation. People lean back in chairs. Desmond Howard, eating from a Planters tin, gives a loud “oooh” after a vicious hit in the Nebraska vs. Iowa game. Teasing is frequent but defanged.
College Football GameDay is a phenomenon. Its reception, unheard of for an ESPN product, is almost uncritical. It is, with the possible exception of Inside the NBA, the only pregame show that merits appointment viewing. One could argue its importance has gone well beyond that, forging a national college football culture, from what was a regional sport. Much of the credit for that success resides with Fowler. As Tom Rinaldi put it, listing basic reasons why the show worked, “Fowler is ridiculous.”
Colleagues love recounting him ad-libbing coverage of the Harvard-Yale tailgate death in 2011, with producers reading him news reports through an ear piece. But greatness can often be a more mundane, every day thing.
Fowler, laid back in a grey flannel shirt and jeans I wish I could get my Dad to wear, steers the discussion through the opening segments. With it being rivalry week, the lede is obvious. Fowler wants to know if Auburn, Florida and Michigan all being double-digit home underdogs in those games has happened before. He suggests opening with a shot of treeless Toomer’s Corner. He questions how the show should handle the Jameis Winston allegation. He wants to know about potential Pac 12 bowl ramifications.
It’s clear Fowler is not forming his framework for how the show should play out. He’s refining it. After about 15 minutes, I look over and realize he’s not using any notes.
“I’d rather be at the end of the line than here at 4:00,” said one clearly rational student just arriving. Another, shivering from more than cold, yells out “Does anybody have a lighter?” Many carry signs. Some are intricate: Saban and McCarron photoshopped fireside with matching turtlenecks. Some – MCCARRON SUPPORTS OBAMACARE in block script – are a bit more blunt.
Most signs make it in. The Auburn Tiger faux-fellating an Alabama Elephant’s trunk does not. GameDay does not have a set system for removing signs. The process is far from perfect. But staffers try to weed out those that may incite complaints as people enter. “It is a Disney company,” murmurs ESPN PR.
6:05 AM… Call times, and early Sportscenter hits, appear to be distributed by seniority. Thus Paul Finebaum, a fixture on just about every “most powerful people in the SEC” list, is first through the door. Polite, pensive and reserved, Finebaum has far more writer in him than brash radio host. The makeup artist takes one look at him, exclaims “Damn it” and runs out of the room causing him to jump. It’s not made clear what faux pas he committed.
David Pollack, still with the restless energy of an athlete, is a work in progress. He’s soon shirtless in the middle of the conference room, struggling his way into a dress shirt. Ponder makes an inaudible comment to him. Pollack laughs about her saying the word “nipple.”
Pollack loops his belt over the visible cardboard tag on a brand new pair of pants. He forgot to pack his original pair, and intends to return this one after the show. Handlers help him knot his tie and fold his collar correctly. Finally, he’s ready to go on air.
6:25 AM… Habits spread like a common cold with prolonged proximity. Roommates dress alike. Baseball players cultivate absurd chin beards. GameDay personalities have a penchant for kids’ cereals. I interview Finebaum while he eats a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He asserts that he “never eats sugar at home.” Rinaldi, with shirt unbuttoned and surprising good cheer for an elicitor of so many tears, tries to sell me on a nutritious bowl of Frosted Flakes.
6:55 AM… Initially, there are few signs of nerves. Producer Lee Fitting ribs Finebaum for contentedly watching himself on television. Howard, the Michigan Man, receives the red color-coded note cards. “My legacy is set,” he notes. “I can’t control what those other guys do.” Herbstreit is laughing, joking around and having Sharpies tossed to him from across the room. Fitting announces to me he’s off the record, blurts out a comment he was right to put off the record, then puts me back on the record.
As the show approaches, the tenor changes. Howard pores over his notes silently. Herbstreit rearranges seats around the table. He wants researcher Chris Fallica next to him as a reference while he spends the next half hour going over his notes.
7:20 AM… Fowler is trying to get a better handle on the Bo Pelini situation. The Nebraska coach had another characteristic strop during a home loss to Iowa. Media members speculate he could or should be fired. Fowler, while getting his makeup done, cites a local media poll, with more than 10,000 respondents, showing 53 percent of Nebraska fans want Pelini back.
Quarterback guru George Whitfield, still new to TV, asks Herbstreit for advice about what information he should present during his segment. Herbstreit instructs him to “think small.”
7:55 AM… Auburn cheerleaders and dance team members fill the pit between the fans and the stage, leading the crowd in intermittent Bodygetta chants (Weagle, Weagle, War Damn Eagle). Aubie the Tiger shimmies his head repeatedly and uses his tail as a guitar. Excitement builds. Cast members arrive on set to loud cheers. WE ARE COMIN, TO YOUR CITAY…
8:05 AM… Chris Fowler runs through the day’s big games. Fans, watching the large monitor, react accordingly. Auburn is cheered. Alabama is booed. Ohio State, with Auburn fans already planning ahead, receives “overrated” chants. A look in at Florida vs. Florida State inspires a rousing chorus of “SEC! SEC.”
During the commercial break. Fans are informed ahead of time the show will be discussing Jameis Winston. A PA announcer asks fans to “please show us some respect.” Fans comply.
8:35 AM… The smooth viewer product is one monitor, amidst a sea of screens, buttons, wires and equipment. Fitting and his production staff operate with a calm familiarity and competence, flipping between shots and coordinating with cameramen on site. “I need a War Eagle sign.”
Three hours of live television is spelled out to the second in a meticulous nine-page script. Each segment, shot, graphic and highlight package is marked and labeled. It was edited before, during and after the production meeting. It will be edited on the fly during the show.
There are moments of tension. Twenty-eight seconds is too long of a turnaround to get a shot of Jameis Winston exiting the bus on screen. There is a mad scramble to get Kirk Herbstreit a note card, with Fitting crying out “GET KIRK THE CARD.” An underling has the temerity to enter the room and tap Fitting on the shoulder about something trivial while the show is taping.
Such moments are small, but essential. GameDay is a grind. Live TV is stressful. Travel, for 15-straight weekends, is stressful, especially when it is a hurried Week 14 following a holiday. It’s Fitting, the boss, who often cuts the tension, sets the tone and keeps things lighthearted. GameDay is not just a tolerable place to work. It’s one that some of ESPN’s most talented figures go out of their way and feel privileged to be a part of.
9:06 AM… First alcohol sighting of the day on the short walk between the truck and the set. A purported grown man walks the sidewalk between tailgating tents, drinking a Bud Light Lime out of a beer koozie. The mimosas in stadium-style beer cups are saved for a more reasonable hour, around 10:00.
9:25 AM… Paul Finebaum is not popular with Auburn fans. He waits on the secondary stage for an interview with Fowler. He is pelted with boos and the odd insult. He handles it calmly. He has been there before. Coming off stage he notes the booing was so loud he could not hear Fowler’s question in his ear piece, the first time that has happened.
10:15 AM… Charles Barkley makes a brief appearance before heading off to the bus. He exchanges pleasantries with Pollack and Whitfield, as well as former American Idol winner (and Auburn student) Taylor Hicks. (Confession: had to Google him.) Shockingly, Barkley does not feel Auburn, winning out, should miss out on the BCS title game. “Can we really have a championship game without an SEC team?”
It’s not anything specific with the content. It’s just too much. GameDay added an extra hour from 9-12 ET for the 2013 season. No one needs that much pregame hype, even if it is well produced. Far more pleasurable activities breed restlessness and boredom after three hours. This is about the time, at home, I would walk my dog or flip back over to the EPL match. The sun glare becomes noticeable. Minutes seem to both extend and disappear.
10:55 AM… The energy has returned. Scores of Auburn VIPs crowd the back stage area. Fans have filled in around the periphery. Finebaum has returned from the bus to soak it in. Ponder captures the moment on her camera phone. Joe “Tree” Andreasen, assistant in charge of all things mascot, live animal and weapon-related, is crouched behind the GameDay desk, sheltering an unknown object. Lee Corso, still very much the emotional center of the show, is about to make his pick.
We all know what is coming. Alabama is a double-digit favorite. Vegas prop bets on Corso’s pick are offering a $10 wager to win $0.63. It does not dampen the anticipation a bit. Corso cues Sweet Home Alabama, slips on the mascot head and tries to slap Barkley with the trunk. ROLL TIDE.
[Photos via Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images]