Behind the Scenes at College Game Day

(See more about the AL-UT Mashup)

Behind the Scenes at College Game Day

By Emily Schumacher (Texas) and Robert Cortez (Alabama)

The chairs on the set awaited the crew. Analysts Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis and Lee Corso hadn’t set foot on the premises yet.

Behind the deserted College GameDay desk, a crowd of hundreds flooded the LBJ Presidential Library lawn in Austin, Texas. It sounded like a rock concert. Front-row fans pressed against a metal barricade. Some had arrived at 6 p.m. the night before. The sun had barely risen, but the campus of the University of Texas already felt sticky, the air thick, for the Texas vs. Alabama game. No one seemed to care. 

A DJ blared music. Students held signs. One accused Alabama head coach Nick Saban of putting ketchup on brisket. Another noted the school’s acceptance rate. “Opinions on a stick,” ESPN staffers call the program staple. Hours later, golfer Scottie Scheffler, a former Longhorn from Dallas, accepted the PGA Tour player of the year award from his college coach, John Fields. In its eighth visit to Texas since 1999, GameDay captured it all on live television.

Twenty-nine years have passed since ESPN launched its iconic, roving pregame college football show. GameDay now is as much a tradition as the game it celebrates.

The first traveling episode was filmed in South Bend, Indiana, on Nov. 13, 1993. On that day, Chris Fowler and Lee Corso stood inside an empty Notre Dame stadium hours before the Fighting Irish ruined the Florida State Seminoles’ perfect season. The commentators pointed to the snow-covered field chatting about the congested visitor sidelines. A news desk was set up in the Joyce Center, where fans stood feet away from the cameras and yelled over the crew. 

The simple studio show caught the country’s attention. Now, over 100 campuses have hosted College Gameday. Each week the pre-game show travels to a highly-anticipated contest, usually within the Power Five conferences. It often highlights long-standing rivalries and games against top-ranked teams, as it did when No. 1-ranked Alabama beat the Longhorns by a point.

Occasionally the spotlight falls on a school hidden from the noise. Williams College is the only Division III school on the show’s repertoire. The ESPN crew wants the best story of the week, not just the biggest game. What started as a 90-minute program has transitioned into a show spanning hours with a loyal following.  Each college’s unique traditions are showcased by the traveling show. The goal of the show is to transport viewers to a scene filled with school spirit and pride. 

“You might not ever really get a sense of what Saturday morning in Eugene, Oregon, is like when you’re doing a show before dawn and they’re out celebrating their animal house roots at 6 a.m.,” said Davis, a GameDay host since 2015. “When the show comes on West Coast time, you get a chance to experience that even if you’re from a different part of the country.”

The location changes each week. But the show’s rituals remain consistent. Fans hold signs expressing their opinion on the opposing team. School flags are flown regardless of that week’s location.  Longtime crew member Lee Corso chooses his game picks every week by donning a mascot head. This custom began at Ohio State University when Kirk Herbstreit's wife borrowed the Brutus Buckeye headpiece from the cheer squad in 1996. That was nearly 400 picks ago.

“College football is bigger than all of us,” said GameDay coordinating producer Drew Gallagher. “Lee Corso putting on the mascot head every week is part of the fabric of the sport.”

Celebrity guest pickers were more recently added to the show's lineup. In the show’s last 15 minutes the guest joins the crew on stage for game picks. Guest pickers usually have a tie to the hosting university. Previous patrons have included Will Ferrell at USC and Matthew McConaughey at Texas.

Show content goes beyond statistics and predictions. The crew broadcasts short documentary-style segments, often emotional stories of loss and grief within the football community.  Past pieces include a Clemson offensive lineman’s tribute to a sister he lost to brain cancer or Uvalde’s first football game after the slayings on May 24 at Robb Elementary School. Davis sometimes watches the pieces beforehand to prevent tears. The goal is to touch viewers on a human level. 

Gallagher refers to the staff as the “keepers of the flame.” Every member endeavors to protect the GameDay brand with the hopes that the show will continue for decades.

Special features and traditions provide entertainment but must not be overdone. Multiple sportscasters discussing games in a roundtable setting provide the backbone of the show. The framework revolves around preparing the audience for that specific day of football. College GameDay strives not to focus on previous or upcoming matchups but rather to introduce the characters within college football for that day.

Backstage, the crew oversees every detail from venue safety to content. A truck on site is filled with the production crew observing to make sure no cameras are blocked by signs and that operations run smoothly. The team consists of around 100 people who travel with the show every week. There are no off days during the season. Production calls occur on Monday mornings where the rundown for next Saturday emerges. On-camera leads are outlined and game matchup discussions develop as the week proceeds. Constant conversation ensues with coordinators, coaches and players. No teleprompters are used once the cameras start rolling so preparation is crucial.

Multiple truck drivers transport the set across the country. Driving through blizzards is not uncommon later in the season. Tractor-trailer trucks roll into campus on Wednesday night and set up begins Thursday morning. It takes around five hours to construct the physical set before technicians begin to assemble cameras and audio equipment. Friday is filled with sound checks and the final production meeting where last-minute cuts and additions to the content discussed occur. Call time is around 3 a.m. on Saturday, by which time fans have been waiting for hours. Managing producer Lindsey Lloyd controls the chaos on game day. Organizing logistics for landing a Black Hawk chopper on location or handling additional security for a politician falls under Lloyd’s job description.

“All the chaos, all the crazy moments, it’s my job to execute those,” Lloyd said. “We have people pitch good fictitious ideas, but they don’t know how to execute it. It’s our job (to take) the vision from an onscreen angle and then making sure every aspect of that is covered.”

Back in Austin, the commentators maneuvered to Darrell K Royal Stadium through the 105,213 spectators streaming inside. Texas alum Glen Powell joined the crew in the stadium for game picks. The Top Gun actor wore a burnt orange jersey and blonde mullet wig, a nod to Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers. Taping ceased at the opening kick. Crews began dismantling the set, bound for Appalachian State.

Most of the crew flew to Hartford, Connecticut, while watching the game on airplane wifi. This procedure will repeat itself until early January.

“This is even bigger than just having the game inventories. There’s a deeper level of affiliation and connection with college football fans to their team,” Davis said. “I think it’s become part of the landscape of a Saturday morning. I don’t know if it’s changed it as much as it’s captured it. And it’s allowed people to see things they ordinarily might not.”