TUSCALOOSA – I’ll be honest: I was late to College GameDay. But it was a Saturday and no reasonable person other than an ER doctor or Jon Gruden should be awake at 7 a.m. on the weekend. The ESPN college football pregame show tentpole made its first trip to the University of Alabama in two years for this year’s installation of the LSU-Alabama rivalry this weekend, and it was an experience. This wasn’t the 2011 “Game of the Century,” but the buzz was similar.
“It’s LSU and Alabama, and that's become as much a fixture of GameDay as any game,” College GameDay host Chris Fowler said. “This has been as meaningful a rivalry in the big picture as any in the country.”
A marginal crowd had amassed in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium, in full view of bronzed statues of former Alabama coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and current Alabama coach Nick Saban, and behind a mass of steel scaffolding and television screens that had been assembled in the days prior. This crowd was dressed, ready, probably drunk, and came with signs that said things like “Les Miles created healthcare.gov” or “TIGERS BLEAUX” or “I spit game like Lou Holtz.” But instead of wading through a crowd that cheered at every image of something red and booed at every mention of the words “LSU,” “Auburn,” or “Tennessee,” I was able to get backstage and watch the entire show from a designated media perch, three feet behind the stationary cameras that were broadcasting the show watched by millions each weekend.
If you’ve ever been to any sort of television show taping, you’ll know that most of what is seen is largely manufactured. The cheering, laughing and other things that should happen organically, are created by a man with a headset waving his arms around, signaling the crowd to react. College GameDay is no different. When Lee Corso put on the head of Alabama’s elephant mascot Big Al, the fans didn’t have to be coaxed into yelling their approval. But hooting and hollering coming in and out of a commercial is not normal behavior, that’s TV magic.
For their eighth trip to Tuscaloosa, College GameDay and their staff are basically locals. They know the five places to eat, they know the atmosphere and the fanbase, and they know that a major program like Alabama is experienced enough to deal with their presence.
“We love coming here,” ESPN Radio host Ryen Russillo said, before going to do seven hours of live radio. “We’ll go to some programs that make it difficult for us, or restrict access, but the bigger programs – Alabama, Oregon, LSU – know to let us in. We’re here to make your program look good, so embrace it.”
And Alabama has embraced it. There was an entire day where ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi went inside the athletic department and hung out with Saban and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. (Getting a one-on-one interview with them is as hard as licking your elbow.) Around campus, College GameDay does seem to bring a sort of heavily sponsored circus with them, with tents from Geico, Traveler’s, Allstate, and more hawking free t-shirts and beer koozies in exchange for some personal information. (There’s a chance you get your identity stolen, but you get a free shirt!) But on set, it’s a very calculated, well-oiled traveling circus. Reporters, analysts and guests are ushered in and out through a portioned-off section of a bivouacked mass of unshaven college kids and adults who are too old to be making signs that say “LSU fans will twerk for corndogs.”
The normal ESPN cavalcade of stars was there – Rinaldi, Gene Wojciechowski, David Pollack, Desmond Howard – but the one who created the largest response from the spectators was the SEC’s Prince of Darkness, Paul Finebaum. Finebaum made his triumphant return to the place that helps him afford the presumably expensive clear-framed glasses that he wears. After having hosted his daily redneck caller mediation radio show from Birmingham for two decades, he moved his show to Charlotte when he signed with ESPN. But his fans live where College GameDay was this week. Fowler credited the hire and said that the bespectacled radio host been a nice addition to the ever-increasing lineup.
“Paul's brought what we thought he'd bring: He's brought sparks,” Fowler said. “Anybody who's familiar with his radio show knows that he's great at provoking opinions and getting that out of other people and that's what he's done a good job of. When you see him on our TV show, it's a different role for him. He's kind of the puppet-master on his radio show and moderates between the crazy callers, on our show he gives pretty strong opinions and he's much more vocal. He's not a traffic cop, he's just an analyst and he's encouraged to speak his mind.”
After the red lights went off and the headgear was put away, GameDay packed up, fed its crew that had been awake a lot longer than I had with BBQ from Birmingham’s Jim N’ Nick’s, and moved on, out to Los Angeles next Saturday for Stanford-USC. But its trip to Tuscaloosa, and the ability to watch it from the eyes of those that make it was second to none.
College GameDay and Alabama football need each other. Actually, Alabama football would be fine without a gigantic stage clogging up the Walk of Champions walkway, but the two programs have a symbiotic relationship. The Alabama fanbase is dedicated to their team and outward displays of passion that create a reputation for rabid fandom, GameDay’s sole responsibility is to document that aforementioned nuttyness and broadcast it nationally.
Tom Rinaldi makes his living by telling worthy stories and mostly making people cry to his piano-laden features, but he summed up Gameday in Tuscaloosa in a typical Rinaldi word tapestry.
“[GameDay’s Senior Coordinating Producer] Lee Fitting and I were saying how much we enjoy coming to Tuscaloosa for the whole experience of it,” Rinaldi said. “There's just a great, real passion here. It's one of the most impassioned places in the country, in one of the sports that draws the greatest passion.”
Like the football games themselves, College GameDay has made a traveling pregame show into a weekly ritual, one that only the passionate can fully understand.