Mac Engel

GameDay at TCU, another reason why college beats the NFL

Rece Davis can only promise a piece on “TCU quarterback Kenny Hill, and a heavy TCU presence in the show” for ESPN’s College GameDay show on Saturday morning from Fort Worth.

The ESPN anchor can’t give us the name of the Celebrity Picker, nor will he venture a guess as to what mascot head analyst Lee Corso will wear during his prediction.

Who cares? They’re all here for TCU/West Virginia, and that’s a major win for Fort Worth, TCU and all of Texas, too.

The Celebrity Picker is often a last-second exercise in crisis management, so there is a good chance ESPN doesn’t have a firm “yes” from anybody. May I suggest TCU icon Dan Jenkins, or local TV sports personalities Dale Hansen, of The New York Times fame, or Randy Galloway.

Saturday will be the 300th time GameDay personality Corso will wear the giant mascot head as part of what has become one of the great traditions in the sport, and one of the many reasons why college football is doing better in the ratings than the NFL.

The arrival of GameDay to your town is a weekly validation of any program, and has become part of the fabric of college football. I turn on the three-hour show as part of a Saturday a.m. soundtrack.

Along with Inside the NBA on TNT, College GameDay is the best “studio” show in sports television. ESPN catches a lot of heat, much of it deserved, but next to “30 for 30,” College GameDay remains its best product.

Sports is a multi-billion dollar business with serious financial concerns. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. College football, thanks in part to GameDay, sells fun and unpredictable chaos better than anything the NFL does, which is too rooted in corporate structure.

“And the passion is greater because usually the people are attached to the team in some way,” Davis told me in phone interview this week.

ESPN spends a small fortune on the production of this show, the cast of characters are all pros who genuinely enjoy this profession, and each other. The inclusion of the crowds makes for one of the most consistent pieces of quality television in sports today.

Where GameDay is going is a point of debate, and national concern. For instance, when GameDay announced a few weeks ago it was going to Times Square in NYC, people, like me, complained.

“I was glad we went to New York City, but I was glad to see people were mad about it,” Davis said. “It meant people still care.”

ESPN managed to turn a nothing — people just talking — into an event.

“It’s the personalities that foster that,” Davis said. “Guys have chemistry, or they don’t. We are really fortunate in that there is nothing you see on TV that isn’t genuine. I know they won’t like the adjective, but the relationship between [analyst] Kirk Herbstreit and Coach [Corso] is really sweet. I think people recognize it’s warm and sincere.

“But the guy who makes this all comes together is Coach. He says it all the time, ‘We’re here to entertain and our vehicle is football.’"

Corso is the heart of this show. He is 82 and suffered a stroke several years ago; he appears to have regained most of the necessary motor skills to be good at what he does, which is to be a ham.

For a while it was a struggle to watch him because it was obvious his brain worked fine but his mouth simply could not process and verbalize what he wanted to say. Through therapy, persistence and rehab, he’s clearly improved.

Much like Dick Vitale is a reason why ESPN’s branding with college basketball thrived, Corso is of equal if not greater stature with this show and college football.

He makes it go, and whenever he decides to leave it won’t be the same.

“It’s something I really don’t think about,” Davis said. “Here is the best way I can answer it: my favorite call of the off-season was when Coach called me to say he had just signed a new contract. We savor it because we savor every college football Saturday. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. So worrying about something like that ... I mean, he’s still killing them. I’m just grateful to recognize the place he is in the sport.”

College football has, and will always have, its problems. How it looks and functions today may be altered dramatically when the next round of conference TV contracts expire and realignment is shoved upon us.

As we have seen with the falling ratings of the NFL, the sport of football is not impervious to a down cycle.

People want to have fun, and college football remains just that, to its core. Part of the fun is College GameDay.

On behalf of everyone in Fort Worth, and Texas, welcome GameDay. We are all thrilled you are here.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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