'Rolling Logistical Miracle': Behind-The-Scenes With ESPN's GameDay

Gameday

Every Saturday, you settle in to watch ESPN's Gameday, a perfectly orchestrated live production, getting you ready for the games. But behind the scenes are 70 lunatics, working insane hours and traveling long distances to make it all happen.

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It's 11:45 a.m. Conference tables are pulled together in a horseshoe. The open end faces a bank of four televisions, all tuned to some degree of ESPN with the volume muted. Behind the bank of televisions is an air of doors. On them hang three suits, three ties, and three shirts. The flashier one is Desmond Howard's, but if you watch College GameDay you already knew that.  

Arranged around the C-shaped tables, working from top to bottom, are the Gameday cast and staff. Desmond Howard wears a Yankees fitted at the top point of the C, studying his notes, ignoring his phone, and looking every inch like the guy who wore a tie and carried a briefcase to class at Michigan. He still carries one, a silvery, sinister looking lockbox of a briefcase you usually see in espionage thrillers handcuffed to someone's wrist. Later the following day, when Howard has finished and is changing on the bus, I ask his brother what's in the case. 

He smiles. "Launch codes." 

Moving counter-clockwise to Howard's right is Erin Andrews, the sideline reporter, occasional Dancing With The Stars contestant, and the centerpiece of Gameday's new first hour. Andrews is surrounded by the honors student's best friend: stacks of 3x5 notecards surrounding a notebook she scribbles in periodically. 

Moving around the C-shape further, we have Gameday producer Lee Fitting, who at 11:45 is slowly wrangling in the attention spans in the room. Around the arc further sits Lee Corso, who is shorter, grayer, and still more engaged than a man who had a stroke in May of 2009 has a right to be. To his right is Tom Rinaldi, ESPN feature reporter. He's in full wartime attire already, clad in shirt and tie, with hair plastered neatly in place with some powerful, unknown hair goo. I have a feeling Tom Rinaldi, like General Patton, wears a tie out of the bathroom in the morning and takes it off only to sleep (and even then slumbers in a kind of custom-tailored two-piece pajama suit).

Sitting on the bottom curve of the horseshoe is a man with black hair shot through with grays in workout shorts, tennis shoes, and a loose t-shirt. Chris Fowler is already peppering the air with questions addressed to no one in particular. The theme of how to cover UNC's multiple suspensions in Saturday's game with LSU is clearly already occupying him; most of his questions focus on this. His demeanor is intense to the point of gravity: when I enter the room after stepping out for a second, the look he cuts over his left shoulder is one of pure focused peeve. 

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Herbstreit is on the bottom point of the crescent. If anyone in the room has a minor but functional case of ADD, it is Herbstreit, who checks his phone, jots something down, looks up, chats with Fowler, checks his phone again, looks up at something on the bank of televisions, then goes back to the phone to answer a text, then a call, then nods apologetically and holds up a finger at the producer vainly trying to herd the various cats into the room. None of this is extraneous: it's all football, and all business, but it's done with a kind of frenetic connectivity in Herbstreit's case. If Malcolm Gladwell were here, he'd point out Herbstreit as the connector node of the show, the one who knows more people than you do and spends a lot of time on the phone making sure he stays that way. 

Then, at 11:50 a.m., the room settles into order. The producers have a list of elements in the show written out on a notepad. The list runs outline style: A-1, A-2, and so on down through the first letter denoting a slice of the show set between commercial breaks. I sit in the meeting for a little over an hour. After 60-plus minutes, the cast has run through a single letter's worth of content, and has to get all the way down to the items listed under the letter "P."  It's going to be a long, long meeting. 

I go outside to the truck, because real ADD can't sit in a meeting for this long. 

Outside, the set stands on a slope in Atlanta's Centennial Park. The cast arrived on Thursday night or Friday morning. The set and the crew have been moving into place since Wednesday, moving eight trucks worth of gear, wires, aluminum, HD gear, cameras, monitors, the tables that hold the coffeemaker that sits down the stairs from the elevated set, did I mention wires, the thousands of feet of wire that make this run, the satellite uplink making the entire rolling roadshow possible, and the various pieces of Home Depot branded orange swag and branding that make the show the most visible object in the park. If you cannot find Gameday on a college campus, simply look for that distinctive shade of utility orange, and you will find it, because it is on everything.*

(Sponsorship is not limited to Home Depot alone. This year's addition, the Cheez-It Fan Cam, is a wired system that floats above the crowd and provides gliding overhead shots of the crowd. I bet that LSU fans will be the first to hoist a fan up to grab the camera itself and test the strength of the wires. No one is willing to go on the record with their bets to the contrary or in agreement. But seriously, it's going to be LSU fans.) 

The crew traveled a vague but huge number of miles in 2009. One driver said 22,000, another thought 24,000, and most other sort of shrugged their shoulders, stared into space, and said something equivalent to "Um, a lot?" They'll do 14 shows' worth of this, unloading on Wednesday or Thursday, packing up on Saturday night and Sunday morning, heading back to various homebases on Mondays and Tuesdays to change out the gear, and then head directly to the next spot, a spot only known to the crew late Saturday or Sunday depending on who won or lost on the day. The crew has headed east only to be told to turn west at the last second. This happens in a seventy person endeavor that is essentially one piece of tightly organized, caffeine fueled improvisation. 

They take it well. Many work other jobs the rest of the year in similarly grueling fashion. Many go straight from the college football road show to ESPN's College Gameday hoops edition, and then to tennis, or golf, or any one of a hundred other smaller sports television roadshows. One is a longtime roadie and driver for rock tours who will both vouch for the character of Kid Rock (or "Bob," as he's known to his friends) and tell you which famous musicians may actually be insane. Another is a former applied anthropology professor. It's not an uninteresting group of people to talk to, when you can catch them not hauling objects from point A to point B, climbing scaffolding to hang up the 15-foot Jumbotron beaming Gameday out to the gathered crowd, or otherwise sprinting in a very urgent direction towards something. 

None of them are all that keen on being quoted, but that is a pattern here. Gameday is a brand owned by a brand which is owned by a brand, and no one person is bigger than said brand. Thus a general fear of being quoted reigns, especially when it comes to the support staff I talk to on set. They like their jobs, even though they involve 60-hour work weeks, and they'd like to keep them by saying nothing to stand out from that brand. 

This doesn't mean there aren't stories. The crew once stopped in a tiny town called Brothers, Oregon, located somewhere out in the lunar wastes of western Oregon. (This is Brothers. The description is apt.) Stopping to refuel stomachs and gas tanks, they realized that the crew--14 in all--outnumbered the present population of the town, even after the locals called their friends in from home to see the Gameday trucks. Not many marketeers have managed to swag up an entire town all at once, but the Gameday crew can safely say they did, a fact made easier that Brothers at the time had something like 11 full-time residents. (All of whom now have more Home Depot orange helmets and t-shirts than they can shake sticks at.) 

The small company that runs the show will take up 60 hotel rooms. They will devour gallons of Red Bull, coffee, unsweet iced tea, Emergen-C, and will work close to 42 hours in two days running the Atlanta show. For the debut there will be 20 security personnel to keep people off the set, out of the meeting rooms, off the bus, and generally keep the sprawling set in some semblance of order. Atlanta's homeless still make a cameo or two when we travel from the set to the hotel, but ATL's homeless dudes have skills to test any security arrangements you might care to make. Still, security is a concern: a genuinely insane person took hostages earlier in the week at the Discovery Channel offices in Maryland, a genuinely insane person with a gun who could have hurt people. It's a tiny, marginal case percentage-wise, but a terrifying one. 

Walking back into the hotel, it seems less of a television show and more of a rolling logistical miracle that just happens to hold a complimentary college football program on college campuses 14 weeks a year. 

Erin Andrews sits on a couch next to me.

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"Did you see Page Six? I have no idea how they got that."  The Post's gossip column has Andrews wondering how a report that a hotel had been asked to look for stalkers got into the paper in the first place. It likely got there because a hotel wanted their name in the paper, and because Erin Andrews is a name that gets in papers, and thus any report on her or the security required around her will get a hotel's name in said paper. This is what happens when someone achieves a level of notoriety that even your aunt who knows nothing about popular culture knows who you are. This is where Erin Andrews, sideline reporter and new anchor of the first hour of Gameday, is right now. She's Your Aunt Knows Her Famous. 

I ask her about whether the start of college football represents something normal and comforting for her. 

"It kind of feels like something's always going on around college football. Last year it was kind of crazy for me to get back on the scene. This year it's crazy in a nice way."  

The reference to the prior year not being nice refers to the hotel stalker who followed Andrews to multiple cities and posted video of her online. Getting back to work is something I asked about without referencing what happened to her, but Andrews is more than happy to put in in context unprovoked. She's candid about how things are different now. It's something she's practiced, and she seems genuinely unaffected by it.  

"Obviously, last year working football some things were said that were a little difficult to hear. The good news for me is that I wear dual earplugs. I can't hear half the stuff anyways. Most of the time the security people put with me say, 'I can't believe the things people say.' I can't hear it, and it's probably better that I can't. You learn pretty quickly that you have to listen to so many things going on in the game--the coaches, the players, the announcers in the booth--I don't have time to listen to what people are saying around me." 

That won't be as much of a problem with her new role on set as the quarterback for the expanded Gameday. I ask if she's nervous, because I like really obvious questions. 

"Oh, very. It's a big deal for me because i have so much respect for the guys who sit over there"--she gestures as Fowler and company behind her--"who do the show. I remember being an undergrad at Florida and camping out to see them up close and personal, to get my picture with Chris, Lee, and Kirk. To finally be sitting at the desk with Kirk and Desmond today was a very big deal. I was trying not to act nervous, but that nervousness is a good thing. It means I'm excited for it." 

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The more she talks about football, the more comfortable she gets. I start asking her about specific interview subjects and she bolts forward without prompting. 

  • On interviewing Steve Spurrier: "He'll do everything he can to avoid answering the question. He'll also cut you off in the middle of the question. I love it, because it's a challenge."
  • She actually liked Charlie Weis. "Charlie was good to me. You had to push him to get answers. I love guys like Mack Brown, Urban Meyer, and Jim Tressel. I like it because it's a challenge because I have to think 'What's a way I can ask a question to get an actual answer out of them.'" 
  • On what you actually see as a sideline reporter: "You're so into the game. You definitely know who won, but sometimes you don't always know the score because you're so focused on what the players are saying, what the coaches are doing, or what's going on on the field."  
The rest of the conversation follows the course of the season. If they get a chance to go to Oklahoma/Texas, she wants to try the fried Twinkie at the fair. She'll continue to call her dad before games, both out of superstitious habit and because he's her favorite critic. (She also gets a text at halftime.) On the road she'll continue to eat as badly as the men on the show, particularly in the ham and eggs department.  She'll get two days at home, and otherwise will be on the road five days a week, earplugs in and eyes forward. 

She's cheerful, forward, and completely aware of how much attention is focused on her at any given moment. She handles this extremely well, and is well-compensated for the inconvenience. Yet walking out to the set, a middle-aged woman accosts her from beyond the aluminum gate surrounding the set. 

"Erin. ERIIIIIN!" 

Andrews continues talking to her production assistants, and walks toward the set where she is going to film a short preview bit for the evening's round of ESPN shows. The woman is literally attempting to paw at her to get her attention, and continues to scream her name as she runs to do her job on the set. I've never seen anything I could point out and say was a perfect illustration of the word "uncouth," but this is it.  Being famous for money would be fantastic. Being famous in the grabbable, visible sense? That seems significantly less fun. 

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The show is on, and has been since 9:00 a.m.. Andrews passed through her first day as the opener for the broadcast without incident, and now we're into the main show with Corso, Herbstreit, Fowler, and Howard on set. It is a brilliant September morning in Atlanta. From my spot watching the show down the stairs in the crew area, the skyline is peering over their shoulders with an electric blue sky behind it. 

The crowd showed up early. Rephrase: UNC fans showed up first, being the honors students here, prepared, well-painted, and equipped with well-arranged signage. LSU fans showed up later, perhaps drunker and definitely louder, surrounding the tiny kernel of Carolina blue with a horde of yellow and purple. The rest of the crowd are the usual randoms: Iowa fans holding flags, the same Washington State flag that has made it around the country just to appear in the back of Gameday broadcasts. and a motley assortment of SEC fans who are wearing their team's gear because it's Saturday, it's Gameday, and the last thing they would want is to be confused for either team's fans on a split-second exposure on national television. 

Attendance is pretty good considering the neutral location, but the vibe doesn't match what they'll get on a campus. The fans are gently cued to scream for the cameras when they come back from breaks. They oblige, but make no mistake: this has the feel of a warmup for the crowds they'll meet wherever they end up this season.  

I go to the truck to watch a segment of the show. The broadcast truck feels like stepping onto the bridge of a submarine, a tiny space crammed with people whose walls are all flashing HD screens and flashing lights. Fowler is rolling through the story of Jeremiah Masoli, the Ole Miss quarterback whose transfer year waiver was initially denied by the NCAA, but then waived on appeal on Friday before their game with Jacksonville State.

The details get confused in the report, and Fowler cuts a look to the side, one that he'll later say was at his statistician and researcher, who sits on set with the crew for immediate confirmation of facts and stats live if necessary. Not a "you're fired" look, mind you, just a quick "Are we sure on that?" look away from camera, and then back. It's a gaffe, and an understandable one given the legalese most NCAA rulings employ. 

They cut to commercial break.  Fowler and the production staff in the truck confirm the mistake. I'm expecting a diva moment here. You really WANT a diva moment here, some fantastic behind the scenes snitfit for the ages that I will of course not use in this story, but instead peddle behind the scenes as "The Time I Watched Chris Fowler Throw A Chair Through The Screen On The Gameday Set." The small part of you that craves disaster wants nothing but this, and in some other environments this is certainly what could happen. 

That is not what happens. My inner disaster monkey is sad, but Fowler pops back from break, shrugs his shoulders, and theatrically crumples and tosses a piece of paper over his shoulder in apologizing for the error, clarifying the status of Masoli (eligible just in time to lose a shocker to Jacksonville State), and moving on to the rest of the broadcast. From beginning to end it's two minutes of potential drama defused by people who've been doing this for over a decade, and who might not panic if the mascot head caught on fire while Lee Corso was trying it on. It's an impressive display of straight-up broadcasting sangfroid.  

"That's a professional correction there," says an ESPN executive in the back of the truck. And it is, but afterwards in the pavillion Fowler is still bothered by it when I bring it up with him. "We have high standards, and that mistake fell below those high standards." Fowler never really takes a break during the season: just as soon as this show ends he'll go work out, watch the night's game, and then head home, where he confesses to thinking about the upcoming week and beginning research to make it a full seven day week for four months straight.  

It is a compulsive's beat, pure and simple. By the time you read this, the whole thing will have been in place for almost two days, and the production meetings will have started, and the suits will be arranged on the doors of another anonymous hotel conference room door, and the entire cycle will have started over with a set of lettered segments to grind through live in front of howling college football fans holding Bloody Marys on their couches.

It's also the compulsive's best friend workwise: a grind. Most things are, but few happen live and mounted on a set of wheels. To watch it all in motion was a bit terrifying, but to think that Fowler, the consummate professional I watch hop back on the bus after our talk, has been doing it across the span of three presidencies is mind-boggling. Producer Lee Fitting tells me afterwards that it's fun, and it has to be, I suppose. Any other justifications for this would border on admitting insanity, and no brand likes a lone lunatic.

Put 70 of them together in the name of college football, however, and you might have something. 

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