Creating chemistry on campus

By TOM JONES, Times Staff Writer
Published November 17, 2007

Along with host Chris Fowler and former coach Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit is a part of what might be the best two hours of sports television each week: ESPN's College GameDay. Shown every Saturday morning in the fall from 10 a.m. to noon, GameDay is a fast-paced preview, review and, really, celebration of college football.

Herbstreit, 38, is a former Ohio State quarterback who joined the program 12 years ago and has risen to, perhaps, the top college football analyst in the country. This week, he called staff writer Tom Jones from his home in suburban Columbus, Ohio to give his take on what makes GameDay so great, his relationship with Corso, the crazy 2007 season and, of course, today's big showdown between Ohio State and Michigan.

TJ: What make College GameDay so good?

KH: The first thing is we're talking college football, which is hugely popular and so subjective as to who is really the best team or who deserves to be called the best team because of the current setup of the BCS. Everyone watching has an opinion that they're really passionate about. So when we talk about it, you have people who strongly agree or strongly disagree. So you have people who get really excited about their teams and you have 119 teams.

TJ: Still, it has to be more than that.

KH: I'm not trying to pass the credit here, but that's a big part of it. There are three things, really. One, it's the sport and the chaos of it because of the system and that creates debate. Two, it's the chemistry. I'm so blessed to work with Lee, who has taught me so much about doing television and I just love the guy, and then a man who I think is the best host on television and that's Chris Fowler. And, the third thing is all the behind-the-scenes stuff. We have a great executive producer and producer and stage director and they put together these amazing features that make you cry, or make you laugh or tell you something you didn't know. You combine all of that and you really have the perfect storm. And then you add the fans, and it's something else.

TJ: At first, GameDay was shot in a studio. Now you guys go on campuses. How much does that have to do with the success of the show?

KH: A tremendous amount. It made a huge difference when we went on the road. We are at the big game every week. The fans get excited. It's like ESPN is putting its stamp on the game, letting everyone know this is the place to be in college football today. They get excited and, in turn, it gets all of us who work on the show excited.

TJ: The chemistry between you and Lee Corso is great. You can tell that you genuinely like and respect Lee.

KH: Oh, I do. Craig James was on before I was and he and Lee used to really go at it. It was a very aggressive, adversarial relationship on camera with yelling and arguing and so on. When I came on, the people at ESPN told me, "You need to go after Lee. You need to attack him." And that just isn't me, that isn't who I am. I have so much respect for him. He's a former coach and I gave him the respect he deserves, even when he is doing all the crazy stuff he does. We can still disagree, but not in a disrespectful way. I owe so much to Lee. I love the man.

TJ: Is this craziest season you've ever seen in college football?

KH: Yeah, it has to be. We've seen some wacky stuff. But I'm a traditionalist. The upsets, sure, have been great for college football, but I still like it when you have the powerhouses out there - Florida, Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan. I think when all those teams are good, it's better for college football, it's healthier for the sport. Not to be disrespectful to any teams out there. You've had some teams make their mark this season - like South Florida. And teams like Kansas and UConn and Kentucky early on. And that's great. They deserve credit for what they've done. I just like it better when you have the traditional powers. I just think it makes the sport more interesting.

TJ: For instance, is it bad when a team like Notre Dame goes through a season like it is going through now?

KH: No doubt. To have a Notre Dame team end up 2-10 or whatever they're going to finish, is unfortunate. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who are getting a real kick of it, but it really isn't good for college football.

TJ: Do you favor a playoff system?

KH: More and more, I am coming around. I like the plus-one idea. You take a season like this year when you have a bunch of teams with one loss. Then throw an undefeated Kansas in there. Who's to say who is No. 1? Or who should play for the national title?

TJ: Do you realize that the things you say on GameDay or late Saturday night on ESPN might actually influence how voters are voting?

KH: Yes, I think I've always been aware of that, but the key is to always truly believe what you are saying and having the ability to change your thinking as the season goes on. If there's a team early in the season that you don't think is great or hasn't proven themselves, that doesn't mean they don't become good or that they don't start proving themselves as you go deeper into the season. You can't ever get stuck saying, "Well, I didn't like that team at the beginning of the season, so I'm not going to like them now." You have to be willing to adjust your thinking if necessary.

TJ: (Today), GameDay is at the Ohio State-Michigan game. You went to Ohio State, though I think you've always been completely objective about the Buckeyes. I've always said that if no one knew you didn't go to Ohio State, you couldn't tell you went to Ohio State. But this must be a special weekend for you.

KH: I grew up in Ohio and all we had was college football. There was no NFL where I was. My dad was a coach, who coached for Woody (Hayes) at Ohio State and then with Bo (Schembechler) at Miami of Ohio. And I played at Ohio State, so yeah, this is always a special game. And this year, it has extra meaning to think this game will played on the one-year anniversary of Bo's death. And with Ohio State losing (last week), there is no BCS at stake. The winner goes to the Rose Bowl, just like the old days. It'll be 40-some degrees and overcast. It's November. This feels like more of a traditional Ohio State-Michigan game.

TJ: And this week, since you're calling the game, you only have to travel to the press box for the game. That's probably the shortest trip you've made this year. You actually had one day when you did GameDay from Eugene, Oregon and then flew across country in time to call the Boston College-Florida State game.

KH: Yeah, and there was a hurricane in Boston. That was quite the trip.

TJ: How do you get from GameDay to your game? Is it a charter?

KH: Yeah, Disney has a charter and it makes it easy.

TJ: Still, you have to be talking some 20-hour days.

KH: Sometimes, but I'm not complaining. I have the greatest job there is. I'm living the dream. To talk about college football? To call the best game in the country every week? How great is that? (Today), I'll be sitting next to Brent Musburger and he'll go into his routine of "You're looking live ..." and go through his setup and that gets me pumped up. And then I get to talk about the best game of the day and I get to talk college football. Like I said, I'm living the dream.

Fast facts

College GameDay

- The very first show to be held on a college campus was Nov. 13, 1993 when No. 1 Florida State travelled to No. 2 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Since then, the show has originated from the site of what is usually the best game of the day. In all, GameDay has done 150 shows from campuses.

- College GameDay has originated from 59 sites involving 60 different schools, including last week's matchup between Division III schools Williams and Amherst.

- The Florida Gators have been involved in the GameDay game either as the home or road team 23 times, more than any other school. Gainesville has been the site 12 times, more than any other location.

- The highlight of the show is when Lee Corso dons the mascot headgear of the team he thinks is going to win. His longest winning streak was 16 consecutive correct picks from Aug. 28, 1999 to Oct. 7, 2000.