Somehow I convinced myself to roll out two hours before the rest of the campus. It was 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, and for the first time in its 18 years broadcasting live from college campuses, ESPN College GameDay was hosting its national pre-game show at Stanford.
Mitch Sherman, an ESPN blogger, feared a mediocre turnout.
“There’s talk that the crowd Saturday for ESPN’s College GameDay may actually set a record low for attendance, what with the early morning start and apathetic nature toward football of the Stanford students,” he wrote in a Nov. 10 blog post.
Maybe it was because Stanford students don’t necessarily live and die with the football team’s successes and failures. Maybe it was because Stanford has such a small student fan base. Or maybe it was because GameDay starts at 6 a.m. on the West Coast.
But despite the media’s doubts, I walked over to the Oval with a few dorm mates eager to grab a spot in the front row, only to run into a long line of people with the same idea.
There was still hours to go before dawn, so the stage lights were on at full force. As we waited for the gates to open, I looked around at the signs students held.
Some were random.
“SMU beat Navy.”
“I Hate LeBron.”
A cutout of a random man’s face blown up to 10 times life-size.
Some were original:
“Tim Tebow – God + Talent = Andrew Luck.”
“LaMichael James Can’t Smoke This Tree.”
Before I knew what was happening, my group started entering a section closed off from the rest of the crowd near the stage. Chris Fowler, Desmond Howard and Kirk Herbstreit came and went from the stage. Erin Andrews stood on a stage to the side while the live ESPN telecast was broadcast on a JumboTron behind her.
Students were densely packed near the stage. Cameras ran on wires overhead, filming the crowd. Stanford males yelled out catcalls to Andrews. Between all the signs, the students hoisted on each other’s shoulders and the sheer enormity of the crowd, I felt much farther from the stage than I actually was.
Mitch Sherman could not have been more wrong.
“At 5:30, I was at the front of the pit, and a guy from ESPN turned around and told me, ‘You guys have already exceeded our attendance expectations,’” said Julie Lythcott-Haims ’89, dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising. “About half of the crowd had yet to come.”
Lisa Lapin, assistant vice president of university communications, echoed these sentiments.
“ESPN loved being at Stanford,” Lapin said. “They were incredibly impressed with the turnout and the behavior of everybody in the crowd.”
After Fowler’s brief admonition to the student crowd not to yell obscenities, the Hoover Tower’s appearance on the JumboTron signaled the beginning of the telecast. The crowd roared.
The majority of the crowd was made up of students, but there were also Oregon students, fans and families from the Bay Area.
The “truly incomparable” Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band stood in juxtaposition to its uniformed and precise Oregon counterpart. Both bands started to play at around 6:30 a.m., shortly after the sun finally came up.
As it became light outside, time became insignificant. Lost in the huge crowd and white noise of the raucous students, I took it all in while hardly processing it at any level. Maybe it was just sleep deprivation, but it was a surreal experience.
The two most memorable moments involved the venerable–to college football fans, anyway–Lee Corso. During a commercial break, he held up a Stanford helmet, prompting a deafening roar. Then he held up the Oregon helmet, bringing on boos. At the end of the show, he predicted the winner by putting on a tree hat and dancing with the Tree, thrusting a fake musket in the air and saying he “was going duck hunting.”
I walked back to my dorm in desperate need of a nap before the game.
Although the team lost the game and, most likely, its shot at a national championship, GameDay went so smoothly that producers of the show suggested returning again in two weeks.
“They had called me before the end of the show, saying they were so impressed that if we won, they were considering coming back for the Notre Dame game,” Lapin said.
Although now that scenario is very unlikely, perhaps the turnout on Saturday–estimated at around 3,000–might change the perception that Stanford does not care about football.