When ESPN’s College GameDay program set up shop last October at the University of Missouri for the Tigers’ showdown against then-No. 1 Oklahoma (a remarkable game as upsets go), an estimated 18,000 fans showed up to watch Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and the boys do their thing live and in person.
The attendance set an unofficial GameDay record, and the scene was absolutely electric as the students packed in like sardines and plenty of Sooner fans made the trek from Norman to get a look at what has become a mainstay of Saturdays in the fall.
Now in its 25th season, GameDay is making its first-ever trip to the Farm on Saturday, and with current undergraduate enrollment hovering around 7,000 students, the show’s producers probably ought not to worry about the logistical problems of cramming tens of thousands of screaming fans into the Oval–which is where the show’s set will be located on Saturday morning.
But while the stereotypes that have surrounded Stanford football fans for years and painted them as fair-weather and apathetic are certainly swirling, Saturday presents a unique opportunity in many of the students’ and players’ eyes to show that just like the Cardinal, fans on campus can surprise you.
Damian McGlothin ‘15 said he doesn’t think that the previous years of weak attendance and general disinterest in the football program mean anything at this point.
“Many people around my dorm are itching with anticipation, and the casual talk that once covered anything from school to music is now solely centered around the game on Saturday,” McGlothin said. “People are hyping it up to be a defining moment for them as a Stanford student. This is the biggest football game that has been played at Stanford in a very long time.
“The prejudice that Stanford doesn’t care about college football is floating throughout sports media,” he continued, “and I think we as students feel the need to rise to the occasion and show everyone that we are in fact passionate football fans on the Farm.”
The producers of the show and some of the analysts certainly hope McGlothin isn’t in the minority, and that students and fans will brave the cold and dark to be in the Oval when the show’s first segment kicks off at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning.
“People always ask what’s the best place we’ve ever been,” said GameDay producer Tom Engle, “and I always tell them someplace we’ve never been. We’ve never been to Palo Alto, and expectations are obviously very high for the show. Our talent really feeds off the energy of the crowd.
“We’ve been places where people are camping out at 10 p.m. the night before, and we also anticipate some really creative and intelligent signs going to a place like Stanford,” he said.
The program has expanded dramatically since it first aired as a 30-minute college football report in 1987 with Tim Brando, Beano Cook and Corso, taking on a new life when in 1993 it started visiting schools around the country each Saturday and filming the show live in front of the fans.
“I think the show’s become a phenomenon amongst college campuses,” Engle said. “When we come to town, it’s almost like a concert, and the whole production is taking on a life of its own.”
Stanford players admitted that despite some of their best efforts, it is impossible to ignore how much hoopla is surrounding the matchup with Oregon, and having a brand like GameDay descend on campus makes the game all the more special to them.
“You know it helps, when it’s a home game and you know that the crowd’s going to be into it, and GameDay’s here,” said junior fullback Ryan Hewitt. “Those are obviously all external factors that you don’t really think about a lot as a player, but in the back of your mind it excites you. It gives you a little extra juice, I think, when you know the stadium’s going to be rocking, and people are really excited about the game.”
David Pollack, one of the show’s analysts, noted how the presence of so much hype can be dangerous for players, something he knows all too well after playing linebacker for the University of Georgia and the Cincinnati Bengals.
“You have to manage your emotions,” he said. “It’s important that you don’t get too jacked up. I remember I used to jump around the hotel room all day when we had a night game, but as you get older you get more accustomed to it. Oregon has been on a national stage plenty of times in the last year with the BCS title game and opening this season against LSU. And Stanford had its big moment winning the Orange Bowl, so I expect both teams to be able to overcome the challenge.”
But before the game is played, Stanford will have to overcome its own hurdle and prove that the culture in the stands–which many students interviewed for this article remember being consistently half-empty as recently as 2008–is changing alongside the brand of Stanford football.
Redshirt junior quarterback Andrew Luck has spent almost two years in the national spotlight, and the Heisman Trophy candidate said it’s an interesting perspective to see how a program can evolve in just a few seasons.
Luck acknowledged the sizeable group of students who traveled to USC for the matchup two weeks ago–which was also featured on GameDay–and despite eschewing iPhones, Facebook and their accompanying portals to the fan culture, he said it’s clear that things are starting to feel a little different.
“It’s fun to be part of a culture change,” Luck said.
And those with a little more experience on campus say this game and this atmosphere present a big chance for Stanford to make a name for itself on the football scene.
“I’ve been involved with the Stanford community since 1985, and once upon a time Stanford fans were fair-weather fans,” said freshman dean Julie Lythcott-Haims. “That’s changing. I can feel it changing.”
“And I don’t think there are any students more proud of their university than Stanford students. We love with this place. GameDay is an opportunity provided by ESPN and our football team for us to show the entire nation how absolutely in love with Stanford we are,” she added.
ESPN College GameDay Built by The Home Depot will begin allowing students onto the set at 4 a.m. Saturday morning. The show will air at 6 a.m. on ESPNU, continuing on ESPN from 7 a.m. until 9 a.m. The matchup between No. 3 Stanford and No. 6 Oregon will kick off at 5 p.m. from Stanford Stadium.