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College GameDay Experience At Northwestern

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The Northwestern fans showed well as "College GameDay" came to the campus Saturday. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.
The Northwestern fans showed well as "College GameDay" came to the campus Saturday. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

It was still dark as I walked across the Northwestern campus toward the “ESPN College Game Day” set.

Gates opened for students at 4:30 a.m., for season ticket holders at 5:30 a.m. and to the general public at 6 a.m. There were reports of students camping out by the lake to get the best spot possible for the most popular college football pregame show in the land.

My goal had been to arrive as early as possible. I live 90 minutes from Evanston and did not wake up as early as I wanted to for the historic event. Still, I arrived before the sun came up. The campus was quiet in the early morning hours, but as I got closer to the “Game Day” set, I saw the lights, heard the music and began to see the fans. The setting on Lake Michigan was perfect. The weather was perfect. And the sun was about to come up on Northwestern football.

“College Game Day” came to Evanston in 1995, but it was in its infancy and a huge storm drove them in to Welsh Ryan Arena. They came to Chicago in 2010 for the one-way football circus between Northwestern and Illinois at Wrigley Field. Now they had come to Northwestern for real. All the household names were there. Fowler, Corso, Herbstreit. Sam Ponder and Paul Finebaum made only short appearances. Ponder interviewed Pat Fitzgerald and Finebaum said “Roll Tide” and left. (I made the second part up.)

My concern before the show was that the “GameDay” set would be overrun with Ohio State scarlet. This was not the case. Northwestern fans showed up and they showed up with enthusiasm. Much already has been made about the creativity of the signs, but I wanted to extend a special note of congratulations to whomever thought up “The Guy Behind Me Can’t See Anything.”

You can’t really “see” much on the set. It’s all about the experience of being there. In this case, on the shores of Lake Michigan before the biggest regular season Northwestern football game since the Kennedy Administration. I DVR’d the show to watch later. It’s the Friday after the show and I still can’t do it. Maybe I’ll never watch the recording. It’s one of those memories that best lives in its original form, in my mind.

Every time Ohio State showed up on the big screens, boos. Every time Northwestern showed up on the big screen, cheers. Sometimes it would sound something like this: “booooyaaaaahhhhhhbooooooyaaahhh!!!!” Fans jockeyed to get in the best position for their signs to appear on national TV. That was fun to watch, as was seeing the random fans from around the country who show up (Clemson?).

Some complaints: The Gene Wojciechowski video essay on Northwestern’s historic losing streak during the '80s had some great archival footage. But it was pointless and unnecessary. It kind of reminded me of most of his columns. Also, the whole “Northwestern is a really smart school” trope is overplayed and probably should stop. This is football. Northwestern did not come to play school.

Northwestern’s always the underdog because the school is small (around 8,000 undergrads). Ohio State has more than 40,000 undergrads. The Buckeyes have tradition and history. Northwestern has Mike Greenberg. Speaking of Greenberg, it was nice (I think) of ESPN to have Greenberg and Mike Wilbon there for the sole purpose of picking NU to win the game. You knew Desmond Howard, David Pollack and Lee Corso weren’t going to do it.

The picks section at the end of the show is legendary. “GameDay” works so well for a number of reasons. Fowler is a genius of a host who balances the variety of colorful characters who provide analysis each week. Recently the show has added a “guest picker” segment. This Saturday, the ESPN production team decided on Brent Musburger. It’s a subject of debate among NU fans what exactly happened during Musburger’s time at NU. According to a 1984 Sports Illustrated profile: “Earlier in his (Musburger’s) variegated past he was tossed out of Northwestern University for a year for owning and operating a car without a license.” In any case, Musburger went to Medill and that is enough for the Wildcats faithful. The folksy broadcaster has a voice of gold and his “you are looking live” intro is iconic.

He also was wearing sunglasses for his entire segment and would not take them off. I think Musburger was up late the night before preparing for the broadcast.

Since he was on the call, Musburger could not pick Northwestern to win or lose. But Lee Corso could. The aging former coach, who always struggled against Northwestern during his time at Indiana, went with the Buckeyes head as expected. The moment would have been more fun if we all weren’t so worried about his health. He had a hard time getting his prediction out. The man is 78.

Lee Corso was only a year old the last time Northwestern won a Big Ten title in a season when they played Ohio State. The 1936 Wildcats went 6-0 in the Big Ten, including a victory over the Buckeyes.

The 2013 Wildcats will not go undefeated in the Big Ten. They did not defeat Ohio State. But they did put on an impressive showing on the national stage and still control their own destiny in the Legends Division. At the end of the “GameDay” broadcast, Fowler expressed his hope to the Northwestern fans that it would not be another 18 years before they returned.

Based on the incredible atmosphere that Saturday morning by the lake and the performance of the team on the field, something tells me “GameDay” will be back soon.