‘GameDay’ host Fowler sounds off on Div. III football

The Williams-Amherst football game may be the fourth-oldest rivalry in college football, but tradition doesn’t necessarily translate into primetime coverage. That is, until this past Saturday, when ESPN “College GameDay” brought lights, camera and action to the generally quaint and secluded Purple Valley. After Friday’s filming session for the SportsCenter preview – when the only indications of a Williams victory was the purple cow head hiding somewhere in Lee Corso’s dressing room – “GameDay” host Chris Fowler sounded off on “The Biggest Little Game in America.”

How did ESPN decide on this game? As the television broadcasters, do you guys have a say in where “GameDay” is filmed?

We talk about it. I mean, we have a list of games that are kind of on the grid, and as that week approaches, based on what happens the previous week or two, the list is narrowed down. I mean, we don’t make decisions on where we’re going until the last minute so we can be at the best possible game. And this idea came up…we’ve thought about a Div. III show for a long time, we’ve just been looking for the right opportunity . . . Frankly, it’s a combination of no super compelling game that affects the BCS race – you know, when November comes around, that’s where our focus is, that’s what our viewers expect us to focus on – but there really wasn’t a game like that this week, and I think that we’ve kicked around things like going to a Mount Union game, going to a Saint John’s game, you know, saluting one of the dynasties in Div. III, but it really wasn’t as good of an idea for us to just go see Mount Union crush Marietta, as opposed to coming to a rivalry. And I think what’s interesting about this, what grabbed our attention, is not just the tradition of the rivalry but the uniqueness of the NESCAC and the fact that this is the final game for the seniors. A big angle for me here is that these guys will be putting on the pads and the purple jersey for the last time, and the emotions that go along with that I think are a really compelling angle that we can sell to people. And, you know, the history of relationship between these two schools – Amherst defecting and all that stuff is intriguing. There are some famous alums, and I think obviously some good football too, and the setting is very nice. A lot of things kind of came together where this was just kind of the perfect time and place to finally feature Div. III.

Are you surprised at the size of the crowd you got just for the night?

I was really flattered and surprised. What was neat about it was a lot of Williams fans looked to be under 12 [years old] – we don’t ever see that. Our usual Friday and Saturday crowds are, you know, college-age, and it’s very much like a frat party out there. But even at a bigger campus we don’t usually see quite that enthusiasm. We’ve had big crowds on Fridays before, but I think to look around and see a lot of young faces painted purple and gold was pretty neat, and they were in full voice with a coordinated chant right in the middle of our SportsCenter segment, which was pretty funny. The announcer went out and asked them to “shhh” because that was coming through loud and clear. We had to stop a segment in the middle of it, while we were taping because the crowd noise surprised me. They’re close, and they were loud and I had to adjust something so that our mic level worked. We wear air-tight earpieces . . . and the mics are pretty close to your mouth, so that’s how you can focus through the noise. But it still caught me off guard because it was not what we’re used to on Friday.

When you get weather like this on a Friday night and you’re shooting outside, do you ever wish you were at an SEC [Southeastern Conference] game?

Nah, this doesn’t bother me. I forgot my topcoat at the hotel. This seems a lot balmier than I was prepared for. As long as it’s not precipitation – the only problem is if it’s too cold and your mouth seizes up. If we can’t produce hot air on our own up there we’ve got a problem, but you know, we’ve been a lot colder places than [this].

You’ve run into a lot of Div. I players and they’re used to a lot of media coverage and a lot of people taping them, asking them a lot of questions. Do you find that the Div. III kids are almost deer in the headlights when they see you coming?

I don’t have a lot of experience talking to Div. III players. We’ve been to IAA games, and this is going to be my first game that I’ve ever witnessed below Div. I level, so I don’t have much of a broad answer for you on that. I did talk on the phone with three Williams players and I found them all to be really impressive guys – very well spoken, extremely thoughtful and able to express themselves. I asked kind of some deep questions about how they define themselves as people, whether “football player” is the first thing that comes to mind [when describing themselves] and how important football is to them and what the meaning of the rivalry is and the emotions they expect to feel when they run out on the field, and I got answers that I typically don’t expect to hear from guys because they were very thoughtful and obviously . . . communicated their emotions very well. It was enjoyable and I’m looking forward to shaking hands with a few guys and maybe saying hello to [Pat] Lucey [’08] or seeing some guys after the game. That’s one frustrating aspect – you don’t have much access to the players anymore, and the ones that you do talk to, a lot of them sound really programmed and they give clichéd answers or don’t communicate all that well. They’re very guarded around the media because they’ve been burned and it’s a whole different deal, coping with the media when you’re in a hotbed. And they have blogs . . . and saturation coverage, and a lot of it’s negative. I mean these [Williams] guys – it was flattering, it makes me feel old because they were passing the phone, talking to me one at a time, and they were wide-eyed about the experience. It makes me feel like Keith Jackson or something. It was cute.

So aside from talking to players, what have you guys been doing here in Williamstown?

Unfortunately not spending enough time because I got in just this morning . . . I was doing a football game last night; I was at the West Virginia/Louisville game. Called that game, you know, and then drove from Morgantown to Pittsburgh, slept about four hours and got on a plane to Hartford and drove up here. I’ve been reading up on the history of it and studying some stuff and talking on the phone about this game early in the week. You know, we have all kinds of meetings and tape some segments and then I’ll go back to the room and we get a quick dinner, but I really do stay up all night getting ready for the show and it’s about another four hours of sleep before Saturday morning, so I’ll be up late at the Williams Inn. Not necessarily this game because I kind of did a lot on this game, but you know it’s just covering the landscape making sure you don’t miss something. It’s beautiful . . . it’s not my first time up here. I live in New York and I come up to the Berkshires. There are a few places I’ve vacationed and, you know, weekend getaways and all that stuff here, and it’s been fun.

Have you run into to any wide-eyed fans on the streets walking down Spring Street?

I was trying to envision the big orange [“GameDay” bus] rolling down Spring Street, trying to envision the thing with the giant faces painted on it rolling along the two lane highway in Massachusetts and then coming into town.

You mentioned the blogs in reference to the players at big schools. “GameDay” has taken some hits on some blogs in the SEC.

I didn’t know that much about that. Somebody told me that Georgia is mad at us or something …

Do you want to go on the record now? You don’t hate Georgia?

It wasn’t a consideration of Williams versus Georgia . . . We looked at the landscape of games; we’ve done Auburn and Georgia games, we did one a few years ago in Auburn. It wasn’t a matter of choosing between that place and this place. We looked at Hawaii. Hawaii is undefeated . . . I mean, listen, we have a good time in Athens, and we’ll get to Athens. I don’t know how often we’ll get to Div. III. We’ll see how it goes; we’ll see how the ratings are. I think everybody’s reacted with surprise and interest when you say where we’re going with the show and we hope it translates . . . A big factor that I think is going to make it fun is that it’s a noon kick, so it’s all kind of happening around behind us and we’re going to get to see both teams walk in, hear a bit of the pre-game speeches and see you guys warming up on the field and it’s going to be a real sense of what a game is like and not just going to be a show from some random location outside the stadium. I think people are going to be taken inside a Div. III experience and what a rivalry is like by what’s going on around behind us.

What’s your itinerary? Do you have to march back to Bristol tomorrow or are you going to stick around and watch the game?

I’m going to watch the game for sure. We’re going to do some tapings of segments in that set. Depends on how quickly they kick and what’s going on so there actually will be a game going on back there when we’re taping some segments for half-time shows. Because of logistics and the fact that [Kirk] Herbstreit’s got to go call the ABC game, I think we may wrap it much earlier than usual. We typically stay till late night but I think, because of some of the circumstances here, and economic circumstances too, we may tear down. I’m going to watch the game, and then head out. I’m not going to miss this. If Williams wins, maybe I’ll tag along and walk up to the barbershop. That’s just an awesome tradition.

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