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The Big Picture: Corso, zany 'GameDay' to liven up North Shore

Thursday, November 06, 2003

The director of business development for Dixon Ticonderoga is on the line. He represents the maker of the famed No. 2 pencils. He'll have you know that it's also the fifth-oldest consumer product company in the United States, and he's proud to spend fall weekdays getting the lead out.

On fall weekends, though, the director of business development transforms into the director of a traveling company of college football showmen.

That's when Lee Corso goes from pencil pusher to No. 1 yakker.

He is the ringleader of ESPN's "GameDay" television band, its oldest-ranking member and its resident merry-maker. The longtime coach, with a vagabond resume second perhaps only to the itinerant Lou Saban, joined a relatively sedate Bristol, Conn., studio bunch in 1986. Straight man Chris Fowler came aboard in 1990. Kirk Herbstreit, in the role of former player, first took a seat to Corso's left in 1996.

Together, they have become the Dick Vitale road show of college football, the Jay Leno-Carrot Top-Band du Jour attraction coming soon to a campus theater near you -- a standing-room-only act that brings out the zany in college crowds whenever they descend on a dateline famous for its fall Saturdays. They have been a hit in Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, Columbus and Ann Arbor. They have gone over big in the lesser-known towns of Colorado Springs, Columbia, S.C., Manhattan, Kan. and Blacksburg, Va., where they twice drew crowds of 13,000-plus and once drew The Maker's wrath (more on that later). They attracted a record attendance of 15,800 at Nebraska in 2001.

And now they come to Pittsburgh.

To be precise, they come to the North Shore for an all-day Saturday broadcast spot from Heinz Field as a run-up to ESPN's 7:45 p.m. telecast of Virginia Tech-Pitt.

No one ever confused The Mustard Bowl for a campus, so Corso and Co. will play a little different venue this weekend.

"I don't worry about that stuff," said Corso, whose traveling band has worked -- among 100-plus trips since its inaugural 1993 roader -- only one other regular-season conference site that was across town from the host campus (Miami's Orange Bowl). "I would think there would be a crowd, because it's an event, a party. "

"GameDay" has become a live-TV tailgate. Pitt officials trying to help stoke the attendance are kindly supplying bus transportation for students who want to join the fun scheduled to start around 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Heinz Field.

In the beginning, road shows were an easy way out of the Bristol studio. On Nov. 13, 1993, the crew set up shop at the Florida State-Notre Dame game, after which Irish Coach Lou Holtz ascended the stage and grabbed the microphone. "Not only was the performance better by us -- it was like an actor going on Broadway, an instant feedback. There was an enthusiasm from the crowd, and I was thinking, 'Whoa, we've got something unbelievable.' "

The traveling party had arrived.

In 1994, Cornhuskers fans celebrated a Colorado win by uprooting a goal post and whisking it to the "GameDay" set. In '99, before the crew started working with a net, Michigan-Michigan State fans strained a retaining fence and pelted the fellas with objects. In 2001, Oklahoma's players stormed the stage after Corso in the pregame picked Florida State to beat them for the national title.

"And the signs are unbelievable," Corso said. "All these signs for Herb and Fowler, they're young guys: 'Will you marry me?' Finally, two years ago at Florida State, I got a little old lady, probably a hundred years old, bent over with a cane -- she had a sign: 'Grannies for Corso.' I finally got a groupie. One.

Wacky scenes such as these illustrate why "GameDay" earned nine of its 10 highest ratings from roaders. Corso in costume is the calling card. He started that first show, Florida State-Notre Dame, by wearing ballcaps from both schools and predicting a victory for each (playing to the bipartisan crowd). Later, the schtick morphed into wearing mascot heads, with Corso donning the top of the team he picks to win.

Stinkiest mascot head? "Virginia Tech. It had that long Gobbler head, with a neck that was like 4 feet high. A secretary found it, they had it in the back for 15, 20 years. I put that thing on ... whoo. That was terrible."

Heaviest head? "The Florida Gator head. It's not only heavy, it's kind of awkward in the front. It had that long beak. I put it on, and it rubbed the top of my head raw."

Most memorable costume? "The best show we ever did was the Harvard-Penn game [last November, their second trip to the commonwealth and first to a campus that wasn't Division I-A in football]. I dressed up as Ben Franklin. Got a Ben Franklin wig and glasses. I loved that. I'm undefeated as Ben Franklin, 4-0."

At least Ben Franklin didn't get struck by lightning.

"That happened at Virginia Tech. Hit my car. Blew it up."

The year was 2000. The Hokies reached the national-championship game the season before, but Corso stood at Lane Stadium and publicly picked Kansas State for the next title bowl. Suddenly, lightning struck outside the stadium -- and zapped Corso's rental car. "I walked back on the set, 'I don't know what a Hokie is, but God is one of them. Go Virginia Tech.'

"You know what the percentages are, getting struck by lightning in a parking lot with 50,000 cars?"

Hold on, I'll use my No. 2 pencil to figure it out ...

Chuck Finder can be reached at or 412-263-1724.

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