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Published Sunday, September 9, 2001

Husker fans set GameDay attendance record
More than 15,000 show up to see ESPN's popular pregame show

Last modified at 12:43 a.m. on Sunday, September 9, 2001

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  By Terry Douglass

LINCOLN -- It was more eight hours before the kickoff of Saturday's Nebraska-Notre Dame game, but the phenomenon known as ESPN's College Football GameDay was hitting Memorial Stadium in full force.

More than 15,000 fans, the large majority of them wearing red, got up early to become the backdrop for college football's most popular pregame show. Although kickoff for the day's event was still hours away, the GameDay crowd was in mid-game form as highlights of Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch played on the stadium's giant video boards brought the fans to their feet.

The roar got even louder as GameDay entered the home stretch of its program, which always concludes with predictions from analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit. The crowd then went wild as a member of the U.S. Army Parachute Team dropped down onto the FieldTurf, unhooked his parachute and delivered a package to Corso. The delivery was an over-sized red foam Nebraska cowboy hat, signifying that the Huskers were Corso's pick to beat Notre Dame.

Since its inception in 1993, the traveling GameDay show has become an annual rite of fall as it makes its way nearly every week to the site of the country's best college football game. The show has reached such lofty status that its presence alone signifies a big game.

GameDay host Chris Fowler, just moments after wrapping up Saturday's program, said that it's the fans that give the show its special flavor.

"It's impossible not to have a blast when you do a 90-minute show in front of an energetic crowd like that," Fowler said. "It is chaotic, but we invite that kind of chaos. The chaos of this show is like the chaos of college football, we hope.

"As long as they're not throwing stuff -- and the crowd was well-behaved and into the show, paying attention as much as 15,000 people can -- it was a great experience."

Because some fans have misbehaved in the past, GameDay had to start putting a net around its set in 1997. The crew has endured plenty in the show's history, including rough weather as well as having coins, crushed cans, snowballs and golf balls thrown at them.

Herbstreit said the crowd was typical of what he sees all around the country while traveling with GameDay.

"The atmosphere was great today," Herbstreit said. "There were a few problems, but overall, it went OK. The crowd was so loud that I kind of felt like (Notre Dame quarterback) Matt LoVecchio will probably feel out there. I couldn't hear anything."

Corso had even higher praise for the Husker fans.

"This is the best crowd we've ever had and we've had some good ones," Corso said. "They were the most enthusiastic I've seen."

Saturday's GameDay attendance was 15,808, allowing Husker fans to break the old record of 15,500 set last year at Kansas State. Fowler said the desire to set the new GameDay attendance record has taken on a momentum of its own.

"It's really flattering, gratifying and a little bit mysterious to me," Fowler said. "I don't know if I'd get out of bed, if I was in college, to come watch three clowns on TV to do a football show, but I'm glad they do. It would be pretty lonely experience out here without them."

With its stop in Lincoln -- the first since the 1998 season -- GameDay has been to more than 60 regular-season games. The first trip was Nov. 13, 1993, to a matchup between No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Notre Dame.

Fowler said he still remembers the first GameDay "road game" vividly as the show was broadcast from the lobby of the Notre Dame Hall of Fame building.

"There were a 1,000 curious people wondering what was going on in this building," Fowler said. "Since then, it has become somewhat amazing. I never would've dreamed this could've happened."

Saturday's scene in Lincoln showed just how far the show, which has expanded from an hour to 90 minutes this season, has come. The raucous crowd, with the exception of about 150 green-shirted Notre Dame fans, cheered as if Nebraska had just scored a touchdown when the cameras rolled. Fans held up several signs playing off the ESPN name, including one that said "Everyone Smart Picks Nebraska."

The show's picks have become its trademark. Especially Corso's selections as he traditionally reveals who he thinks will win the big game by donning the hat of the team's mascot.

Saturday's Corso pick may have been his most extravagant production yet. As the show was coming to a close, eight Army paratroopers descended upon Memorial Stadium. The crowd cheered as the parachute team captain, Billy Van Soelen, freed himself from his parachute and ran to the GameDay set just in time to give Corso a Husker cowboy hat.

Fowler said he was skeptical about whether or not the bit would work, but was told by the parachute team that they could time their landing down to the second.

"As it turned out, they did land almost to the second and the guy got out of his harness just in time to deliver the cowboy hat to Lee," Fowler said. "I was afraid he wasn't going to make it there Š but the crowd liked it and it was fun.

"We won't do that every week, but it was something special for here."

Now that GameDay has achieved an almost cult-like following, some fans treat Fowler, Corso and Herbstreit more like rock stars than members of the news media.

Each member of the GameDay team was interviewed and obliged several autograph requests following the show. Fowler walked by the front row of fans in the stadium, shaking hands with them as he passed by.

Besides its gimmick of going on location, Fowler said he thinks people like the show because of the chemistry and camaraderie between he, Corso and Herbstreit.

"It's something that's impossible to create," Fowler said. "I think if you watch a lot of studio shows on TV, you see them put three people together that are going to have fun and have that kind of chemistry -- we've kind of had it from Day One."

And with Corso and Herbstreit on board, the show also has plenty of diversity.

"We have a good time and everybody plays their role," Fowler said. "You don't want three guys putting on headgear on the set and you don't want three guys chewing on gameplans for 90 minutes."

Fowler serves as GameDay's offensive coordinator, keeping the broadcast moving at a quick pace, usually without the benefit of a teleprompter.

Corso, a former college coach at Indiana, is the loose cannon of the group who is not afraid to say anything no matter where he is. Corso usually makes a series of rapid-fire predictions and sprinkles in his catchphrases of "Yo" and "Not so fast, my friend."

Of course, Corso ends the show by donning over-sized hats of the team he predicts will win. As goofy as it may seem, Corso has been remarkably successful with his on-location picks and correctly tabbed the Florida State-Virginia Tech championship game that followed the '99 season.

Herbstreit, now nine years removed from being a quarterback at Ohio State, plays the straight-man role. He offers more serious analysis and has also become somewhat of a heartthrob for female viewers -- many of them who tune in just to see Herbstreit.

The Lincoln stop was no exception as two young women made their way toward Herbstreit wearing red and white T-shirts, which said "Kirk's Chicks" on the front and "Herbstreit 1" and "Herbstreit 2" on the back. Their plan worked as Angela Richmond, 22, and Nicole Nurnberg, 22, both of Lincoln, were allowed to take a photograph with Herbstreit on the GameDay set and also snagged an autograph.

"We're big Kirk fans," Richmond said, flashing a wide grin. "We watch the show every Saturday morning. We watch it for him -- and the Husker stories."

Richmond said it was Nurnberg's idea to use homemade T-shirts to meet Herbstreit, who is quick to point out that he's happily married.

"I just thought of it one day at work," Nurnberg said. "I made them and I didn't tell here until we were ready to come here. It worked. I think we definitely got his attention."

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