ESPN’s ‘College GameDay’ puts Seattle on big stage

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SEATTLE — Before Saturday’s big college football game between No. 2-ranked Oregon and No. 16 Washington, there’s the “party in ‘The Pit.’ ”

That’s how Desmond Howard, the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner, describes the raucous atmosphere accompanying “College GameDay,” ESPN’s pregame show that is making its first stop in Seattle.

“It’s something that can’t be fabricated, it can’t be duplicated and it’s not fake — the energy that you get from college kids,” said Howard, who is an analyst on the weekly telecast. “That’s what makes our show. You see that crowd of people (and) it’s amazing.”

From South Bend, Ind., to Fargo, N.D., ESPN’s traveling tailgate road show has been a fixture at the biggest games in college football for 19 years.

Lee Fitting, “GameDay” coordinating producer, calls the show a three-ring circus. Befitting a carnival coming to town, the show features a crew of 100, 14 cameras, nine production trucks and two jumbo video boards.

The giant trucks rolled onto campus Tuesday and a crew began building the “GameDay” set Wednesday on UW’s Red Square, a plaza near the university’s iconic Suzzallo Library.

And Saturday at 6 a.m., well before sunrise, it’s showtime for the three-hour broadcast. And what a show it is, with hundreds of fans creating a colorful and sometimes outrageous backdrop of clever signs and crazy costumes.

“It’s a similar type of energy when I played football and you would get on the field. We feed off the energy of our crowd,” said Howard, a former Michigan star. “Truth be told, the star of the show is the fans. If they have a good time, then everybody is going to have a good time.”

It’s been that way since 1993, when America’s all-sports network decided to move the show out of its studios in Bristol, Conn., and travel to college campuses. “GameDay” since has mushroomed into one of ESPN’s most-popular programs, the appetizer for sports fans who gorge themselves on an all-day, all-college-football buffet.

“We want to be a little bit of everything,” Fitting said. “We want to give you analysis. We want to be educational. We want to be entertaining. You have to find that mix.

“Ultimately the goal is to be historic. You want to do something that’s not being done.”

The Huskies are rolling out the red carpet for the show.

“It doesn’t help us win the game,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “What’s going to help us win the game is the way we prepare and play. But for the University of Washington, the exposure that this university is going to get, I think, is terrific.

“It’s great for our community and we’re fired up that they chose to come here for this ballgame. We welcome them with open arms and we’ll do anything that we can do from a hospitality standpoint. We want to make sure they enjoy the experience so that we can get them back again.”

Washington, hoping to rebound from last week’s 31-28 loss at No. 5 Stanford, is 0-3 in “GameDay” contests, all on the road. The Huskies lost at No. 2 Nebraska in 1998, at No. 13 Michigan in 2002 and at No. 3 Ohio State in 2003.

A UW victory over one of its fiercest rivals would be an enormous upset.

Unbeaten Oregon, favored by 14 points, is 10-6 in “GameDay” appearances, 4-1 on the road. The Ducks are not only 5-0 this season, but coming off their fifth consecutive game of scoring 50 points or more. If Oregon does it again Saturday, it will tie the NCAA record for most 50-point games in a row.

“We understand that it’s a big game,” Washington senior QB Keith Price said. “I can only imagine that the Dawg Pack and the students are fired up for it.

“When you see (“GameDay”) at your game, you know you’re doing something right.”

The first 600 or so students to arrive for “GameDay” can stand in the fenced-in area, called “The Pit,” behind the stage and in direct line of the cameras. Gates open at 4 a.m.

The show gives a rundown on the day’s marquee games but also promotes the host school. This week’s feature piece is a report from Tom Rinaldi on UW junior running back Bishop Sankey.

Sarkisian is expected to make an appearance on the set before the 1 p.m. kickoff. Each week the network also invites a local celebrity with ties to the host school to predict winners of Saturday’s games. Past pickers have included actor/comedian Will Ferrell and Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty.” Could musician Kenny G or actor Jim Caviezel make an appearance Saturday? Stay tuned.

The final prediction will be the UW-Oregon game, and former college coach Lee Corso always ends the show by donning the mascot headgear of the team he picks to win.

That’s the money shot that always whips the crowd into a frenzy.

“I’ve been doing this since 2005, and that part never gets old,” Howard said.

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