As far as the visiting team from ESPN’s “College GameDay” is concerned, this week’s snowfall is more exciting than a double-overtime thriller.
“This works great for us,” said senior remote operations producer Judi Weiss, who took time Wednesday to make a snow angel in the Northrop Mall field as her crew shoveled sidewalks, ushered in semis and started constructing an elaborate set for a wildly popular show making its inaugural visit to the Twin Cities. “We’re embracing it. It adds an extra layer of fun.”
The last time TV’s most boisterous tailgating party had to prepare in a winter wonderland was the 2016 broadcast from Kalamazoo, Mich., where P.J. Fleck was rowing the boat for Western Michigan before navigating west. Both the students and the talent ate it up, even when flakes stuck to on-air reporter Gene Wojciechowski’s glasses, making him look like Frosty the Snowman.
“I know what it’s like to bring ‘GameDay’ to a university for the first time. It’s game changing,” said Fleck, now in his third year as Gophers coach. “I’m not saying it’s the Kentucky Derby, the Masters or the Indy 500, but it’s along those lines. There’s only 12 places they go during the entire season. We’re one of them. Bring your family, bring your friends, your kids, your grandkids, bring whoever you want. It’s a very unique experience.”
Fleck lobbied hard for “GameDay” to visit for Minnesota’s Nov. 9 game against Penn State, a battle of undefeated teams that the Gophers won 31-26, sending half of the TCF Bank Stadium crowd onto the field. ESPN chose the LSU/Alabama showdown that week, instead, knowing this game against Wisconsin — and the annual battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe — loomed on Minnesota’s schedule.
By waiting, “GameDay” picked a game between border rivals that will determine the Big Ten West champion and who gets to play in next week’s conference championship game against No. 1 Ohio State.
Network brass couldn’t have predicted the 9-inch snow dump when it decided this past weekend to set its 380th roadshow in Minneapolis. But even if they were better weather forecasters than score predictors, it wouldn’t have dissuaded them.
“How cool is that when people turn on the TV Saturday morning, they’ll see a white blanket over a college campus?” said Drew Gallagher, the show’s coordinating producer for the past five years. “We just don’t get that every week.”
The only elements that give Gallagher and his colleagues the shivers are lightning and wind. In the unlikely event of 40 mph gales, the festivities will shift into Northrop auditorium, which is now being used as a backdrop.
The scouting team had also considered airing from the front of the stadium but opted instead for a more collegiate setting. Since the three-hour program signs off at 11 a.m., more than three hours before kickoff, revelers will have plenty of time to make the 10-minute stroll from the heart of the campus to the football field.
Those who start lining up before 5 a.m. for one of 500 spots in the coveted “pit” area will even have time to squeeze in a nap. They will probably need one.
“Every time you go somewhere for the first time, there’s extra enthusiasm,” Gallagher said. “That pushes us to put on an even better show.”
“GameDay,” which premiered in 1987, is averaging nearly 2 million viewers a week, its best ratings in four years, in large part because of the “newness” factor. The University of Minnesota is the fourth school this season to host for the first time. joining Iowa State, South Dakota State and Memphis.
No matter how hoarse local fans get Saturday, they probably won’t be able to outscream the revelers who showed up last year at Washington State.
Alumni made sure their school flag was on display at every “GameDay” production for 15 straight years until the network finally relented and went to Pullman, Wash.
“That was the patron saint of all crowds,” anchor Rece Davis said. “Everyone else has been vying for second.”
Davis still expects a raucous audience in Minneapolis, especially when he reveals the celebrity picker, usually someone with a strong local connection, and when 84-year-old analyst Lee Corso reveals his game prediction by donning that school mascot’s headgear, the 345th time he has performed the silly, but irresistible stunt.
Just not too raucous, please.
“We like rowdy, but respectful,” Davis said. “We always want signs that toe the line, but don’t step over the boundary into poor taste.”
Davis and his colleagues were not expected to arrive in Minnesota until Friday, one day later than usual, so they could spend Thanksgiving with their families.
For Davis, that means having to miss a meal at Manny’s Steakhouse, a dining tradition every time he’s working out of the Twin Cities.
But for at least 60 of the nearly 100 cast and crew members, the job meant being away from home for the holiday. They made up by taking Thursday off and commandeering the kitchen and dining hall at Sigma Nu fraternity. They were expected to start installing cameras and audio equipment Friday morning.
What really has made the travelers thankful is a cooperative school, pumped-up fans and a picturesque setting.
All that’s left is hoping the wind plays ball.