We are only 50 days away from the kickoff of the 2015 college football season, which also means the return of ESPN’s College Gameday show which has become as much a part of a college football weekend as tailgating and marching bands. Since, like many of you, we can’t wait for the return of college football season we take a quick look back at a one of our favorite stories from last year. There is a big Nashville connection to College Gameday and its iconic theme song. Not only is it performed by Big & Rich, but the video for it was also shot out at The Woods Amphitheater at Fontanel in Whites Creek. Look back with us at how Big & Rich became a part of ESPN’s iconic brand.
If you’re a college football fan, chances are that you’ve probably caught ESPN’S College GameDay show. If you catch it on a regular basis, then you not only know who Lee Corso, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit are, it’s likely you also know the duo of Big & Rich.
According to Big Kenny [Alphin], many times when he and John [Rich] are traveling together, people approach them in airports and say, “Hey! You’re the guys who do ESPN College GameDay!” But how in the world did Big Kenny and John Rich – world-renowned recording artists – become part of the ESPN College GameDay Brand?
Wait! Wait! Wait!
Before we answer that question, whose idea was it to start ESPN College GameDay? And how did this now iconic show ever get started anyway?
To answer these and many more questions, we checked in with Lee Fitting, senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s college studio shows and a 16-year veteran of ESPN production.
“We actually started out as a 15-20 minute review,” explains Fitting. “Then that expanded to a full half hour, and in that time we’d talk about the games each day and try to predict what would happen that afternoon or night.”
“Then Chris Fowler had the idea to take our setup to an onsite location. So we went to the biggest game of the year that year—Florida State against Notre Dame. We took the whole setup and did a pre-game show from Notre Dame, and it was great! That’s how it was born…but it was a very small-scale show in ’93.”
Each year after that, Fitting says the ESPN crew would take the “show on the road” three or four times a year. Then it grew to seven to ten times a year – until eventually it was on the road week after week during the season.
And how did they choose the games?
Fitting says that is was around 2004 that they started going out every week to different campuses and would try to find the best game or best story of the day. “We’d try to think ahead a little, thinking, ‘No. 2 vs. No. 5 will likely be a sexy game, or a great story like a military academy or a Division II and a Division III game would be great’ – to educate viewers on the types of rivalries out there. At some point, it grew into a 3-hour show…into a massive monster!”
What’s up with Corso and the mascot head?
Most GameDay viewers wouldn’t miss the end of the show when Lee Corso dons the head of the college mascot for his prediction. Fitting laughs and gives us the scoop. “Corso was an original member, and on game day we don’t tell the guys to do anything. The mascot came about in…maybe 1996. It was at Ohio State, and Kirk Herbstreit’s wife was a former Ohio State Cheerleader. At some point, Herbstreit turns to Alison (his wife) and asks if she can get Corso the mascot headgear. And it worked out great,” muses Fitting. “Overall, Corso has probably done more for the popularity of college football than anyone in college history.”
When did you realize that ESPN College GameDay had made it?
“When the appetites just continued to grow and kids were camping out overnight to see the show and see the guys,” relates Fitting. “When we’d go to the same school more than once in a year, and the crowds kept growing…and when we went from 90 minutes to two hours then to three hours, we realized how big it had become. Because the passion of the guys who do the show – they’re genuine, not fake, it’s not made up, it’s not acting…they’re the real deal. And their chemistry is once-in-a lifetime sports television chemistry.”
When did the celebrity guest aspect get started?
“When Charles Barkley first did it – it was probably ten years ago – he was the first one on the show,” Fitting enthusiastically recalls. “He was a big Auburn fan. He picked the games and was great at it. So it was probably about five years ago when we decided on doing [celebrity predictions] every week. We had Lance Armstrong, Bill Murray, Bo Jackson, Olympian Lolo Jones, Darius Rucker and Bubba Watson. Kenny Chesney was one of our originals. And he’d do game predictions, and he was great at it – and we’ve used Kenny more than once. The fans love it.”
How did Big & Rich become part of the ESPN Brand?
“Big & Rich got involved when we heard their song ‘Comin’ To Your City” and got the idea to customize it and use the college names,” describes Fitting. “It quickly became the show’s anthem.” Big Kenny has a songwriter’s perspective. “One of the things I don’t know if people notice about that song is that this is our third iteration of it. We’ve written the lyrics now three different times. It’s always the teams that are out there rockin’ it that end up in the lyrics. I think there are sixteen different teams that we’ve put into the lyric this year.”
Partner John Rich agrees. “Which is quite a homework assignment to make them rhyme!”
“People ask what the number one condition of the team being in the song is, and it’s that it rhyme,” says Kenny. “It might not be the team name. It could be the stadium name, the town, the city—anything they’re known by. We get creative.”
Jokingly, Rich illustrates the point. “For instance, this new version says ‘Well, we rolled right through Death Valley, Boomer Sooner, Gig’ em, Aggies” because ‘Aggies’ doesn’t go with ‘Tomahawk Chop,’ and it never will.”
In 2011, the song “Comin’ To Your City” was reworked specifically for ESPN GameDay again—but that time, it was complete with a rap from Cowboy Troy. This year, Lzzy Hale, who fronts the hard rock band Halestorm, Rapper Travie McCoy and Cowboy Troy are all part of the show’s theme song performance.
“It’s really a MusikMafia feel because you’ve got different genres and different singers all on the same 90 seconds. It’s so cool, and…people will be pretty pumped to see the new blood in on the song and feel how hard it rocks,” says Rich.
What is especially intriguing about Big & Rich is that, while they are a part of the ESPN College GameDay brand, they each have their own individual brands outside of their duo Big & Rich.
How multi-faceted is the Big & Rich brand? We can start with the fact that they are “Big & Rich,” a world-renowned musical duo with such a unique vibe that many have tried to emulate their harmonic stylings. Their most recent duo album “Gravity” was released in September 2014.
Big & Rich are two of the founders of the MuzikMafia, an organization whose mission is to encompass and promote talent of all genres and advocate for all styles of creativity – musical and non.
Big Kenny has his own musical brand called “Electro Shine” – electronic dance music coupled with country overtones, while John Rich has his Redneck Riviera lifestyle line officially released in March 2014 and designed to reflect the laid-back, carefree beach lifestyle.
Through his appearance and win on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2011, Rich raised over $2 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. He also supports multiple charities local to Nashville, as well as many national/international charities. He is an advocate for our U.S. troops and does all he can to see they are never forgotten.
Big Kenny’s mantra “Love Everybody” is a part of everything he does and everything he believes in. Kenny has spent time in multiple countries, offering his services as a crisis volunteer to assist with the building of homes, schools and other structures vital to a successful community. He has raised money for the Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation and Little Kids Rock, a charity that offers free instruments and rockin’ lessons to kids in underprivileged public schools across the country.
Rich sums up the relationship between himself and Big Kenny when he says, “We’ve always been two distinct individuals, and as a duo we make some interesting music and have a great friendship. When you separate the two of us and we’re doing our own thing, he’s always going to be lighting a rocket and so am I. That’s what we liked about each other in the beginning—to see this other guy that was lighting as many rockets as I was and vice versa. We said, ‘Man, we should put our rockets together!’”
Lee Fitting agrees. Not only did Big & Rich join rockets, but they’ve added a bit of a rocket to ESPN’S GameDay as well. “They bring a great energy to the show. They’ve done a great job rewriting the song for the show, and they were a great addition as far as we’re concerned.”
Things are going pretty well, considering ESPN College GameDay claimed its fourth Sports Emmy for Best Studio Show. Not too shabby at all.
The recently-launched SEC Network, which is a part of ESPN, has launched its own version of College GameDay called SEC Nation. Does ESPN College GameDay have anything to worry about as far as ratings go?
According to Fitting, he has no concerns at all. “Anytime there’s an appetite for more college football on television, it’s a huge positive for the sport and a huge positive for college sports.”
So, what’s next for the show?
“The beauty of GameDay is that you really never know what is next…the next week, the next year or the next,” Fitting comments. “But our viewers like the unpredictability of the show. One thing I can tell you is that we tweak the show a little each year to try to improve it. I can also say I don’t think we’ll see the show expanding in time, not past the three hours. We’ve kind of taken it upon ourselves to be educational and entertaining, and we’re trying to be real. If we can always do that, I think we’ll be around for a long time.”