Andrew Owens | Monday, October 22, 2012
Each week, for 14 weeks of the college football season, Bobby Stephens drives the “College GameDay” bus to the show’s next location. It’s often a lonely trek during a grueling three-month season, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
On Saturday, the day the ESPN show is broadcast to a nationwide audience, he gets to relax.
“I lead a sheltered life,” Stephens told The Observer when “GameDay” visited Notre Dame for the Stanford game on Oct. 13. “Not much goes on here. On Saturdays, guys watch the games and get ready for the morning show. We entertain our Home Depot and ESPN guests that come out for the show, and after that I just make sure they’re happy. If they’re happy, I’m happy.”
Stephens, who is alone 90 percent of the time while driving the orange Home Depot bus during the week, said the longest drive during his 11 years with “GameDay” took him from Oregon to Massachusetts, which consisted of five 10-hour days of driving.
“Truck drivers seldom say anything to me. They might ask about the guys on the side of the bus,” said Stephens, referring to on-air talent Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso. “I’ve been pulled over twice. Once for Herbstreit’s autograph and once for mine. They wanted mine for a [speeding] ticket – $138 in the state of Texas.”
While most of the other members of the “GameDay” team fly between locations, eight trucks are also driven from campus to campus. Those vehicles contain the technical devices and set equipment that fans see on television each week.
Luther Fisher, “GameDay” technical manager, said the technical equipment is put together Wednesday night, while the stage is constructed Thursday morning – a process that takes six-and-a-half hours to put together and four-and-a-half to disassemble.
On Friday, ESPN tapes segments for “SportsCenter” and broadcasts “College Football Live” from the set. Inside the production truck, dozens of screens are filled with graphics and video as preparations are made for Saturday. The truck is quiet except for the occasional discussion about a pending segment.
“It’s pretty much a traveling circus,” Fisher said. “We’re together for 14 weeks in a row and we get along most of the time. That’s really the only way it could work. We couldn’t just have a different crew all over it. We’d never get it done in time.
“It’s like [a band on tour]. Some of the truck drivers even used to be with rock bands.”
Fisher said the crew has to deal with the occasional hiccup, but for the most part everything goes smoothly. Earlier this year, while stationed at Florida State, the broadcast signal went dead for four seconds.
“The blimp got in between us and the satellite,” he said. “I ran out of the truck and said, ‘Guys, can you fly a little to the right?'”
The show’s personalities live, eat and breathe football for 14 weeks. During a rare break on Friday afternoon, some of the crew enjoyed a catered McAlister’s lunch in Decio Hall. The mealtime conversation? Football, of course.
“I don’t know if I can put a number on [the hours],” former Michigan star and current “GameDay” analyst Desmond Howard said. “It’s more than film work. We talk to coaches, talk to [media relations], people who may do play-by-play locally, so it’s countless. Obviously we run the gamut from East Coast to West Coast, so I may have to talk to [Oregon head coach] Chip Kelly at 8:00 where he is, but it’s 11:00 where I am.”
In 2005, Howard was added to the traveling crew to join Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso. He said the challenge was to find his niche among the other stars so as to not disrupt the show’s chemistry.
“The show, I think, was wildly popular because of what those three guys started,” he said. “I kind of wanted to get in where I could fit in and not disrupt anything and they welcomed me with open arms and, in my progression, things have worked out very, very well with the addition of Desmond Howard on the show.”
Both Howard and Fowler, during the broadcast of “GameDay,” alluded to the show not being welcome at Notre Dame during the latter stages of Charlie Weis’ tenure as head coach. “GameDay’s” last visit to campus coincided with the 34-31 USC victory over the Irish in 2005.
“Obviously the program is headed in the right direction and undefeated and they welcomed us back on campus,” Howard said.
When Howard watched the Irish during spring practice, he didn’t expect the show would pay Notre Dame a visit this fall, he said. Neither did former Georgia defensive end and current analyst David Pollack.
“I thought Notre Dame would be a better team with a worse record this year because I just didn’t see, with that schedule, that they’d be able to run the schedule,” said Pollack, who added that he thinks Notre Dame’s defense is SEC-caliber. “Purdue’s a much-improved team and to go to Michigan State, beat Michigan, Stanford, OU, USC, good Lord,” he said. “Before the season, that looked daunting and it still looks daunting. They’ve done a great job navigating the schedule with a suspect offense.
“I didn’t think their defense would be this dominant, especially after losing Aaron Lynch. Think about that cat on this defense. It would’ve been even more [successful] than it is and it’s already successful.”
Pollack said the season is a blur, but there’s no job he would rather have.
“I go home, my wife asks me how it was and I say, ‘Where was I this week?’ so it definitely is [chaotic],” he said. “I leave Tuesday night or Wednesday morning and come home Monday. But it beats working for a living. I’m watching college football. This is a dream, so it’s pretty fun.”
Notre Dame will be one of the featured teams on “GameDay” again this Saturday, but this time it will be in Norman, Okla., before the No. 5 Irish and No. 8 Sooners face off in primetime.