THE HOST OF ESPN'S COLLEGE GAMEDAY (AND AFICIONADO OF ANGRY HEAVY METAL) DISCUSSES TWO DECADES AS A SATURDAY MORNING STAPLE
HE IS THE long-running front man of the campus-to-campus traveling circus that has redefined the football pregame show genre. Few broadcasters are more versatile and respected than Chris Fowler, who has hosted College GameDay since 1990 and also serves as ESPN's lead voice at tennis's Grand Slam events. Fowler and Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard will be at Clemson on Aug. 31 (9 a.m. to 1 p.m., EDT) to open the 27th year of GameDay —its 21st on the road. SI recently caught up with Fowler, who turned 51 on Aug. 23.
You are a huge Metallica fan, so much so that you used the lyrics from a Metallica song at your wedding.
I've probably seen them two dozen times. Loud, angry music has a place in my life. I don't know how long that will be the case, but it is right now. But I didn't use "Master of Puppets" at the wedding.
Wise choice. What was the Metallica song?
"Nothing Else Matters." It's a ballad, and the words fit the occasion. I gave them to one of my groomsman to incorporate into his speech. He introduced it as, "A reading from the great American poet James Hetfield." Maybe four people laughed, and the others were confused.
Are there other bands that are a part of your rotation?
I have very eclectic tastes. I have one of the stranger iPods—Edith Piaf to Metallica, Of Monsters and Men to Mozart to jazz. I love blues guitar. Music is almost as important to me as sports.
You spent time in State College in the mid-1970s before moving to Colorado, where you attended high school and college. Was Penn State your first exposure to college football?
My dad was a theater-arts professor at Penn State. That was my first exposure to college football. For faculty kids, the season ticket cost a dollar per game. I was blown away by the atmosphere and fell in love with it. If we had not moved there, I'm not sure I would have ended up on this path.
Why does College GameDay work?
Authenticity. Fans understand that we are as passionate about the sport as they are.
Why is it still professionally stimulating for you after 23 years?
Because the scene changes every week. Doing a show in a studio would not be the same for any of us, and I don't know if we would have lasted this long. Taking it on the road gives it an energy, and we try hard to make sure that it's different every week. It's a very challenging show. It's not scripted or teleprompted. It is formatted, but more loosely than any show you can think of.
Don't take this the wrong way, but you are a couple of decades older than the kids behind you. Do you still feel connected to that group?
I feel slightly less connected when they call me Mr. Fowler, which they never used to do. But being on college campuses every week keeps you young.
I read that you often stay up until 2 a.m. the night before GameDay and wake up at 6. That's not much sleep.
I can't work on that schedule every day, but I can during college football season. With caffeine.
How do you reconcile the big money and ugly underbelly of college football with the fun scene behind you weekly?
You have to reconcile it, or you would never enjoy the sport. Part of the joy of college football is living in denial a little bit. You know the underbelly is there, and the underbelly is no seamier or dirtier than it was in the early days of the sport. Certainly, you get tired of the arrest and suspension season, which is what I call January to August. But it is our responsibility to document that too.
What are your favorite college towns to visit?
We have places where the connection is very strong and the audience is very energized. Eugene comes to mind. An Oregon show begins in the dark. You can hear the crowd and feel the crowd, but you can't see them at the beginning of the show. Then the sun comes up, and the hugeness of the crowd becomes more apparent. Blacksburg has always had a special connection with GameDay. The live crowds really began to build for us in the late 1990s, and Virginia Tech was an important place for us. Being at Blacksburg after the on-campus massacre in 2007 cemented that connection as well. We love going to places like Baton Rouge—the hotbeds in the SEC are guaranteed good atmosphere.
Who is more popular with college students: Herbstreit or Corso?
Depends on what demographic we are talking about. I have seen signs that said GRANNIES FOR CORSO, which Lee loves.
You are hugely passionate about tennis. Have you ever hit on one of Wimbledon's courts?
Yes. I hit once on an outside court, and I broke the rules because I was not wearing all white. I tried to return one of John Isner's serves. I convinced him that to describe to a viewer what is like to return his serve, I should experience it. John was practicing on the court, and I was out there in jeans and nonwhite sneakers. I actually got pretty good wood on one. Got the forehand return, and it hit the tape. It would have been tremendous to get it over the net, because he was not expecting it and I would have won the point. [Laughs.] Of course I had to ask him which way the serve was going. The All England Club should not read this, by the way.
When does your contract expire?
This is my last football season under contract. My contract is up after next year's Wimbledon and World Cup.
That's coming up. Why have you stayed at ESPN for 27 years?
Gut feeling. Sometimes it was a last-minute decision. As other networks have shown interest or made offers, I always eagerly listened—you'd be foolish not to do so. I was close one time. I think if you are going to make a seismic shift in your career, you should do it for the right reasons—for exciting, new opportunities. You don't leave out of anger. You leave because the next thing is more exciting.
You and Lance Armstrong have been friends for decades. How is your relationship today?
We are still friends, and I have known him through a lot of stages of his life, no pun intended. A lot of high highs and low lows. I strongly believe in loyalty to friends. We still talk and see each other.
I read that you and your wife, Jennifer Dempster, met at an ESPN Christmas party and that you had your first date at the ESPY Awards at Radio City Music Hall two months later. Is that right?
Doesn't that sound pathetic?
Well, it does bring up a question: Are the ESPYs a good venue for a first date?
I can't think of a less romantic occasion than an ESPN holiday party. She had hosted BodyShaping [on ESPN and ESPN2], so that is how she knew all the people at ESPN. To make it even less romantic, I was surrounded by a bunch of colleagues. Total buzzkill by me. There was a bit of a gap, but a second date still happened.
Does she still get up to watch GameDay after all these years?
You have police protection to escort you in and out of GameDay sites. Have you ever been scared for your safety?
Not scared of being hurt, but scared that the show could be disrupted severely. Kirk almost got hit with a beer can at Michigan State, and we have had golf balls thrown at us. We are well-protected by the security and the troopers, and I always feel I am much less likely to be attacked than Mr. Corso. He has been jumped in parking lots. I remember a Miami fan was very angry with him and wanted to do bodily harm.
In the early 1990s, ESPN nearly canceled GameDay, but the decision was reversed after the program started traveling. How surreal is it to contrast the show then and now?
Totally surreal. We are very proud of the fact that whatever GameDay is right now, it has been built brick by brick from the ground up. The show had no profile, no importance at all. We had to persuade them to take it on the road, not to rescue the show but to capitalize on what was out there—the passion, the polarizing aspect of the sport, the fact that everything builds up to one big day per week.
Doing a show in the studio would not be the same for any of us, and I don't know if we would have lasted this long. Taking it on the road gives it an energy.
For more from Chris Fowler, go to SI.com/mag or download the digital edition of SI, free to subscribers at SI.com/activate
Photographs by ERICK W. RASCO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED