In ‘dream come true,’ College GameDay comes to Harrisonburg, JMU

College GameDay descended upon Harrisonburg for this weekend's rivalry between Richmond and James Madison. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

HARRISONBURG, Va. — In a vacuum, the ceiling of relevance for a three-hour, college football round-table TV show should be awfully low. The thought that anyone would care about where such a show takes place — that they could get excited for a few former jocks and some sports broadcasters doing the same thing they do every week on your front lawn — seems like it might bring more annoyance than excitement.

But this isn’t just any show. In fact, it really isn’t a show at all. This is College GameDay, an entity that has grown to become, to the particular surprise of those involved, a cultural phenomenon.

As a college student at a university with a Division I football team, GameDay coming to campus is about the biggest thing that can happen during your matriculation. But while the students are the face of GameDay, with their constant cheering, yelling and hoisting of homemade signs, the excitement permeates throughout the administration and the community at large. And when a production normally reserved for the top teams in the power conferences hauls its entire 10-trailer, 40-some-odd person staff down Interstate 81 to Harrisonburg to cover an FCS rivalry game between James Madison and Richmond, the event becomes something even bigger.

“I’ve been here eight years and there’s really nothing that unites the community like this,” says JMU Director of Communications Bill Wyatt, but the comments of his co-workers shed more light on just how big of a deal GameDay is.

“I’ve been asking some colleagues who’ve been here longer than I have, and one of them suggested this might be the biggest thing to happen to Harrisonburg since the state legislature decided to locate the school here.”

Everything is bigger when GameDay is in town. The 25,000 seat Bridgeforth Stadium sells out by Tuesday for a Saturday game. The state assigns an extra 16 troopers to support the campus police, because a rivalry on homecoming weekend with an undefeated home side is big enough already before a three-hour, live national TV show drops itself on campus. The unseasonably warm fall weather is also part of this perfect storm, but it cuts both ways. Sure, it adds to the Chamber of Commerce photo op exposure, but it also means more students, more madness.

The secrecy, security and levels of information make the operation feel like a military installation. Nobody actually seems to work for ESPN, rather for school security or any one of the endless corporate sponsors running student activations (they’re all the ones you recognize from the ads that run throughout college football Saturdays: Cheez-It, Pizza Hut, Coke Zero, the Home Depot). The security at the gates are on a need-to-know basis from their supervisors, who are on a need-to-know basis from the mother ship. It all makes sense when trying to stage a multiday production smack in the middle of a college campus quad, as 20,000 students make their way between the music building and the student union.

A picture perfect fall Friday as students swarm the set. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
A picture-perfect fall Friday as students swarm the set. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

On Friday, between live hits from the stage during regular programming, seniors Logan Furey and Chris Fitzpatrick wait their turn to partake in the 64-team corn hole tournament on the lawn of the quad (the winners will get all access, behind-the-scenes passes Saturday). Furey and Fitzpatrick are like every other one of the students milling around the quad on a perfect fall Friday, except that they are dressed, head to toe, respectively, like Mario and Luigi.

Because it’s GameDay.

They’re graduating soon, and this is the biggest thing that has ever happened on campus in Harrisonburg. Nothing even really compared.

“Maybe some concerts, where we’ve had some big people,” says Fitzpatrick. “But that’s small potatoes compared to this.”

“In my classes today, both my teachers were like, ‘I’m not really going do anything today because I know nobody’s really in it right now. They’re focusing on GameDay,’” adds Furey.

They’re too young to remember when GameDay was just another show, when it was just 90 minutes long, with only three hosts on camera, attracting a crowd of just a few dozen. To them, this is a dream, one they’ve never even bothered to seriously consider, because there was never any reason to believe it could come true.

“It’s always been huge, it’s just never been a reality for us,” says Fitzpatrick, who echoed the statements heard around campus Friday. “It was like all the stars aligned. There were not that many great games (across college football this weekend), and all the teams you’d think they would go to were losing (last week). It was like, holy crap, we might actually get this.”

Because it's GameDay. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Because it’s GameDay. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

Another person who never expected College GameDay would ever come to his school is the show’s senior coordinating producer, Lee Fitting. A JMU grad himself, Fitting has worked at ESPN since 1996, slowly making his way up the ranks to his current position. Until a couple of weeks ago, he never even really considered Harrisonburg a possibility as a GameDay destination. But then, suddenly, everything started to fall into place.

“I never thought the show would get here in my wildest dreams,” says Fitting. “It’s a dream come true. Kind of my two worlds colliding.”

A weak slate of FBS games this week opened the door for the show to step outside of the FBS bubble, something it has done only seven times in history before this week. But the reception the show has gotten at FCS powers such as North Dakota State, which it has visited each of the past two years, only helped open the door for a place like Harrisonburg.

“I love being around small campuses, just because of the appreciation they show you,” says one of the show’s hosts, former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, highlighting the trip to Fargo. “It was just a tremendous outpouring of love and support for our show … I would come here as opposed to going to some of the places in the other conferences any day.”

Howard’s co-anchor Kirk Herbstreit echoes those thoughts. But having watched the show grow from its humble roots to the juggernaut it has become, the spectacle of the band and student body swarming the bus as it pulls into town, the thousands who will surround the stage before dawn Saturday morning after camping out all night, it all still amazes him.

“I really like these kind of stops,” Herbstreit says. “It’s just surreal to see how excited people are, and how the show touches everybody.”

For Fitting, the ability to give what GameDay brings to his alma mater is like his way of giving back. While he’ll be enjoying the game from the stands with his family like most alums on Homecoming weekend, he grasps as well as anyone the power of the show he has helped grow.

“You can’t put a price tag on this publicity and the exposure,” says Fitting. “This is the ultimate recruiting tool, not only for the football program and the athletics program, but also for the university. Not that the school needs the help, but this will do wonders for it.”

Because it’s GameDay.

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