Sept. 22, 2012
By Brian Rice
On Saturday, Sept. 15, ESPN's College Gameday returned to the campus of the University of Tennessee for the first time since 2004, and gave the entire nation a look into the incredible fan support and pageantry that surrounds a fall Saturday on The Hill.
When the selection of Knoxville as the host site for the program was announced the prior Sunday, the buzz around town for a game that was already circled on fans' calendars began to build exponentially. The excitement continued to build on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. ET, when host Chris Fowler welcomed the nation to Knoxville for the show's opening hour on ESPNU and continued an hour later when the show continued on ESPN.
The broadcast ahead of the Tennessee-Florida game, also available to a national television audience on ESPN, marked the eighth time the show had originated from the UT campus and the seventh time overall that the show had covered the UT-UF rivalry since the show began going on the road in 1993.
Preparation for the broadcast began on Monday with a site visit from ESPN to determine a location on campus for the GameDay setup. While the east ramp at Thompson-Boling arena had been used for previous visits, giving viewers a backdrop of the south end of Neyland Stadium, the Tennessee River and the Vol Navy, the location was too small to host the larger stages that GameDay now employs. Circle Park in the heart of campus was selected to host the event and trucks began to roll in a day later.
Tuesday brought reporter Samantha Steele and a film crew to Neyland Stadium to record a feature on Vol wide receiver Justin Hunter and his return from a knee injury suffered against the Gators a year ago. Steele flashed a bit of athletic ability of her own, launching perfect spirals to Hunter as they re-created the final play of Hunter's 2011 season.
Thursday saw the set begin to take shape in Circle Park and the centerpiece of another Tennessee feature for the show take shape as well. Reporter Tom Rinaldi put together a feature with Joe Taylor, the tailor responsible for Derek Dooley's trademark orange pants. In a secret that was closely guarded until air time, Taylor created a custom-fitted pair of the pants for Rinaldi, who donned them on-air following the feature on Saturday's show.
On Friday, live shots from the set with Desmond Howard appeared all day long on SportsCenter, and ESPN's daily College Football Live show also originated from the GameDay set.
Saturday morning, the college football world's attention focused on Knoxville. Before going on air, Fowler turned to address the crowd moments before show time. Lee Corso fired the crowd up by lifting the helmets from in front of the desk, kissing the Power T on the side of the Vol helmet before spiking the Gator helmet. The spike sent the crowd, estimated by ESPN as the largest of the season so far, into a frenzy moments before the show went live.
The three-hour broadcast and the week of excitement climaxed with the "Saturday Selections" picks segment with country music superstar, East Tennessee native and Vol fan Kenny Chesney emerging from the GameDay bus, clad in UT shirt and hat, to serve as celebrity picker. Corso picked the Vols for his "headgear selection," and donned the coonskin cap of Tennessee's Davy Crockett mascot in announcing his pick. Corso, with the help of the Volunteer cheerleaders, then lifted the live Smokey mascot onto the GameDay desk as the broadcast closed.