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ESPN GameDay interviews, Part II: Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit

For ESPN GameDay interviews, Part I: Erin Andrews and David Pollack, go here.

Overhead Friday afternoon in the AU Hotel & Conference Center: "Who did you say you were with again? SHUT UP— THE WAR EAGLE READER?! THAT'S MY HOMEPAGE!!! KIRK, KIRK, GET OUT HERE... THIS GUY IS WITH THE WAR EAGLE READER!!!"

By the time it was Chris Fowler’s and Kirk Herbstreit’s turn, it was obvious why the production meeting had stayed at the hotel.  It was as much a GameDay crew viewing party for the Arkansas-LSU game.

After Erin Andrews finished her interview, it took a while for either Herbstreit or Fowler to emerge.  When I stuck my head in to check, a producer looked up from the couch and yelled, “Next commercial break!”  Or he might have said, “Hang out and watch the game with us, sports media scholar bro!”  Just to be sure, I went out and waited.

Not to wear out our welcome, when Fowler and Herbstreit emerged, Coleman McDowell and I interviewed one while the other was interviewed by the Eagle Eye crew.  (Just a footnote: Brooke Fletcher of the EE crew was asking excellent questions.  I’m looking forward to checking out the segment.  She started her Erin Andrews interview with a subtle Auburn boyfriend reference: “I know you have been to Auburn quite a few times …” Smoove.)

Pre-footnote: I pitched TWER to Fowler, and referenced the rumors that Harvey Updyke would try to attend the game.  So when Fowler mentioned the rumor on GameDay on Saturday (with the comment, “bad idea”), I took some satisfaction in that.  Coleman can confirm.

Chris Fowler.  Fowler was not surprised at the small media turnout for the GameDay crew interview.  Having toured the campus and done some stand-ups, he noted that hardly anyone was there, period – rare for a college campus the day before a big game.  He said it was “eerie.  The quietest day in the world; the whole world has gone home.”

Fowler not only hosts GameDay; he grounds it.  With a variety of ex-players and ex-coaches providing the jock talk, he keeps the show focused on game day information, even as he understands the picks schtick.

“It’s tough to do journalism with a capital J on a show which is a pregame show,” says the 1985 Colorado radio-TV news grad.  “It’s important for the show to know what we’re trying to do.  A lot of shows are confused about what they are trying to be.  We’re a pregame show.  We’re trying to capture what’s going on two hours before the games are going to kick off.  There is a lot of entertainment.”

He admits that College GameDay is not a news source.  “We’re not going to break too many stories on our show,” he said.  “But if by journalism you mean perspective and analysis, information in the midst of entertainment, our job on a week by week basis is to figure out what our audience wants.”

Fowler admits that, with breaking stories like the Sandusky arrest and Paterno firing, College GameDay has adjusted.  “The shows have taken on a different texture,” he said.  “But fundamentally we’re a pre-game show and that’s why the show continues to be popular and relevant after a number of years.  We’re not trying to be the ‘show of record.’  We’re not going to be everything that happened that week.”

As the host of GameDay since 1990 – heck, he even predates show sponsor Home Depot – Fowler has seen ESPN morph into the contradictory mix of entertainment and journalism.  Having blogged about it before, I was interested in his thoughts, and he was up to the challenge.

“I don’t speak for the company.  This is my impression,” he said.  “It’s difficult to balance an investigative journalism side with a business side of a corporation that has very deep long-term lucrative symbiotic relationships with conferences and teams.  What’s good for the business of most of these schools is good for the business of ESPN.”

That said, Fowler had a comment for those who think ESPN has it in for certain schools (i.e., Auburn last year):  “It’s often amusing to me when I hear fans criticize ESPN for trying to bring down this program or get that program in trouble.  How is it good for the business of ESPN if Ohio State or Miami or USC is on probation?  It’s not.”

He referred to it as a “balancing act,” adding, “How do you chase stories?  How do you pursue tough journalistic angles?  That’s stuff that our reporters have to deal with – the Syracuse case, Cam Newton. It’s tough to balance.  It’s no secret that we have relationships that have been built up over time that are worth protecting, and you won’t blow the relationship on a scoop if the scoop they’re breaking is less valuable.”

By this time Herbstreit, who had just finished his interview with Eagle Eye, was eager to get back into the coolest Arkansas-LSU viewing party in Auburn (The GameDay crew, bar food Ariccia-style, even a couch!).  Fowler was gracious and wanted to continue the conversation, saying without irony, “I’ll be in town until tomorrow, if you want to talk more.”  But we knew we were just two journalistic ships passing in the night.

So we swapped and took our two minutes with Herbstreit.  No, we didn’t ask if it’s true that he’s leaving GameDay to coach with Urban Meyer at Ohio State.  It was closer to “Please say something into this here recorder.”  The project was running on fumes at this point.

"Oh... I was kind of hoping to get to meet Jeremy Henderson. Heard he's the greatest interviewer and conversationalist of our time. But yeah, what can I do for you, professor?"

Kirk Herbstreit.  As a quarterback at Ohio State, Herbstreit watched GameDay.  Three years later, in 1996, he joined the show as an analyst.  “When GameDay first started, it was always a big deal to me as a player to watch it,” he recalls.  “It’s changed a lot. I think our growth parallels college football as a sport.”

Doing the interviews in a small reception area across the hall from the production meeting room, Herbstreit also noted the families at the hotel.  “You’ve got former players and alumni they come back and they bring their kids and teaching them about their school and their traditions, and they do this all over the country.  Every campus has special traditions, youngsters like this, they grow up with this.”  Herbstreit should know; his father, Jim, was also a captain for the Ohio State football team.

By comparison, he said, also without a trace of irony “The NFL is more of a business, a corporation, fantasy football, gambling.”  At this point, he was edging toward the production room door; our time was up.  In our defense, the first quarter of LSU-Arkansas was scoreless.

Photo by Coleman McDowell.

John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at johncarvalhoau.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter at @johncarvalhoau. Read his previous columns here.

Related: Personal Fowler: The incident of the set of College GameDay at the 1995 Iron Bowl

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