In its heyday, College GameDay was the de facto No. 2 studio show behind Inside the NBA. Pregame shows are notorious for filling the air time with a panel of experts struggling to find opportunities to make points or move the conversation into a meaningful discussion. I challenge you to watch the Sunday NFL shows on ESPN, CBS, Fox, or the NFL Network for more than 15 minutes without audibly screaming, “Oh my god, who the fuck cares?!” 17 times.
The reason college pregame shows work so well is the pageantry, the atmosphere, the marching band, and a few thousand college students who woke up, swigged some Rumplemintz as a substitute for mouthwash, and made their way over to the set to warm up their vocal cords for the real thing. You don’t have to watch every second of the three-hour program to enjoy the show, you can turn it on as background noise while you make coffee or eat breakfast, and check in when something fun is going on.
Lately, that’s just the final 10 minutes when the crew picks the games and Lee Corso dons the headgear. Over the past few years, with Chris Fowler moving on and Corso’s, to put it nicely, inconsistent health, the show hasn’t exactly fallen off, but it has become a little vulnerable to would-be usurpers.
Gene Wojciechowski’s heartstring-pulling features still reinforce my cynicism the way Tom Rinaldi used to. Rece Davis isn’t quite Fowler, which is fine because that’s a lofty standard to aspire to, but he’s polished and has a good rapport with the 17 people they parade on the set.
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Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff is the most notable pregame show making a bid for GameDay’s spot, and it even adopted the traveling circus template that Fowler, Corso, and Herbstreit perfected. The Fox guys do a serviceable job — the Urban Meyer rehire notwithstanding — and at least lit a fire under ESPN to step up its game(day). However, unless Meyer starts throwing back a few scotches between commercial breaks, they don’t have a Corso.
Gameday’s main attraction, or at least antagonist, has always been Corso, and he has been absent or sparsely used lately. It’s increasingly tough to sit through him trying to hear what the guest picker is saying, or barely getting out the “Not so fast my friend” rebuke to the rotating celebrity.
Enter Pat McAfee. The former NFL punter has somehow parlayed a stint in comedy and his relationship with Peyton Manning into a credible media career and a permanent spot on the show. Since leaving Barfstool, he has grown his brand as Aaron Rodgers’ mouthpiece. Anytime the aspiring monk wants to air a grievance about the Packers or vaccine requirements, he hops on the Pat McAfee Show. The host also has an on-again, off-again relationship with the WWE that I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on. So, seeing as I have no interest in and/or abhor all four of those things — Rodgers, wrestling, Barfstool, and Manning — my reaction to him showing up on the GameDay set was extremely skeptical.
Regardless of how it ended, working for a company that’s at the forefront of the fight on cancel culture like it’s not misogyny’s response to the #MeToo movement lops you in with a repugnant crowd, and amplifying the claims of the NFL’s biggest anti-vaxxer — who’s on your show in a hoodie decrying cancel culture — makes my brain bleed. Throw in the tank tops and a schtick that doesn’t stop, and the intolerableness is too much. It’s too much.
Why couldn’t ESPN find another former college football-only star to try? Eventually, one will pop. Desmond Howard’s laugh is infectious as Fran Drescher’s, David Pollack is oozing so much masculinity the EPA has declared it toxic, but Kirk Herbstreit is still the perfect straight guy to the rest of the antics.
Yet, I’m starting to come around to McAfee. When they ask him to do something — whether it’s a gimmick, talking football, or interacting with a guest — he puts forth maximum effort. You can tell he actually watches the games and loves the sport.
He helped Manning direct the Tennessee band for “Rocky Top” and backflipped/belly-flopped off a houseboat into the Tennessee River wearing orange-and-white checkered overalls and a matching bucket hat. He hypes the fans as well as he plays the heel, and I’ve rarely seen a member of the crew openly antagonize the crowd like he did when he howled for NC State while in Clemson for their matchup a few weeks ago.
My normal reaction when some jackass shows off his oversized belt buckles is an exaggerated “This fucking guy.” I mean, I still say that when McAfee flashes his chrome plate for the camera, as you know some ESPN producer is screaming to avoid a closeup of his crotch, but it’s less of a “This fucking guy” with a thumb point, and more of a “This fucking guy” with a stifled laugh.
While I’m guessing he’s been vetted enough by the Mothership to be cleared of cancelable offenses from his previous work, I’m not a convert and have zero interest in his show outside of the occasional aggregate-able interview. He’s on record saying his mom would beat his ass if he ever did anything to disrespect a woman, and that’s commendable. It’d be nice if his reason for respecting women wasn’t fear of physical violence, but at this point in society, taking what you can get will have to do.
College GameDay is at its best with an over-the-top personality, and McAfee certainly is that. The show is the soundtrack to a lot of fans’ Saturday mornings, and the headgear selections are part of college football’s tradition. McAfee is vying to become a part of that fabric in an increasingly unforgiving landscape that his former employer and QB buddy actively taunt.
Will ESPN retire the headgear when Corso does? Or will McAfee take over the duties? Will he even last that long? I have no clue. He currently resides under the guilty pleasure umbrella because he’s reviving a show that I love.
Be that as it may, the chances of him getting caught up in some dumb shit and getting canned are as good as the odds that he successfully replaces Corso as GameDay’s resident court jester.