It takes a village to put on ESPN’s “College GameDay” every week.
In addition to the large number of ESPN employees that are building the “College GameDay” set at Presidents Circle on the campus of the University of Utah, which began Thursday, an estimated 80 to 90 people from the university side are also involved in making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible this weekend.
“We’ve got a large contingent of university leadership, athletics leadership, and then several departments anywhere from the fire marshal to security to public safety to catering. The list goes on and on and on and on,” said Gavin Gough, the university’s associate athletics director for facilities, operations and capital projects.
On a tight schedule akin to the setup and teardown that happens at big arena and stadium concerts, a horde of trucks rolled into Salt Lake City on Thursday, and the crew began constructing the main stage, setting up giant TV screens, speakers and crowd barricades, among other things.
Before former Indianapolis Colts punter turned media personality Pat McAfee and his co-hosts take the stage at 10 a.m. MDT Friday morning for “The Pat McAfee Show,” live from the University of Utah, everything will be ready to roll, about 24 hours from when they first started setting things up.
The University of Utah officially found out that “College GameDay” would be coming to Salt Lake City at the same time everyone else did Sunday morning. Though U. administrators didn’t know for certain before that moment, ESPN did send them a prep letter several weeks in advance of the Utah-Oregon matchup to notify the school that they may be a candidate to host “College GameDay.”
“There’s a lot of factors that go into what sort of leans us or allows us to start thinking about it seriously and actually mobilize and start some of our planning,” Gough said. “But for this last week, we had an idea that it could happen if we were fortunate to win the game, which we were, and it was very exciting.”
After Utah took down USC on the road and Oregon took care of business against Washington State, it set up a top-15 clash between the No. 13 Utes and No. 8 Ducks. Each team has one loss, and the loser could be knocked out of Pac-12 title contention on Saturday.
The matchup is one of just two this weekend featuring two top-25 teams, the other being No. 18 Louisville vs. No. 20 Duke, so it was an obvious choice for “College GameDay.”
‘Block out the noise’
Saturday’s broadcast will be the fifth time the traveling pregame show has originated from Utah’s campus (2004: No. 5 Utah 52, BYU 21; 2010: No. 3 TCU 47, No. 5 Utah 7; 2015: No. 5 Utah 30, No. 23 Cal 24; 2016: No. 4 Washington 31, No. 17 Utah 24.)
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has been through the process before, three times as a head coach and once as a defensive coordinator.
He acknowledged that he and some players will be doing some extra media — Whittingham will appear on “The Pat McAfee Show” Friday at 12:30 p.m. MDT and “College GameDay” on Saturday at 8 a.m. MDT — but will try to keep his players in as normal of a routine as possible and try to have the players “block out the noise.”
“It’s great for the team as far as knowing that, hey, we’re the center of the college football universe this week, I guess,” Whittingham said. “And it’s a positive thing for them, and a reward of sorts, I guess you could say. For the community, it’s awesome, the university. It brings exposure to our brand and just the university and community in general. So I think it’s a win all across the board.”
Running back Ja’Quinden Jackson took Whittingham’s words to heart.
“We’re really not really focused on it. We really focused on one objective and that’s to come out with a ‘W,’” Jackson said, later saying that he wants “GameDay” viewers to know how tough and creative Utah is.
Tight end Landen King, who caught his second touchdown of the season against USC, sees “GameDay,” and playing Oregon, as a “full-circle” moment.
“I grew up watching ‘College GameDay,’ watching Oregon. De’Anthony Thomas, he was really one of my favorite players. So it’s really cool how everything’s coming full circle in life. So I’m really just appreciating every moment,” King said.
‘A three-hour commercial for our university’
The first two times the show came to town, it was broadcast live outside the main parking lot at Rice-Eccles Stadium, with the exterior of the venue providing the backdrop.
When “GameDay” came back five years later, the location was moved to Presidents Circle, with the backdrop the 109-year-old John R. Park Building. By now, college football viewers are familiar with Rice-Eccles Stadium, so the university wanted to put a spotlight on its campus.
“We identified President Circle as a really great opportunity and have loved it being there now two times and would be three times with this one,” Gough said.
“A lot of green space, a lot of open space, beautiful backdrop, centralized to campus, and what better area to highlight than that area of campus? This is a three-hour commercial for our university, and it’s a great spot for a lot of reasons, but it’s definitely picturesque.”
This season, “College GameDay” has attracted an average of 2 million viewers per show, That’s a lot of eyeballs on the University of Utah.
“It’s such a tremendous opportunity to showcase the excellence of this university as well as the athletics department and the football program. All of that is what is on display. And that’s really exciting, I think for not only all of us, but all of our fans,” said Paul Kirk, the senior associate athletics director for strategic communications at Utah.
The goal for Gough and his team is to make it as easy as possible for ESPN to do its thing this weekend. It helps that Utah’s hosted four “GameDays” (Gough assisted with the 2015 and 2016 shows), so the university knows the drill.
“It’s not as simple as them just showing up and parking and setting up the stage. There’s a lot that goes into the logistics ... Especially for this ESPN ‘College GameDay,’ this is a big-time deal, and we want them to remember how smooth it was for them and how friendly people were and how great it was to be on the University of Utah’s campus,” Gough said.
How to watch and attend “College GameDay,” and what Utah has planned
The festivities at the university start Friday at 10 a.m. MDT, when fans can attend the live broadcast of “The Pat McAfee Show,” which will be live from Presidents Circle until 1 p.m. MDT, followed by “College Football Live” from 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. MDT.
The guest picker has not been announced for “College GameDay,” but Ty Burrell and Lil Nas X will make appearances on the show. Features on quarterback Bryson Barnes and Whittingham will air during “GameDay.”
The university encourages all fans to arrive early to the set on Saturday morning, and University of Utah students can start camping out for “College GameDay” at 6 p.m. Friday night.
“College GameDay” begins its three-hour broadcast from Presidents Circle at 7 a.m. MDT, which can be watched on ESPN, with live “SportsCenter” spots starting at 5:45 a.m. MDT.
For a complete guide about how to watch and attend, including parking and public transportation, check out this article.
Utes on the air
No. 13 Utah 6-1)
vs. No. 8 Oregon (6-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM
With “GameDay” ending at 10 a.m. and the Utah-Oregon game starting at 1:30 p.m., Gough’s hope is that fans stick around campus and then arrive at the stadium early.
Most Utah fans want to forget about the 2010 TCU game, a 47-7 Horned Frogs victory, but one memory that sticks out from that contest was that the stadium was packed well before kickoff as fans stayed on campus after “GameDay” and filed into Rice-Eccles Stadium early for the afternoon kickoff.
“‘GameDay’ will be no longer live at 10 o’clock, but there’ll still be a lot of (sponsor) activations going on. There’s a lot of sponsorships, so there’s a lot that will still be going on after 10 a.m. and then our plan is to move that crowd back to the tailgate area,” Gough said.
“We’ve got a lot of really strong traditions over there on Guardsman Way with all the pregame festivities that we do. The timing works really nicely for getting people back to the tailgate over to the stadium to welcome the team (at 11:15 a.m.) and continue the party that it’s going to be on Saturday.”