BRISTOL, Conn. (AP) — Lee Corso looks down at his notes and asks: “How do you say this guy’s name?”
“Stid-um,” Kirk Herbstreit responds and then begins to spell Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s last name for his longtime ESPN “College GameDay” partner. A few letters in, Herbstreit reaches over and says, “Here, let me get that for you.”
Herbstreit writes the name on the sheet of paper, and then they ready themselves to record the next segment.
Now 82 and eight years removed from a stroke, Corso is back for a 30th season on “College GameDay.” He can still energize college kids on a Saturday morning like a free-beer tailgate, and for millions of viewers the games don’t begin until he dons a mascot head and picks the day’s marquee matchup. But getting Corso through a show also requires some help, both on the air and behind the scenes. At times his contributions are off topic. Names come out wrong. Words can escape him.
Herbstreit, Rece Davis, Desmond Howard, David Pollack and the rest of the “GameDay” crew have adjusted. Instead of Corso’s limitations hindering the show, they make it more compelling. It feels real, not staged, and for live TV, that’s usually a good thing
“To this day there’s no question in my mind that all the great things that coach adds to the show outweigh those times when his tongue may get tied or he stumbles on his speech or he stumbles over a few words or has trouble getting something out,” said Lee Fitting, who was “GameDay” producer for 12 years and now oversees all ESPN’s college studio and remote programs. “And the times when he does struggle to get some words out, the way in which Kirk and Rece and Desmond and David help coach along, pick up that slack, makes up for it.
“It’s endearing to the viewer. It’s the family members picking another member of the family up.”
Corso signed a new multiyear contract with ESPN earlier this year. Fitting said it was a no-brainer for the network to bring Corso back. Corso said it was the same for him.
“This job is like stealing. I travel first class in a nice plane. I have a driver waiting for me. I go in a room and have room service. I have a meeting. Then I go to the best game of the weekend and talk football — and they pay me. You gotta be kidding me,” Corso said. “Why the hell would I leave something like this?”
Corso played quarterback at Florida State in the 1950s, and roomed with teammate Burt Reynolds. He went on to a 27-year coaching career that included stints as head coach at Louisville, Indiana and Northern Illinois. His last coaching job was with the Orlando Renegades of the USFL in 1985. Two years later, he was hired by ESPN.
He was a natural on TV, quick-witted, spontaneous and unafraid. In 1996, Herbstreit, the former Ohio State quarterback, joined Corso and host Chris Fowler on “GameDay.”
“Everything he did, I mimicked,” Herbstreit said of Corso.
That relationship has grown from coach-quarterback to more father-son over two decades. Herbstreit said he would turn to Corso for advice on marriage and raising kids. As for making it in TV, Corso said Herbstreit needed only a little guidance.
“I kept harping on him, first thing: You’re so good looking. Make sure you’re not off camera,” Corso said.
On May 16, 2009, at 8:30 a.m., Corso went to get the paper in front of his home in Florida. When he came back inside, his wife could tell something was very wrong. He was having a stroke.
“I vowed that I’d be back — and I couldn’t talk,” Corso said. He did make it back that season. He was slower, more deliberate.
“You have to realize you’ll never be the same,” Corso said. “But you have to adjust your life.”
He adjusted and so did “GameDay.” Especially Herbstreit.
During the taping of the season preview show last week in Bristol, Corso touted Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph as his Heisman Trophy pick. Later in the segment, he referred to Rudolph as Randolph and Herbstreit turned it into a funny exchange involving Davis and Howard, too. In another segment about what conference will be the best this season, Corso responded with how Alabama would beat Florida State. Herbstreit, this time more subtly but with a smile, steered the conversation back on topic.
“The worst thing I can do is correct him a lot,” Herbstreit said. “So it’s a very fine line between never embarrassing him, never correcting him too much, or letting him comfortably get his words out. Not jumping to the rescue too soon, but not letting him just hang out there alone.”
Fitting said Corso is usually involved in about half of the 3-hour show’s 11 or 12 segments. The “GameDay” crew is keenly aware of making sure Corso is not alone on camera when he gets stuck.
“It quickly becomes much more conversational. Kirk can help Lee through it. He puts his arm on coach. It’s much more comfortable and tolerable for the viewer than … that isolated shot,” Fitting said.
On Thursday night, a special edition of “GameDay” will air from Bloomington, Indiana, before the Hoosiers play No. 2 Ohio State. It will be the first time Corso has seen Indiana play in person since he was coach from 1973-82. Later this season, he will make his 300th head-gear pick. The first came at Ohio State when he convinced Herbstreit to help him get Brutus Buckeye’s head.
Herbstreit said thinking about “GameDay” without Corso is “terrifying.” Corso said he will keep doing the show as long ESPN lets him.
“If they don’t think I can contribute to the show then tell me, ‘OK, Lee, it’s time for you to go.’ I’ll go,” he said. “That’s it. I just want to go. I (don’t) want no rocking chair.”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at http://www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP