Northwestern braces for ESPN ‘Circus’; GameDay big part of big Saturday in Evanston

My latest Chicago Tribune column focuses on what might be Northwestern’s biggest regular-season game ever. The 4-0 Wildcats host No. 4 Ohio State in primetime. The game is big enough to merit a visit from ESPN’s GameDay.

You also can access the column via my Twitter feed.

Here’s an excerpt.


As the crowd goes, so goes the show.

With that in mind, Desmond Howard issued a challenge to the Northwestern faithful with ESPN’s “College GameDay” coming to Evanston on Saturday morning.

“We draw energy from the crowd,” the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan said. “That’s what makes our show special, our experience special. I’m interested to see what Northwestern’s got. If they come out and support the Wildcats, it will be a win-win for everybody.”

Howard, along with Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and a large supporting cast, are bringing “GameDay” to Lakeside Field in advance of the Northwestern-Ohio State game. It marks the first time the show will be on campus since the Wildcats’ Rose Bowl season in 1995; “GameDay” was at Wrigley Field for the NU-Illinois game in 2010.

The “GameDay” production will feature a crew of more than 100 people, nine trucks, 14 cameras and two Jumbotrons. Producer Lee Fitting calls it “a three-ring circus.”

“It’s like traveling with the Beatles,” said Gene Wojciechowski, the former Chicago Tribune sportswriter who does essays and features for “GameDay.”

Back in the early ’90s, ESPN decided to take “GameDay” on the road to capture the mood of being on campus on a college football Saturday. Fitting said fans usually camp out overnight to get the best spots on Saturday morning.

“We do one studio a year, our preview show, and it’s dreadful,” Fitting said. “Just being out there energizes the entire crew. Whenever I’m asked to describe what it is like, I say, ‘You’ve got to be there to really experience it.’ ”

Typically, “GameDay” visits that Saturday’s biggest game. Occasionally, though, it veers off to nontraditional stops. Two weeks ago, more than 15,000 people showed up for the telecast in Fargo, N.D., placing the spotlight on North Dakota State.

“If you wanted to sell (‘GameDay’) to foreign investors who never saw the show, you would show them that show,” Howard said.

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