IOWA CITY, Iowa — At black-and-gold Kinnick Stadium where any shade of red is both abhorred and discouraged, University of Iowa officials will roll out a more palatable-looking but equally regal carpet for ABC’s No. 1 college football crew on Saturday night.
Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Maria Taylor will call the Hawkeyes’ home game against No. 4 Penn State. Both teams are unbeaten. Late in the evening, the Goodyear Blimp will show the stadium color-striped by section. Early in the day, warm weather will turn the typical carnival atmosphere surrounding the Iowa campus into a Midwestern Mardi Gras.
That’s college football in America. It’s as unique to Iowa City as it is to Oxford, Miss., Stillwater, Okla., and Baton Rouge, La. It’s celebrated and enjoyed and no pregame show does a better job of airing those traditions than ESPN College GameDay.
For the better part of 20 years, ESPN’s weekly road show has hit campuses filled with rowdy, excited students crowded around its stage. The signs are as iconic as the scene. College GameDay usually broadcasts from the week’s biggest game location with an occasional detour into a unique non-college setting.
That’s what ESPN opted to do this week. For the first time, College GameDay will air from Times Square in New York City. It’s 100 miles from ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., and a lively hotspot 24 hours a day. However, how many people in that area will know — or care — that there’s a live college football show in Times Square on a Saturday morning? It’s a melting pot for America, perhaps the greatest city on earth — and the least interesting place to experience college sports outside of Madison Square Garden.
Instead, College GameDay should have set up at Hubbard Park in Iowa City, just as it did on Sept. 30, 2006. That’s the last time the flagship football show aired live from Hawkeyeland. For 187 consecutive showings, College GameDay has stayed away from Iowa City. That’s too long for a campus that has featured a football team ranked in the top 10 in four different seasons since 2006, and one that has finished there twice in 11 years.
College GameDay last came when No. 1 Ohio State played No. 13 Iowa when both teams were 4-0. It was a beautiful weather day and more than 10,000 fans crowded the large park wedged between the golden-domed Old Capitol and the Iowa River. Several Iowa students lined up as early as 1 a.m. to sprint their way to the front of the line. It was both a wild and spirited scene. When the show ended at 11 a.m. CT, most of the students left for their apartments and dorm rooms to get some rest before tailgating that night.
I stayed around for a few hours that day. ESPN College GameDay’s radio show also was live from Hubbard Park. Anchoring the coverage that day was Dave Revsine. Ten years ago, Revsine became the face and voice for the upstart Big Ten Network. That was when the Pac-12 had 10 teams, the Big Ten had 11, the SEC and Big 12 had 12 and the Big East was a BCS conference. In fact, because of expansion and realignment, Ohio State has played at Kinnick Stadium just once since College GameDay last appeared in Iowa City.
The game lacked any joy for Iowa. The Buckeyes dusted the Hawkeyes 38-17. But the scene was unforgettable. That’s why it’s a shame College GameDay hasn’t returned to Iowa in more than a decade. It had plenty of opportunities to do so, but Iowa has become the equivalent of ESPN flyover country.
When the Hawkeyes were 9-0 in 2009 and faced Northwestern, College GameDay should have been there. In 2010, when No. 13 Iowa played host to No. 10 Wisconsin with the Big Ten lead at stake in their final meeting before realignment, it marked the perfect setting for College GameDay. It could have happened the following week against No. 5 Michigan State. Or at any point in 2015 when Iowa concurrently was both the darling and the villain of college football.
Instead, ESPN has ignored Iowa City. In the last 11 years, 68 other locations have staged College GameDay. Successful programs in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Eugene, Ore., each have hosted eight times. Columbus and Baton Rouge, La., provided the backdrop seven times apiece and plenty of others have hosted three times or more. Stillwater, Okla., has hosted four times, as has East Lansing, Mich., and Gainesville, Fla. Each of those schools has played big games worthy of the national stage. This isn’t a gripe at them at all.
Neutral sites hosting bowls or conference championship games have witnessed College GameDay, which isn’t relevant to this discussion. In fact, College GameDay was at the Big Ten Championship Game in 2015 and the 2016 Rose Bowl. Iowa participated in both.
Seven different current non-Power 5 locations have served as host, from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Fargo, N.D. (twice) since the last time Iowa City hosted College GameDay. There’s Harrisonburg, Va., and Hadley, Mass. Nobody disagrees with small-school locations. Shoot, add more. Go to Knox vs. Monmouth in Illinois, where they battle for a Bronze Turkey, or see Eastern Iowa Division III foes Coe vs. Cornell, the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi.
College GameDay has traveled to opening-day games in Green Bay, Wis., Arlington, Texas, and Atlanta. It’s been to Army-Navy games in Philadelphia and Baltimore. It’s also appeared at unique locations such as the U.S.S. San Diego, Bristol Motor Speedway, and now Times Square. Keep those coming, too, but not at Iowa’s expense.
This post sounds provincial — and it is — but alongside Iowa City, college football hotbeds Lincoln, Neb., and Fayetteville, Ark., have been ignored for the last decade as well. Even Columbia, S.C. (four) and Salt Lake City (three) have become regular College GameDay stops.
Fans from locations such as Iowa scour the national schedule, hope for the right wins and cross their fingers that their home game fits the profile. Certainly that’s what happened for this week’s game against Penn State. They hoped the Hawkeyes wouldn’t stub their toe against Wyoming or North Texas (which they didn’t) and saw Iowa-Penn State as the nation’s top game, along with TCU-Oklahoma State. Then, poof, College GameDay announced it would air in New York City. Another letdown.
This week is the 187th straight episode not originating in Iowa City. That number surely will tick higher and higher. Maybe Iowa-Ohio State has a shot on Nov. 4, but that’s the LSU-Alabama and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State weekend. Maybe in 2018 the Iowa-Wisconsin game on Sept. 22 has enough cache. But probably not because Florida plays at Tennessee. In 2019, Penn State comes back to Iowa City. Maybe then? Nah, ESPN instead will air GameDay from Mount Rushmore. Or from Augusta National. Or from Area 51.
With ABC/ESPN’s top college football crew already scheduled to call the Hawkeyes game Saturday night, it made too much sense to air the show live from Iowa City. Instead, Kirk Herbstreit will start his morning in Manhattan then hop in a plane and call a game at Kinnick Stadium. It sounds like a waste of his time.
Unfortunately, ESPN wasted an opportunity along with it.