FARGO, N.D. — ESPN is calling an audible for its popular College GameDay show by departing from its typical large-campus backdrops — think Michigan and Clemson — and featuring North Dakota State, owners of back-to-back Football Championship Subdivision titles and an early season victory against a Big 12 team.
"North Dakota State, in a way, is sort of the Alabama of the FCS," GameDay senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting said, explaining why the show is coming to Fargo on Saturday. "They're two-time defending national champions, ranked No. 1 in the current poll, ten national titles for the program.
"The next question was, why not?"
The news made fans of Bison Nation ecstatic with the imminent arrival of Lee Corso and Co., but some of them are grumbling about where the show's setting up shop. Rather than broadcasting from the Fargodome, where dozens of green and yellow coach buses and other homemade party wagons gather for tailgating, ESPN will be in front of the city's historic Fargo Theatre.
Fitting said his director returned from a scouting trip to the city of about 100,000 people with a single recommendation that serves up a slice of postcard-worthy Americana.
"It just screamed at him as the best location," Fitting said.
Parts of Bison Nation think otherwise, so much so that officials with the school's athletic department have implored them to stop tweeting their displeasure to ESPN and pleaded with fans to come downtown before the 2:30 p.m. game against Delaware State.
"It'll be more than worth it to sacrifice three hours of tailgating to head downtown, support local businesses and provide the best welcome ESPN College GameDay has ever received," NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor said on the gobison.com website. Besides, Taylor said, the tailgating lots will open earlier than usual.
It's only the fourth time GameDay has featured an FCS matchup — the last in 2008 for Hampton at Florida A&M — and it comes during a week where there's a dearth of top-flight Football Subdivision games.
"The stars aligned right," Bison head coach Craig Bohl said.
Fitting also said GameDay has been moving away from stadiums and tailgating as backdrops, noting the Michigan show two weeks ago was on the quad instead of near the Big House and the Clemson set eschewed the exterior of Death Valley for a huge lawn on Aug. 31.
Fitting said he understands why some fans, particularly NDSU students, are worried about the nearly two-mile trip downtown.
"But we want to show off the school, we want to show off Fargo, we want to show off North Dakota in the absolute best light. The downtown area does that for what we're looking for," Fitting said, noting ESPN is working with the school to line up transportation.
Plus, the Bison play in a big brick building with a roof.
Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel said he expects people to begin lining up about 5 a.m. for the show, which runs from 9 to 12 a.m. ET.
"The tough part about this is that we have no idea how many people are going to show up," said Vettel, a former Bison wrestler. "We're going to prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
Former Fargo Theatre director Margie Bailly is excited about the show's choice of venue, saying Monday she might have to revise her career highlights, which include the chamber of commerce's highest honor for spearheading the $3 million renovation of the 85-year-old building and marquee.
"ESPN? Isn't that the pinnacle for an arts advocate?" Bailly said.
She then lauded the network for a choice she believes will help attract new students, contrary to those who want the football atmosphere front and center.
"If we have a cool downtown and an art-deco theater is cool, that positions us well in terms of the recruitment of students," she said. "If we have just a dead downtown, that's not going to be too exciting."