Fifteen years ago next month, ESPN's College GameDay was hosted by an FCS team (at the time, still classified as DI-AA) for the first time. The GameDay crew traveled to Philadelphia’s University City to visit Franklin Field, the oldest football stadium in the country, as Penn hosted Harvard. Lee Corso dressed up as Ben Franklin. It was quite a production.
The game itself wasn’t much to watch. Penn was en route to its fifth Ivy League title under legendary head coach Al Bagnoli, and the Quakers toppled Harvard 44-9.
That day, 14 years after on-campus GameDay shows began, marked a watershed moment for non-FBS schools. Since that November morning in 2002, six other GameDay shows have been hosted by FCS schools, including four — with a fifth coming up — since 2013.
This weekend, James Madison will become the third FCS team to appear on the show multiple times, joining North Dakota State and Harvard. JMU will host Villanova.
NCAA.com spoke with James Madison’s assistant athletic director for communications, Kevin Warner, on Wednesday to get a better idea of what goes into the week before College GameDay for an FCS school.
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It began on Sunday, Oct. 8, six days and four hours before kickoff. GameDay’s announcement would come at 1:09 p.m. ET; a little after 12:45 p.m., ESPN contacted James Madison to let them know they would be Saturday’s host.
“Yeah, we had about 20 minutes’ notice,” Warner said.
The process really began back in August, when the athletic department reached out to ESPN and told them they’d be interested in hosting GameDay this season. They pointed to Oct. 14, home against Villanova, as a matchup that might pique viewers’ interest.
“We said this week might be an attractive game to keep in their back pocket,” Warner said, “but ESPN doesn’t tell you very much about your chances. We knew we were being considered, but we also knew we weren’t the ‘favorites.’”
Thanks to their 2015 appearance, once the call came down confirming ESPN’s decision, Warner and the athletic department leapt into action. So did ESPN.
Here’s how the week works, according to Warner:
Sunday, post-announcement: “Within an hour we had a packet of info from GameDay about how they set up their footprint, power needs, utility needs. Some of the basics of what the layout will look like.”
Monday: “The next day they bring advance staff for a walkthrough, look at the layout, make sure they feel good. And once everybody feels good about everything, that sets the thing in motion.”
Guess who's back... pic.twitter.com/Pcg2Q2663K— JMUSports (@JMUSports) October 8, 2017
Tuesday: “We had to cut down a couple tree limbs and move a few benches so trucks could get in. We had to work around the class schedule, because our spot is in the middle of campus. Right smack in the middle.”
Wednesday: “They moved in at 6 a.m. this morning. It was raining, so they had to put down a bamboo lattice, or plywood, so the trucks wouldn’t dig up the grass space too much. This evening they start a little unloading.
Thursday: “Tomorrow it’s the full setup of the stage and compound area.”
Friday: “The talent gets here Friday, and they do talent prep.”
Warner said the sheer number of people needed to coordinate this at a school, especially one like James Madison not used to gigantic ESPN productions, is sort of astounding.
“The people at JMU are tremendous,” Warner said. “We have a very customer service-oriented approach across the University. Everyone bent over backwards to make this a great experience. This is a great experience to show the world the school we love. From housekeepers and electricians, to folks who help the trucks move — probably hundreds of people make this work. Then ESPN rolls the truck out Saturday, and within two hours you won’t know they were here.”
It’s an undertaking, one few FCS teams have experienced. When GameDay arrives, you want to make the most of it.
North Dakota State was the face of the FCS on ESPN just a few years ago, the only school to host in back-to-back years. The Bison are also the leading scorers (109) and leading defenders (0 points allowed) among FCS teams in GameDay history. The second time GameDay rolled into to Fargo, Carson Wentz, now throwing for the Philadelphia Eagles, led the Bison to 508 yards of offense and a 58-0 win over Incarnate Word.
The Bison are the kings of FCS GameDay history, but this weekend presents James Madison, 0-1 in GameDay appearances after a 59-49 shootout loss to Richmond in 2015, with a chance to climb the “points scored” leaderboard. If the Dukes manage an FCS GameDay record of 60 points on Saturday vs. No. 11 Villanova, they would pass the Bison for first place.
Even without 60 points, JMU is excited about the opportunity to host two GameDay shows in three years. The appearance follows last year’s national championship, the program’s first in 12 years, and signals the official return of the Dukes as an FCS power.
“We’re riding a huge wave of momentum, from the first GameDay, to the championship, to this GameDay,” Warner said. “Who knows where this year goes? But this is an exciting time. I don’t know if equity in JMU football, and even JMU athletics, has ever been higher than it is right now. That’s an excitement level we want to capture, and just have everyone along for the ride.”
|Nov. 16, 2002||Harvard at Penn||44-9, Penn|
|Nov. 26, 2005||Grambling State vs. Southern||50-35, Grambling State|
|Nov. 15, 2008||Hampton at Florida A&M||45-24, Florida A&M|
|Sep. 21, 2013||Delaware State at North Dakota State||51-0, NDSU|
|Sep. 13, 2014||Incarnate Word at North Dakota State||58-0, NDSU|
|Nov. 22, 2014||Yale at Harvard||31-24, Harvard|
|Oct. 24, 2015||Richmond at James Madison||59-49, Richmond|
|Oct. 14, 2017||Villanova at James Madison||TBD|