Funny Business

Lee Corso, ESPN’s College GameDay icon, tackles life with a full (mascot) head of steam.



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The voicemail at his Dixon Ticonderoga office, makers of the iconic No. 2 pencil activates on the fourth ring, and the unmistakably frenetic voice of ESPN college football kicks in like a double-shot of espresso.

 

 

 

 

Hi, this is Lee Corso. I’m not in right now. So please leave your name, telephone number and a date, and I’ll call you back as soon as I return. (pause) Life is gooood.

 

It is only with those last three words from the voicemail at the day job he still maintains that Corso doesn’t meld syllables like some frenzied disclaimer at the end of a prescription drug commercial. In fact, he drawls the word “good” with beatific glee. A few days later, just down the road at his home in Heathrow, I sit with Corso on his patio, overlooking a pool that overlooks a lake that overlooks paradise, where deer sometimes appear in his backyard. And I want to talk about just that—the good life.

Corso, though, is apologizing for the way his voice sounds, like a soundtrack running a half-tick too slow, barely perceptible but still noticeable, like someone has ladled molasses onto his words. He explains that he had a stroke four years ago, and he’s still battling the aftereffects of one of the darkest days of his 78 years—a reminder that life is not always good.

“It happened right there, right there in the chair you’re sitting in,” Corso says. “It was May 16, 2009, 8:30 in the morning. I walked out and got the paper and sat down right there where you’re sitting to read it. My wife came out, took one look at me, and she knew. Half my face was sagging, and when I tried to talk… nothing. Gibberish.”
Later, at the hospital, things didn’t look good. “My first swallow test, I failed,” he says. “I cried. Cried like a baby. Of all things. To lose my speech. I make my living with my speech.”

Does he ever. A star Florida State football and baseball player and later a respected college football coach, Lee Corso has carved a legacy with ESPN as its avuncular voice for college football, a three-time Emmy Award winner known for his unbridled passion and his unique—and now iconic—way of predicting winners. The climax of ESPN’s wildly popular College GameDay show is when Corso dons the headgear of the mascot of the school he’s picking to win, to the consternation or celebration of thousands of fans who turn out for the spectacle.

It all started innocently enough with Brutus Buckeye, the Ohio State mascot. The GameDay crew, which at the time was Corso, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, was doing an October 5, 1996, game in Columbus, Ohio, where the No. 3 Buckeyes were hosting No. 4 Penn State. “He got the craziest idea,” Herbstreit once recalled on ESPN. “He said to me, and my wife was a former cheerleader at Ohio State, ‘Would Allison be willing to talk to the cheerleader adviser and see if I can put on the Brutus head?’”

Herbstreit followed up, and only after intense negotiations did Ohio State allow Corso’s hands to get on Brutus’ head. “When it came time to make my pick, I didn’t have to say a word,” Corso says. “I put that Brutus head on and the crowd went crazy, the film crew went crazy, the guys in the production truck went crazy, ESPN went crazy. And I thought, ‘I think I have a shtick here.’”

He did. A silly one? For sure. Unabashed showmanship? Absolutely.

“I’m in the entertainment business,” he says. “I’m an entertainer and football is my vehicle. People tune in Saturday mornings to be entertained, not overwhelmed by Xs and Os.”

And so every college football GameDay program builds to that climactic moment when Corso smothers his cranium with an oversized piece of outlandish headgear—or occasionally introduces a live animal mascot onto the set or even dances an Irish jig in a leprechaun outfit if his pick is Notre Dame.

“It’s become a part of college football pop culture,” notes Fowler, GameDay’s host. “The whole show builds to that moment. Lee has great instincts, natural talent. He’s a showman. But it’s organic. It’s never scripted. And people see that passion. It comes through in a very real way. There’s show business and there’s false theatrics, and Lee never crosses that line. What you see is his natural exuberance.”

While people agree that his pick shtick is all in fun, they’re not always agreeable. These are college football fans, after all, the most irrational subset of fans in American sports. Adults dress up as hogs and horned frogs, terrapins and terriers, ducks and devils, frothing with fanaticism, all on an otherwise perfectly pleasant Saturday afternoon.
Corso estimates he has done 220 of these College GameDay predictions, donning headgear. “That means I’ve pissed off 220 sets of fans,” he says. “By now, I’ve probably at one time or another pissed off everyone in the country.” He giggles and swivels 360 degrees in his patio chair, like a hyperactive kid.

It’s funny, but it’s not. Once, while doing a GameDay show at Michigan State, Corso donned Biff the Wolverine’s headgear and picked Michigan to win. Immediately, Spartan fans pelted the set with cans, bottles, snowballs—and expletives. Another time, when Corso was walking through an airport, a fan asked about the Georgia Bulldogs’ chances that Saturday. Not good, Corso replied. After fending off the man’s attempts to choke him, he recalls, “I ran as fast as I could.”

Corso laughs a laugh more like a hoot, spinning in his chair again. “I’m telling ya, it’s wild,” he says. “You oughta see the little ol’ ladies yelling, and yelling bad things! Cursing at you. These sweet-looking ol’ ladies, dressed up all nice. I’m telling ya, they turn into crazy characters.”

These days, the GameDay set is encased in protective netting and Corso is always escorted by armed security. “Usually it’s two of the biggest state troopers we can find,” he says. And there are other precautions. “I stay at a hotel under an assumed name. I don’t go anywhere without those state troopers with me. Mostly, I just stay in my room. I don’t go out. When I go to the game, it’s usually in some police car.” He smiles. “Southern officers are the greatest, really nice. Usually, they’re former football players.”
Corso was a former football player, and a great one.

The only child of Italian immigrant parents, the Corso family left the Chicago suburb of Cicero for Miami when Lee was 10, partly because of the warm weather and partly to flee their neighborhood, where Al Capone and other gangsters lived. Corso’s father knew what bad guys could do. He had escaped Fonzaso, a small burg in Northern Italy, during World War I, only 15, shortly after German soldiers hung him upside down in the town plaza as an example.
A lifelong laborer, Alessandro Corso had a second-grade education, his wife, Irma, a fifth-grade education. Everything was poured into young Lee.

“My parents worked hard their whole lives,” Corso says, his eyes misting. “My father would tell me, ‘What a great country this is, that I could have a son like you, and he can get a college degree.’”

Alessandro laid terrazzo flooring, while Irma worked in school cafeterias and boarding houses. “My junior year in high school, my father took me to work with him,” Corso recalls. “It was summer, and it was blazing hot in Miami. And we’re working with white terrazzo for 75 cents an hour. After that, my father told me, ‘Now you understand why you’re going to go to college.’”

At Miami’s Jackson High School, Corso played quarterback in football, shortstop in baseball and guard in basketball. When he graduated in 1953, the Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a $5,000 signing bonus, projecting that he’d one day replace their future Hall of Famer, Pee Wee Reese. His father nixed it, though. Lee was going to college, and he did, at Florida State, where his second year there his roommate was a kid named Buddy Reynolds, later to be known as Burt Reynolds.

“Boy, he was good-looking,” Corso says. “I used to send him to the student union as bait. He’d come back with two girls, one good-looking and the other... ehhh.” He laughs. “I figured whatever he brought back for me was a lot better than what I could do for myself. I had this two-door Chevrolet that my dad had painted metallic green. We called it the Green Hornet. With his looks and my car, we made the dynamic duo. After his first year [playing football], he got hurt. That’s when he told us, ‘I’m going to Hollywood.’ I laughed at him.”

Corso, meanwhile, went on to a four-year career as a two-way starter on the football team as quarterback, halfback, receiver and cornerback, and as a shortstop and centerfielder in baseball. He was nudged from shortstop by a kid named Dick Howser, who later played for and managed the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees. But it was on the football field where Corso excelled. Nicknamed the “Sunshine Scooter,” he at various times led the Seminoles in passing, receiving, rushing, interceptions, kick returns and punt returns. In fact, Corso held FSU’s career interception record (14) until Deion Sanders broke it in the last game of his college career.

He gravitated to coaching football, first as a graduate assistant at FSU and later as an assistant at Maryland and Navy. At Maryland, he was the first coach to recruit a black player into the Atlantic Coast Conference. His big break came when he got the Louisville job in basketball-rich Kentucky, where he stayed from 1969 to 1972, compiling a 28-11-3 record, trying to build a football program where hoops coach Denny Crum reigned. He followed that at Indiana, another basketball power where Bobby Knight was everything. Corso coached for 10 years, compiling a 41-68-2 record, leading the Hoosiers to their first-ever bowl victory, a 38-37 Holiday Bowl victory over No. 8 Brigham Young.

One day, while on a recruiting trip, his wife, Betsy, called him.

“Are you sitting down?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

“Honey, I think you should. I’ve just learned that you’ve been fired.”

The pain still works its way into the creases in Corso’s face.

“They didn’t have to do it that way, in the newspaper,” he says. “That’s how my kids found out, when they were at school. They came home crying. It hurt. Bad. Nothing in my professional life will ever compare to that. It about destroyed me. I’ve never forgotten that feeling.”

After being out of coaching for a year, he got the head job at Northern Illinois in 1984. While there, he received a phone call from Don Dizney, owner of United States Football League’s Orlando Renegades. Dizney had been in the health care industry in Kentucky and knew Corso from the coach’s days at Louisville.

“It was 40 below in DeKalb, Illinois,” Corso says, embellishing a bit. “I asked him what the temperature was in Orlando. He said 70. I said, ‘I’ll be right there.’” The following year, though, the USFL folded, and Corso found himself not just out of work, but out of coaching.

“How did I know I was done coaching?” he says, parroting back a question. “I’ll tell you how I knew I was done coaching. Because they quit asking me to coach.”

In love with Orlando—“I wouldn’t live any other place; this is Utopia”— Corso got a real estate license and managed an office on Sand Lake Road. In the back of his mind, though, he thought he might be good on television. He had enjoyed it whenever he did his coach’s show, and he had discovered at Indiana that he could meld seriousness with humor (he taped his show at WTHR in Indianapolis, where the local weatherman and sometime anchor was a kid named David Letterman). “The more I did TV, the more comfortable I felt,” Corso says.

Probably his most memorable show was just after Indiana had suffered a bad loss. Arriving at the studio, Corso noticed a coffin, a Halloween week prop. When the cameras started rolling, the only thing viewers could see was the coffin. And then, slowly, Corso sat up from inside it.

“Hello folks…” he said. He sank back into the coffin, only to emerge a second later.

“This is Lee Corso…”
Again, he retreated before appearing again.

“And we ain’t dead yet!”
Corso chokes on laughter retelling the story.

“I did the whole show from that casket.”
As for mascots, Corso was a showman with them long before his ESPN gig. Once, before Louisville faced a heavily favored Tulsa team, the coach decided his Cardinals needed inspiration.

“When I was coaching at Navy, we would rally around a goat, and I thought, ‘We need something to rally around for this game,’” Corso recalls. “It was on Thanksgiving Day, so I thought—a turkey.”
An assistant coach found a live one in Tulsa. The bird was decorated in red and black crepe paper (the school colors), Corso had a leash put on it, and the team captain walked the turkey to midfield for the coin toss. Late in the game, during a critical goal-line stand, Corso called a timeout and had his players rally around the turkey.

“I bet Tulsa’s coach that if they won, they could have the turkey to eat,” Corso told his players. “We gotta win it for the turkey! Win one for the turkey!”

Of course, there was no such bet. Inspired nonetheless, his players shut down Tulsa on the goal line and won the game.

“Afterward,” Corso says, “they carried me and the turkey off the field.”

Another time at Louisville, the team’s publicist asked Corso to ride an elephant in a parade to advertise both a circus at the fairgrounds and season tickets for football games. During the 45-minute ride, Corso pulled both groin muscles, ruined a new pair of pants riding bareback—“an elephant’s hair is like needles”—and bled so badly from a rope cutting into his fingers that he still has scars.

“And every few minutes, the elephant would point his trunk back at me and spit in my face. To make it worse, we only sold four season tickets.”

And this was the guy sitting in a real estate office on Sand Lake Road? Turns out, not for long.

It was 1987 when ESPN, in only its eighth year of existence, had an opening for a college football color commentator. Corso and one other candidate auditioned. Corso won’t say who the other guy was, but he does recount their conversation as they waited for their flights home.

“I asked him how it went, and he told me that he told ESPN he only wanted to do two games a month, he wanted to travel first class and he didn’t want to do any night games. I told him, ‘I might not get this job, but I know for sure you’re not getting it.’” Corso, meanwhile, had told ESPN, “I’ll do anything you want me to do, if you just give me a chance.”

They did, and he’s been there ever since.
Though Corso isn’t in real estate anymore, he went to work for Heathrow-based pencil manufacturer Dixon Ticonderoga in 1992 as their director of business development, a position he still holds. It is why, on College GameDay, he waves one of those iconic No. 2 yellow pencils when making a point. Like everything else, using the pencil as a prop happened spontaneously. He needed an outlet for his fidgety energy, and only later did he realize what a brilliant marketing move it was.

Same with one of his favorite catchphrases—“Not so fast, my friend.” On one show, fellow analyst Craig James was jabbing him verbally. Reaching for a comeback, Corso blurted, “Not so fast, my friend.” Viewers loved it, and it stuck, becoming another one of his shticks.

Corso hopes to stick with ESPN for as long as they’ll have him. His contract runs through the 2014 football season, when he’ll be 79. The stroke has slowed him, forcing him to routinely take naps. But slow for Lee Corso would still be considered manic for most people. It was through relentless work with therapists along with the help of his ESPN family that Corso was able to return to GameDay just four months after his stroke.

“He’s an inspiration,” Chris Fowler says. “At his age, the energy and passion he brings—it’s inspirational. While it’s a blast to do the show, it’s also a challenge. There are times when you’re sitting in 90-degree heat for three hours, with that crowd. It’s live. It takes energy, concentration and physical stamina. It’s more taxing than just sitting in a studio. To do that after what he’s been through, and to be able to wake up a crowd of 10,000 people like he does, let me tell you, you cannot replace Lee Corso.”
Not that he wants to be replaced.

“Retire?” Corso says, blurting the question back as if he were spitting out sour fruit.

“Huh? Why would I want to do that? I’m never going to quit. I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can. Let me tell you something, I fly first class on airplanes. I stay in first-class hotels. I eat first-class meals. I get to see the best college game of the week and I get to talk football. Then I get on a plane and fly first class back home.”

He pauses and smiles.

“And they pay me a helluva lot of money.”
His smile broadens, crinkling his blue eyes.
“I have the best job you could possibly have.”

Life is gooood

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