For complete coverage of The Game, visit the News’ Harvard-Yale 2014 landing page.
Chris Fowler is the main host for ESPN’s College GameDay, which is the nation’s most-viewed pregame college football show. With GameDay coming to Cambridge for the 131st edition of The Game, the News talked with Fowler about Saturday and the related festivities.
Q: What makes you excited about this game?
A: Well, we’re at the time of the year where at GameDay we get to come from Harvard-Yale to the Iron Bowl — Alabama-Auburn — and then Army-Navy on December 13th. So three great rivalries in the last four weeks, which is unbelievable for our show. We’ve never really had a run like this year featuring these kinds of different-textured rivalries. We’re excited to be able to kick it off. … We were very watchful of Yale’s game last week to make sure they got over the hump to get into this game where everything was on the line. That’s sort of how we want to present the rivalry, not just every year and the great history but also when there’s plenty at stake for both teams. We’ll do a good job explaining what’s unique about it, this is the last game for both teams — there are no bowl bids, no playoffs. There’s a big difference between having a nice year and being Ivy League champions and being a part of history, and being known as part of the great teams in that program’s history. In Harvard’s case, a perfect season. In Yale’s case, a symbolic rebuilding from the ashes of a few years ago. So I think in either case there’s a great story whoever wins.
Q: What do you think about Yale’s team so far and how much had you been following Yale and Harvard before this weekend?
A: Well, I followed the Army game. It’s difficult when you’re doing GameDay and doing games on Saturday nights. I’ll be very honest with you — it’s not like we’re paying attention to the Ivy League week in and week out. It’s just not possible to do. But the numbers are eye-catching … I think if you look at the matchup of Yale’s offense against Harvard’s defense, which is very good, that’s sort of a really attractive battle and something to grab a hold of. Harvard wants to limit Yale’s offense, Yale wins shootouts, so it’s a game of contrasting styles.
Q: What have you seen of [running back] Tyler Varga ’15 and can you talk about his style and whether you think he has professional prospects?
A: I’m going to talk to him later on. He has an interesting story. He’s 230 pounds, and hammers away and is extremely strong, comes from an athletic background, he’s an extremely hungry and motivated player who runs like someone who’s trying to make a living playing football … Who doesn’t love a 230 pound punishing back? He’s got a great attitude, works hard and happens to be a great student. And that’s why he’s on the list for the Campbell Trophy. He’s a great representative of the school, academically as well.
Q: There have been a lot of people saying that you should have chosen USC-UCLA over an FCS game like this. How do you respond to them?
A: I don’t. You can’t convince people who have fan biases. But we’ll highlight the fact that it’s one of the classic rivalries, it goes back to the birth of college football, and this is a really important chapter on Saturday. It’s a different equation when you’re talking the Ivy title. Yale is back, Harvard has been on a roll, the head-to-head is one-sided and that seems to inspire Yale more … If Yale had lost [against Princeton], I don’t think we’d be here. But it’s been on our radar for a long time, at least for a month or for six weeks. It’s no secret that our main mission, especially in the era of the playoffs, is to focus on a monster FBS game that the whole nation is looking at. This is the kind of week that allows us to do something different. We’re not ignoring a massive FBS game this week, it’s just the way the schedule sort of broke … I hope that’s not insulting you, it’s just a fact. If Auburn-Alabama were this week, we’d probably have to be there … We’re eager to get up there and focus on the yesteryear, on the tradition, the history, the unique stuff — Handsome Dan and the Little Red Flag and all the things both sides bring to it — but also the 2014 game and the kind of football played by both these teams.
Q: Can you describe how the week before the show works, and what sort of preparation you and the analysts do for the Harvard-Yale show, especially since the two schools are generally off the national radar?
A: In a rivalry, it’s a lot about understanding the history. In the early days of the sport, which I happen to know a little bit about, Harvard and Yale go back to 1875. I’m well aware of Walter Camp and his contributions, and without Harvard-Yale in some ways, modern college football would not exist. Yale has been one of the benchmark programs in the Northeast. You look back at all that history and refresh yourself, and then you focus on the 2014 game, and you focus on the traditions that are still around each program and the game itself. That’s the same way that Kirk, Lee, David Pollack and other guys are doing it. It’s in our normal wheelhouse to prepare for the Alabamas, the Ohio States, the USC’s. It’s fun to re-familiarize with the history and the traditions. I spoke to Coach Reno today, I’ll speak to Harvard’s people tomorrow. I’ll talk to a couple players tonight from Yale. We’re in and out doing the rest of the show … But the regular week goes on. Wherever GameDay is, I have a lot of other games up here on the stage. It’s not like FBS just grinds to a halt, you have to pay attention to other games as well.
Q: What sort of pre-game environment are you expecting out of Yale and Harvard fans?
A: I don’t know. I went to one Harvard-Yale game at the Yale Bowl in the 80s. It was very festive, the tailgate was very festive. What impressed me most about that though was how much it meant to the players. I think it’s a different texture at Harvard-Yale than it is with Auburn-Alabama, Ohio State-Michigan, and any other interesting rivalry in college football. What is more universal is the motivation and the drive of the players, how much it means to them. I expect that will come through when I talk to players on both sides. I think it will be a charged-up environment. I never really know what to expect. I’ve never been to Harvard for a game before, so it’s a little bit of a mystery and that makes it fun.
Q: GameDay is famous for the end of the show, where Lee Corso puts on the headgear of the team he picks to win. Given that Harvard’s mascot is a color, what is Lee going to put on his head of he picks Harvard?
A: [Audible laughter] I don’t know. They have a guy, don’t they? I don’t really know. They don’t have a live mascot. But I don’t know who he’s going to pick. We sort of leave that to him. He’ll play with the crowd wherever we go. He’ll think of something.
Q: He did Benjamin Franklin at the Harvard-Penn game.
A: That was one of my favorite ones. It was off the wall. He had this very cheesy looking Ben Franklin-looking costume which he threw on in 15 seconds. It was comedy, pure comedy.
Q: Did you hear about the boxing match that our student council president challenged Harvard’s student president to?
A: I did not hear about that. Is it going to happen?
Q: We’re not sure. The Harvard president seems to be a little less willing.
A: Does your student council president have a background in boxing?
Q: He’s doing ROTC for the Navy.
A: Oh, okay. Well then the guy has a right to be concerned. I don’t know if he wants to go rumble with an ROTC guy.