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Utah will always have a special place in Rece Davis' heart.
Or, um, his closet.
When he showed up last fall to host ESPN's "College GameDay" in Salt Lake City for then-No. 5 Utah's game against Cal, the Utes' equipment staff offered him a Utah jersey with "Davis" stitched on the back. It was Davis' first year hosting the show, taking over for longtime host Chris Fowler, and the gift gave him a certain kind of feeling: They really like me.
"It's something I've kept a really nice gesture by them," Davis told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. "We enjoy being able to showcase that program."
And the program really enjoys being able to showcase itself on "College GameDay."
On Thursday afternoon, roughly 50 crew members, dressed head to toe in nondescript black shirts and pants, were busy assembling the set in Presidents Circle at the University of Utah for a short Friday broadcast on ESPN, followed by the three-hour show Saturday morning that leads into the first slate of Saturday's college football games.
The Saturday afternoon matchup (1:30 p.m.) between No. 17 Utah and No. 4 Washington will be the centerpiece of the program, with a backdrop of thousands of screaming Ute fans waving signs, as well as the campus' vibrant fall foliage. Davis said Salt Lake City provided one of the biggest, most boisterous crowds last year, and the show is expecting a strong encore performance this Saturday
Utah first learned it could host "GameDay" for the second straight year last week, provided it beat UCLA in the coming game and Washington remained undefeated. Steve Pyne, Utah's director of event and facilities management, equated waiting for "GameDay" as "that feeling you get on Christmas morning," only instead of a gift, Pyne and his staff get to work days that stretch 16 hours and beyond to get set up and ready.
But it's an effort the Utes gladly put forth, not just to get exposure for their football program on the country's signature college football show, but to also showcase the U., the city and the state to a national audience on what ESPN producer Jim Gaiero calls "the best three hours on live television."
"Well, we're into [spring-into-action mode] for all the days this week and we've got a lot of people on staff putting in extra hours," athletic director Chris Hill said. " 'GameDay' here, in some ways, is a chance to validate a lot of our goals as a national program and university."
There are tangible benefits in both exposure and interest from being on "GameDay." Cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said dozens of recruits some of whom Utah has been attempting to get in for weeks have called this week to see if they can fly out to Salt Lake City.
Junior defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi said he gets more interaction from students walking across campus who either want to ask how ready he is for the Huskies or tell him about their Friday night campout plans by the "GameDay" set.
"Everybody wants to see how you feel, how you're preparing with the game coming up," he said. "I have a bunch of friends telling me their sign ideas and stuff like that."
Most of the show's operation is self-contained. Crews bring in six trucks and buses with their own set, barricades, generators, broadcasting equipment and security. If they need anything extra, they can roll down to Home Depot the show's title sponsor and pick up extra equipment, like the dozen wooden pallets they brought in Wednesday. Since Gaiero last worked on the show in 2002 (he took over production this year for longtime producer Lee Fitting), he said "it's really evolved" to be a self-sustaining production.
"We've got the best people, who really live and breathe college football," he said. "Everything about this show is magical. We can go anywhere and do anything."
But the U. has a lot to plan out: On Monday morning, Pyne was one of a handful of university and athletic administrators plotting out how exactly to give "GameDay" extra staffing for construction and security; how to plan around performances at Kingsbury and Gardner halls; how to plan around construction on the George Thomas Building (which wasn't there last year); and how to market the whole darn thing.
Hosting it for a second-straight year made some things flow a little more smoothly. ESPN staged "GameDay" in the same location last year, and Pyne said a lot of those logistics were already planned out. But that doesn't take away the adrenaline rush for him and his staff.
"I try to stay somewhat even-keeled, not coming off a roller coaster," said Pyne, who is in his 36th year working at Utah. "But I get juiced. It's a business like none other. I'm just happy to be a part of the group."
While the week-to-week locations are usually under wraps until after Saturday's games have been played, "GameDay" panelists teased last week that Salt Lake City was on their radar. Said Davis: "We don't mind dropping a little hint here and there."
He called the Utah fans "a great backdrop" for the show last year and expects that element to take care of itself. Other pieces still require more work between now and Saturday.
"GameDay" is in part famous for its picks segment, which features panelist Lee Corso donning a mascot head but also a celebrity guest picker. Gaiero revealed that "GameDay" gets its guest the same way a group of friends decides on where to get dinner: a five-person text thread in which each member throws out ideas.
Last week, Gaiero wrangled legendary CBS play-by-play man Verne Lundquist for a game in Tuscaloosa after running into him at an airport. The week before, the crew worked in wrestling showman Ric Flair for a show in Madison, Wis. And here last year, Jazz Hall of Famer John Stockton jetted in from his hometown of Spokane to pick Utah in its game against Cal all while sporting a Ute cap, of course.
Who's up this week?
"We're still working on it," he said.
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College GameDay fan guide
If you're coming to the University of Utah's Presidents Circle for Saturday's "College GameDay" broadcast, a few things to know:
• There will be a broadcast on ESPN from 11:30 a.m. to noon on Friday, then the show itself will run Saturday from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.
• Overnight camping will be allowed in Presidents Circle starting at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon.
• The line will form early Saturday morning before the broadcast to get into "The Pit" behind the "GameDay" set and appear on camera.
• Signs are welcome, but cannot be on sticks. Food, drink, backpacks and purses will not be allowed into "The Pit."