By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Lee Corso doesn’t quite understand how he’s packed three lifetimes into his 77 crazy, unpredictable years on this planet.
Seems like it was just a few years ago he was a spry-legged 150-pound quarterback/defensive back for Florida State, with a roommate who would become the biggest movie star in the world.
Had to be just a couple of months back when he was a head coach, using his unabashed enthusiasm to lift destitute college football programs such as Louisville and Indiana.
Must have been only weeks ago when ESPN was started a new show called College GameDay, and the fledgling network gambled on the likeable, loony Lee to break new ground as analyst, imploring him to combine laughs with Xs and Os.
Saturday morning outside Cowboys Stadium, site of the Alabama-Michigan season opener, Lee will be where he has been every Saturday from September to December since 1987 when ESPN started College GameDay as a one-hour studio show.
“I was a decent athlete, I had 27 years in football as a coach and now starting my 26th year on TV,” says Lee, who played football and basketball for Florida State from 1953-57 and held the school’s career interception mark for almost 25 years, “I’ve had three distinct lives. God has blessed me very much.”
Maybe so. But in every phase of his wonderful ride, there are many people who claim Lee blessed them.
Some of them you know, like ESPN NFL analyst Tom Jackson, a former All-Pro linebacker for the Denver Broncos who Lee coached at Louisville.
Though Jackson measured a stumpy 5-8, he was a tackling machine. Every time a pro scout started having doubts because of Jackson’s height, Lee always fired back. “All the guy does it make tackles,” he’d say. “So if Jackson makes a tackle, are they gonna say, `Okay, he got the guy down, but he’s too short?’ ”
There’s also people Lee has connected with you may not know, like Al Carpenter, who has been a University of Indiana fan for 60 years. When Lee became Indiana’s coach in 1983, he noticed Carpenter, born with cerebral palsy, always at football practice.
“One day, Coach Corso said, ‘You understand people, so how would you like to be a part of my staff?’” Big Al told reporter Bailey Loosemore of the Indiana Daily Student newspaper last November.
Big Al was on Lee’s staff during Lee’s decade-long stay at Indiana, and one of Big Al’s prized possession is IU’s 1979 Holiday Bowl ring.
“I have his phone number, and he has mine,” Big Al said of Lee. “There are times I wish he was here to talk about anything.”
There are people like GameDay’s first and current hosts, Tim Brando and Chris Fowler respectively, who have cherished their time with Lee.
“I’ll always remember our rides to the airports on Sundays after our studio shows on Saturdays,” says Brando, GameDay’s original host in 1987-88 and who returned to the network in 1990-93 for halftime and between game updates. “I was probably looking into the future, knowing my value at ESPN was diminishing, because I was no longer living in Bristol (where ESPN is located). I talked about that with Lee, and he really made me feel good about the decisions. He imparted quite a bit of wisdom.”
Fowler, who joined GameDay in 1990, said he’s felt “fortunate to have a ringside seat” for Lee’s ascent to becoming a college football Saturday fixture.
“Lee’s passion for the sport is incomparable,” Fowler says. “He has such instincts as an entertainer that you can learn from him. He has the gift of saying something that will get your attention, and then he will make you laugh.
“I think he’s such a born showman that his knowledge of the game gets overlooked. He was a much better coach than people realize. He took over rebuilding situations everywhere he went.”
It never dawned on Lee to become a coach while he was playing for football and baseball for Florida State. It’s where Lee’s college roommate was a glib, good-looking guy named Burt Reynolds.
“Burt came to me one summer at Florida State,” Lee recalls, “and he says, `Cors, I’m gonna quit school.’ I said, `Why are you gonna do that?’ He said, `I’m going to Hollywood to be a movie star.’
“We all laughed. I said, `Good luck.’ ”
Starting in 1972 for about a decade, there wasn’t a bigger movie star in the world than Reynolds. Even as late as 15 years ago, he won a Golden Globe award and was nominated for an Academy Award.
“Burt been a great actor because he’s just acted like himself,” Lee says.
While Reynolds headed to Hollywood, Lee decided to become a coach. His 15-year college head coaching record of 73-85-6 and six winning seasons was not a reflection of his ability. He was simply hired by struggling programs – Louisville, Indiana and Northern Illinois – that needed a jolt from someone who thought outside the box.
But when all those schools hired Lee, they discovered he thought outside of this universe. As Jackson likes to say about his old Louisville mentor, “Nobody ever had more fun coaching than Lee Corso.”
The list of Lee’s craziness is legendary such as:
Riding an elephant in a circus to promote season ticket sales at Louisville: “I ride for an hour, pull two groin muscles and still have scars on my hands because elephant hair is sharp as needles,” Lee says. “I get off the elephant, it turns its trunk at me and spits. Then a guy comes up to me and says, `Congratulations Coach, you’ve sold four season tickets.’ ”
Waving a towel in surrender: The first time Lee plays Missouri Valley Conference archrival Memphis in 1969, Memphis coach Spook Murphy is destroying Lee’s team. When the score reaches 63-19, Lee is out on the field waving a towel and yelling, “Hey Coach Murphy, we surrender.” The ref warns Lee to get off the field or he’ll be flagged. “I tell him, `Sir, I’m getting beat 63-19, do you think 15 yards really matters to me at this point’?” Lee recalls.
Using a live turkey as motivation: Less than a week after that loss at Memphis, Lee has to play at Tulsa on Thanksgiving.
He puts a turkey on a leash to lead his team on to the field prior to kickoff, as well as having the turkey accompany Louisville captains to midfield for the pregame coin toss.
Lee tells his players he has made a bet with Tulsa’s coaches that if Tulsa won the game, Tulsa could eat the turkey. Actually, Lee never made that bet, but his players bought in.
“Tulsa is driving on us late in the game,” Lee says, “so I call a timeout. I’m pleading with our defense that the turkey’s life is at stake. They go back out there, get the stop and we win. Me and the turkey got carried off the field.”
Having his team enter a stadium on a double-decker English-style bus: In his first game coaching Indiana, Lee decides he’s going to have the greatest pregame entrance ever for a 1:30 p.m. home game against Illinois. While the largest IU home crowd piles in the stadium, they begin to get concerned as Illinois warms up on the field alone 30 minutes before kickoff.
Fifteen minutes later, the officials are on the field but no Indiana team. By this time, the Hoosier faithful is wondering if their team will even show up. But one minute before kickoff, a big double decker bus comes flying down a hill to the north end zone, horn blaring. The bus pulls to a screeching stop on the field.
The entire Indiana team, which had been warming up on a nearby practice field and which was almost late after being caught in game-day traffic, piles off the bus.
“I’ve got Illinois so dazed that we stop them after the kickoff, we go in and score for a 7-zip lead,” Lee remembers. “I’m thinking the entrance is one of the greatest things I ever did. Then reality set in and we lost 28-14.”
Calling a timeout so his team can run on the field and pose for a picture in front of a scoreboard: In a 1976 game at Indiana when the Hoosiers took a 7-0 lead over Woody Hayes-coached Ohio State, Lee signals for a timeout.
His entire team sprints on the field to stand in front of the scoreboard while pictures are snapped. It doesn’t even matter that the Buckeyes respond with 47 unanswered points in an eventual 47-7 shellacking.
“It was the first time Indiana had ever led Woody Hayes in the 25 seasons he’d been at Ohio State,” Lee explains why he ordered his team to strike a pose. “It was important we got that picture. Boy, that was great.
“After the game, Woody just growled at me. But he was a close friend of mine and I loved competing against him.”
Taking his team to a world championship heavyweight fight the night before a game: The night before Indiana played at LSU in 1978, Lee took his entire team to New Orleans to watch Muhammad Ali take on Leon Spinks for the world heavyweight championship.
Most coaches have their teams on lockdown for road games. Gotta rest and save the legs. Gotta focus. Not Lee.
“Our game at LSU was going to be at night, so I wanted to keep my team up the night before to get used to being up that late,” Lee says. “We went to the fight in the Superdome, then bused to Baton Rouge late that Friday night. By the time we got up the next day, it was time to play the game.”
Indiana almost beat LSU for a second straight year, but lost on a late TD off a Hoosiers turnover.
Lee always made it fun for his players. It’s just who he was a coach.
“I always felt than having a sense of humor wasn’t a sign of weakness,” Lee says. “If you don’t have a sense of humor and want to have fun, your team doesn’t like being around you.”
It was that humor that caught the attention of Terry Lingner, an Indianapolis native who was elevated to coordinating producer at ESPN in 1986, seven years after the network started in 1979.
When ESPN decided it wanted to start a one-hour college football pregame studio show in 1987, Lingner’s charge was to find a football analyst equivalent of Dick Vitale, the network’s popular college basketball analyst.
Vitale, an average former college and pro coach, broke the mold of every analyst before him. He delivered coaching insight in a language he invented, a world full of “diaper dandies and PTPers.”
Lee was much the same way. As a coach, he had a knack of delivering one-liners that would address a situation and have you in tears from laughing so hard. Some of his best head coaching one-liners include:
About a still uneaten fruitcake sent to the coaching staff anonymously before the team's final game: "Man, when you're 2 and 8, you don't mess around with an unsigned fruitcake."
On why USC was on Indiana’s schedule in 1981: "When I took this job I promised our fans I'd show them a Rose Bowl team."
On what he’d been doing after Indiana fired him: “I’ve cleaned my basement 14 times. I have the cleanest basement in America.”
On why he left Northern Illinois to coach the USFL’s Orlando Renegades in 1985: “I promised my wife 27 years ago that I'd take her to Florida.”
Lee’s last season in coaching was that 5-13 year with the Renegades in which his team started the season 0-6.
When Lee was finally out of coaching after the USFL folded in the fall of ’86, he knew broadcasting was the next step. So when Lingner brought in Lee along with former Georgia Tech and Memphis Showboats coach Pepper Rodgers to audition for ESPN GameDay or as a game analyst, he discovered Lee was a quick study.
“Pepper had a bigger name and was more well-known across the board, but it didn’t equate to being a good broadcaster,” Lingner says. “Lee was coachable and he knew how to hit his cues. I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and to be a good broadcaster you’ve got to have a good clock in your head. (Famed ABC announcer) Jim McKay taught me that. If can’t announcer can hit his cues, it doesn’t work.”
Brando also was suitably impressed by Lee.
“As much personality as Pepper had, he was long-winded story teller,” Brando says. “He needed time to develop his stories and personalities. Lee could get in a couple of quips in a couple of sentences. Bang! He hits you right between the eyes and makes you laugh. He can say something about what happened in this or that game that would remind him of something that happened to him and it would make you laugh.
“When we got through with the audition, I thought it was a blowout. Terry asked me what I thought of Lee and I said I thought he was a natural and he was prepared. Terry said, `Yeah, let me show you something.’ ”
That something was a tape Lee had sent Lingner of one of Corso’s Indiana coaching highlight shows when the Hoosiers had opened a season with six straight losses.
“This show is being broadcast close to Halloween,” Brando says of Lee’s tape, “so the show opens with Lee in a casket. There’s eerie music. He rises from the casket and says, `This is Coach Corso and we’re not dead yet.’
“Could you imagine Bear Bryant doing that? Or any 0-6 coach having the guts to do that? This guy had the personality and was willing to put himself out there.”
Lingner admits that in the early years of the show while Lee was still developing, he had to battle for Lee in Monday morning meetings at the network.
“I had to fight for Lee’s life quite a bit early on at our (ESPN) Monday meetings,” Lingner says. “I knew had great potential and passion, and history bears that out. When Lee celebrated his 25th anniversary at ESPN last year, I called him and said, `I’m glad I told my boss to go pound sand, because you’ve obviously had a nice run.’ We both had a good laugh about that.
“Lee probably won’t go down in the Hall of Fame as an Xs and Os guy. But as a motivator and as a person who has always kept perspective that it’s just a game, he’s been a class person.”
Lee says he has been fortunate from day one to work alongside broadcast partners who made him better. He says he was flying by the seat of his pants when he was hired by ESPN, and got lucky being paired with Brando and Beano Cook.
“I could have never made it without Tim and Beano,” Lee recalls. “They were a tremendous help in me transitioning to TV. I can never thank them enough.”
Once GameDay began going live from game sites starting in late ’93, the show began evolving into today’s rock concert atmosphere, a mixture of planned chaos and spontaneity. It fit into Lee’s wheelhouse perfectly.
He developed his signature one-liner “Not so fast my friend” when good-naturedly disputing a point with former GameDay analyst Craig James.
Then fifteen years ago Lee, on-air, decided to wear Ohio State’s Brutus the Buckeye mascot head when making a game prediction.
“The fans went crazy and the guys in our production stuff went crazy, so I knew I had something,” says Lee, who ends every GameDay program making a prediction and wearing the mascot head of the team he’s picked. “I’m famous for a guy that puts something on his head to make a living.
“What I do is like really like stealing. I travel first class, I see the best game of the week. I can’t believe my life has taken such a twist. It has been unbelievable. You can’t be as old as I am and do something you love and get paid for it. It’s amazing.”
Even more stunning is it could have ended three years ago for Lee, who in the off-season is director of business development for Dixon Ticonderoga, a Heathrow, Fla.-based manufacturer of writing and arts products (like the No 2 yellow pencil).
On May 16, 2009, Lee sustained a stroke that robbed him of his speech and partial use of his right arm and leg. He went to work with therapists and less than four months later was with the GameDay crew of Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard when they opened the season from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
“We were on pins and needles that first game back,” Fowler recalls. “Lee was scared and we were nervous, but we all wanted to project confidence in him. He really pulled it together. He did reasonably well.”
Lee says the support he received from ESPN fueled his determined rehabilitation.
“I set my goal to be back Sept. 1 and I made it,” Lee says proudly. “People don’t understand how good ESPN has been to me. A lot of businesses would let go you if you had a stroke. But I never would have made it if ESPN adjusted my schedule to just do the three hours of GameDay in the morning and not the night portion.
“And Chris, Kirk and Desmond are wonderful people. They carry me.”
Indeed, there are times when Lee may stumble or have a small glitch. But that’s where Lingner, a three-time Emmy winner who now has his own production company, loves watching the show the best.
“When you see Chris or Herb or Desmond help Lee through some things sometimes, it gives the show some real soul,” Lingner says. “That’s a good thing.”
Ten years ago, football season used to be a whirlwind for Lee, but isn’t that way anymore as he savors more of the moments. Fowler notes that Lee is “a little more emotional than he used to be, and I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us about not taking granted what we do.”
Every August 1st, Lee shifts into his college football mode by hiding out on a friend’s island by himself for five days just to do prep work for the upcoming season. He doesn’t shave. He doesn’t socialize. He does his homework.
It’s his way of putting on his gameface for a sport he has loved for more than 50 years.
“I still get real excited for the start of the season,” Lee says. “But get real apprehensive now, because every year might be my last. There might not be many more years left.”
Lee Corso, someone Tim Brando accurately describes as “The Prince of Saturdays,” actually retiring?
Not SO FAST, my friend.