The Media Column: Why hosting ESPN College GameDay is one of the biggest moments in Boston College football history

Alex Reimer
November 09, 2018 - 11:26 am

Boston College (2009)

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The lobbying effort to bring the country’s premier college football show to Chestnut Hill started one month ago. Boston College routed ACC rival Louisville in mid-October, presenting Steve Addazio’s squad with an opportunity to control its own fate in one of college football’s legacy conferences. At that moment, athletic director Martin Jarmond, who came over to BC in 2017, started placing some calls to contacts in Bristol. He wanted to host ESPN College GameDay on campus, and an early November matchup with powerhouse Clemson seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Sure enough, the Eagles won their next two games, ousting Miami and Virginia Tech on the road. Last Saturday night, the decision was made: Rece Davis, Desmond Howard, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso would bring their act to the Heights ahead of the big showdown. The only question is, will Corso also bring a spare Baldwin the Eagle costume, in preparation for an upset prediction? (Clemson, which is the No. 2 ranked team nationally, is a 20-point road favorite.)

Over the last month, as the Red Sox marched towards their fourth World Series title this century and the Patriots reclaimed their position of dominance in the AFC, we were treated to numerous banal columns about how Boston is the center of the sports universe. But all of these proclamations of grandeur ignore the fact that college football, arguably the second-most popular sport in the U.S., is not on our radar. Boston is a professional sports town, and the Eagles’ sorry efforts in recent seasons haven’t helped their case for relevance. 

But it has been a different story this fall. Following an atrocious 3-9 campaign in 2015 –– including an 0-8 record in the ACC –– the Eagles rattled off two straight 7-6 finishes and qualified for bowl games in both seasons. They won the Quick Lane Bowl in 2016, their first bowl game victory since Matt Ryan’s senior season in 2007, and narrowly lost to Iowa in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium last year. Interestingly enough, the Pinstripe Bowl drew more viewers than select Stanley Cup Finals games, showing there is a thirst for BC football. It just has to be unearthed. 

That’s exactly what this squad has done. Led by sophomore running back AJ Dillon, who’s rushed for 897 yards and eight touchdowns, the 7-2 Eagles are the 17th-ranked team in the country. Yes, College GameDay would not be here for the first time since 2009 without the allure of Clemson, but the Eagles have held up their end of the bargain.

“We’re going to BC because it is, without question, the highest-profile college football game being played this weekend,” GameDay coordinating producer Drew Gallagher told WEEI.com on the phone this week. “BC earned this game. They earned this primetime game and GameDay coming there by virtue of winning the last two weeks. They’re playing great football, Clemson is the No. 2 team in the country. This is a big football game. For BC to be back in the spotlight for what’s going on on the field is terrific.”

Hosting GameDay, which airs from 9 a.m. to noon and averages 1.848 million viewers each week, is about more than just welcoming ESPN’s sleek set and cameras to Stokes Lawn. It represents a potential turning point for a program that competes with recruiting machines such as Florida State, Virginia Tech, and of course, Clemson. On Saturday, Boston College will be the epicenter of college football. Joe Sullivan, the assistant director of player personnel for BC, says the impact can’t be overstated.

“It’s huge,” Sullivan told WEEI.com. “You think about these kids down in Florida, Texas or Georgia. They’re waking up, they just played their game on Friday night, and they see Boston College. You talk to some kids for the first time –– it’s easy, because ‘Boston’ is in our name –– but some kids are still like, ‘Where is Boston College? I’ve never been north of the Carolinas, or up in the Northeast. Tell me more about it.’ It’s a three-hour advertisement for us.”

College GameDay essentially serves as an infomercial for the 70 different schools it has visited over the years. Though it is a national show, much of its airtime Saturday will be dedicated to hyping up BC, including a possible on-set interview with Coach Adazzio and Gene Wojciechowski essay about BC football’s place in the Boston sports hierarchy. Expect plenty of references to a certain Hail Mary pass from Doug Flutie, and the plethora of BC alums currently playing in the NFL, including Ryan and Luke Keuchly. 

The GameDay set will also be situated in front of stately Stokes Hall, which covers 183,000-square-feet and is the most expensive educational building in school history. Plus, every segment promises to feature shots of BC’s pristine campus, and some of Boston’s landmarks –– even though BC is located in Newton. As a Boston University alumnus, it is my duty to point that out.

In terms of pure football, Sullivan knows BC can’t compete with SEC-type schools that boast 100,000-seat stadiums and slavishly devoted fanbases. With that in mind, Sullivan’s pitch to perspective players is centered around the full BC experience: excellent academics, immaculate campus, proximity to Boston, and the opportunity to play big time college football. Hosting GameDay helps a lot with the latter. 

“We’re never going to be an 100,000-seat stadium. We’re never going to be that type of program. We’re at 9,000 undergraduate (students), we’re tucked into the City of Boston. It’s tough enough to get space as it is.” Sullivan said. “Our main selling point really isn’t about this giant stadium kind of thing, but this is an added helper that we get with our pitch. Our pitch is academics, you get to be in Boston, you’re in the ACC and get great coaching. Our pitch was never ‘you get to play in front of all of these fans.’ But we’ll pack the house, hopefully our fans will be there, stay late and we’ll have a good game. This is like a new dimension for us.”

While GameDay only airs for three hours, its effect on football programs can be everlasting. Jarmond says the buzz GameDay brings to campus extends well past Saturday morning. It’s not hyperbolic to say this is the most important event in BC football history since Ryan exited Alumni Stadium for the last time.

“I don’t look at it as one show on a Saturday,” Jarmond told WEEI.com at his session with reporters Thursday. “I look at it from the moment (it was announced) last Saturday night. How many of (the students) were tweeting and texting about, ‘Wow, GameDay is coming,’ or, ‘Wow, this team is for real.’ So it’s not just about this Saturday. It’s everything leading up to it. Because now, you’ve got this juice going, you’ve got this buzz on campus going. It might look like it’s three hours on paper, but the conversations I’ve had with alumni in Texas, California, Florida, former athletes, former football players, it’s big. They’re like, ‘That’s BC.’ When Matt Ryan gets asked a question at his press conference and he’s talking about Saturday night under the lights at 8:00 p.m., I don’t talk to Matt. Matt knows that. There’s a pride there. That has nothing to do with the three hours on Saturday.”

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Patriots media determined to rewrite history about Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl benching: When Bill Belichick inexplicably benched Malcolm Butler while the Patriots’ defense gave up 41 points to the Eagles in the Super Bowl, seemingly nobody in New England vouched for the Hoodie. The surprise move was skewered, especially considering Butler was on the field for every defensive snap throughout the playoffs and nearly 98 percent of defensive plays during the regular season.

Butler was a stalwart in the Patriots’ secondary, and Belichick sat him for Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards. Up until this week, it was widely viewed as the worst coaching decision of Belichick’s Hall of Fame career. But with Butler in the midst of a woeful season with the Titans –– he’s allowed more touchdowns than any other corner in the league –– the commentary has started to change. There’s been lots of revisionist history ahead of the Patriots’ matchup with Tennessee Sunday.

Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal is leading the charge, proclaiming on the radio this week “Belichick was right” about sitting Butler while his defense got torched. On BSJ, Bedard took his argument one step forward, saying Butler’s horrid performance against the Eagles this season explains his benching last season. 

The Boston Globe’s Chris Gasper struck a similar note in his column Thursday, writing that Belichick was prescient and “recognized a downturn in Butler’s game before anyone else.” That was true in March, but not in January, because again, Butler played every single defensive snap on the Patriots’ run to the Super Bowl.

But the most laughable history rewrite came from legendary NFL scribe Peter King, who told “Dale & Keefe” Thursday Butler is "just not that good", and Belichick lost faith in him. OK. But then why did the Patriots reportedly offer Butler a six-year deal worth $25.5 million guaranteed? 

Belichick was right to let Butler go. He was wrong to bench him for the Super Bowl. This isn’t hard.

Neutral site NFL games are Boston’s second-most popular team: There was an interesting note in the Patriots’ most recent weekly chest-thumping ratings press release. Unsurprisingly, Patriots-Packers was the highest-rated show in Boston this week, drawing a 37.9 household rating. The fourth-highest rated program was a sporting event as well, but didn’t involve one of the local teams. The Rams-Saints thriller on Fox drew a 12.6 rating in Boston Sunday. 

For comparison’s sake, the Red Sox averaged a 6.8 rating in Boston this year. The Celtics and Bruins, respectively, drew marks of 3.24 and 2.95 last season.

The NFL is king. 

Introducing Nora Princiotti, the newest star on the Patriots beat: Diehard WEEI listeners know Nora Princiotti –– “I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly, Patty O” –– from her Super Bowl report about Tom Brady’s dog bite that Mike Mutnansky erroneously told listeners happened just days before the big game. But for the last two years, she’s been covering the Patriots every day for the Boston Globe, save for a five-month sojourn to the Redskins beat in D.C. 

In addition to being only one of two women on the full-time Pats beat, Princiotti, who graduated from George Washington University in 2016, is also one of the youngest regular NFL beat writers around. She chatted with me for an extended Q&A this week about her unique experience on one of the most demanding beats in sports, and the best parts –– according to me –– are below:

Alex Reimer: I’ve written a few stories over the years talking to Patriots beat people about how they handle Belichick. What’s your tactic with Bill –– how have you tried to approach him over the last few years?

Nora Princiotti: “I think it’s really simple. You’ve just got to ask what you want to ask. You don’t want to be stupid, obviously. There are some ways to go about things that are not going to help you get anything that has information value. But if there’s something you're curious about, I think the best thing is just to ask it and not get worried about getting zinged or ending up on ‘SportsCenter,’ because if that’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And more often than not, it won’t. 

“Sometimes those press conferences can be a real slice of humanity, just in terms of everybody talking over each other. There’s a lot of ego in one room. But I just think if you try to have a sense of humor about it, take it with a grain of salt. To me, the important thing is remembering this is a cool thing we get to do. Everything that’s happening right now, particularly with the Patriots, is a legitimate piece of sports history. So if there’s a little bit of a pit in your stomach sometimes when you’re worried something might get a little testy, I think that’s a fair trade off for the fact I’m going to want to tell my kids and grandkids I was there for this. You’ve just got to kind of get over it and do what you can.”

AR: Do you think Bill respects you, and the job you guys do?

NP: “Yeah. One thing I’ll say about him is, he knows everybody’s role. He knows who’s a columnist, he knows who’s a beat writer, and what that means. To us, that doesn’t seem like a complicated distinction. But I mean, a lot of readers don’t know it. I don’t think that’s something the media makes particularly clear enough. So I think he understands what everybody’s job is. 

“Even though I was only in Washington briefly, that’s very different in terms of dealing with the media, because you’re sort of allowed everywhere. I wish it was like that here. I loved that, particularly early in my career, because I was able to learn a lot by doing a lot. That’s harder here, because you just don’t have the opportunities to learn how to get face time with people and build relationships. It’s not that you can’t do it, but it’s a slower process, because there’s less opportunity for it. But overall, I would say there’s an understanding that we have a job to do.”

AR: I kind of hate asking this question, but I feel like I have to. Being a woman on the NFL beat, obviously there are more than there once were, but (you’re) still a minority. I don’t want to ask how you handle that, but has it ever been awkward at all? Is there no difference? What’s your overall opinion on how that is?

NP: “Oh, man. It affects a lot of things in a lot of different ways. The most important thing to know –– and not to get a little preachy, but to younger women who might end up doing this –– is for people to know I love this job. Every day I wake up, I love going to work. It’s fulfilling and it’s interesting. I haven’t experienced boredom in years. So while I hate to put it in terms where it’s like, ‘Is it worth it?,’ because even if it is worth dealing with harassment and all of the other things to do this, that stuff still shouldn’t happen, but the last thing I ever want to do is discourage women from doing this. Because as badly as men in this business behave a lot of the time –– and that is a lot of the time –– the thing that strikes me the most is that it can feel kind of isolating, because there are not a lot of other women around.

“So I think having more women around would make a difference. When we hired Tara Sullivan, just having a female columnist at the Globe, she was hired around the same time I was brought back full-time. I was begging my old boss Joe (Sullivan), whenever we would talk, he would say he was hiring a female columnist, but wouldn’t say who it was, because it wasn’t official yet. I was begging him to tell me who it is, because I knew it would make a huge difference. That’s the main thing. You just wish there were more women around. Our guys, who I love, will hear me talk about having split ends, they hear that stuff a lot, because I can’t keep it in, and that’s what’s on my mind.”

AR: Yeah, I don’t even know what split-ends are. But you mentioned harassment –– you’ve dealt with that in your time on the beat?

NP: Well, yeah! You’re not going to find a woman in this industry who hasn’t, and I think that’s one area where my age does not help.

AR: Are you talking about Twitter harassment from readers, do people on the beat treat you differently? What do you mean by that?

NP: “It’s all of the above. But it’s probably shocking to people how commonplace it is. I don’t get it too badly on social media. But look, we work in an environment where people are on the road a lot. There’s stuff like the Combine. There are lots of opportunities for bad behavior. I couldn’t count it on two hands. Some of it is just, people mess up, people drink too much, whatever. You have to sort of deal with it on a case-by-case basis, because I think people just make mistakes. But I would say a thing I notice a lot is that it tends to be kind of shocking to a lot of people –– my parents, certainly –– but I think to a lot of guys when they have a frank conversation with women about how often this happens. I think it’s because men don’t really talk to each other in the same terms of what’s going on as maybe women do about their experiences. The thing that I wonder when people are surprised to hear that is, ‘What are their conversations like?’ Is it like, ‘Oh man, I totally screwed this up. I took it way too far.’ The other person’s side of that conversation is probably not so casual. It probably wasn’t a small, trivial thing.

"So no, it’s not something I feel like has made a negative impact on me. It hasn’t changed how I think about myself as a professional, how I do my job. A lot of it is just, I’ve never figured out the perfect way to deal with it, besides getting over it and telling someone that’s not OK. But I do feel kind of in situations like this, obligated to bring it up and say, ‘This is a problem.’”

AR: No, and I appreciate you doing that. Whenever we talk about women in sports media, I think everyone –– and I do it, too –– thinks about the relationship between reporter and player, or reporter and source. But it sounds like you’re saying a lot of it comes from how you interact with your colleagues on the beat.

NP: “I should be clear about that. You’re right in that people think it is players, which is the opposite of what’s true. I’ve had the least issues with players out of any sort of group. But yeah, you spend a lot of time around media people, agents, team people. I think players, honestly, are the ones who work in an environment where other people can dole out consequences to them for a variety of different things. So maybe it’s that, or they don’t need help getting girls. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know in general, and particularly here, that’s one thing I will give the Patriots credit for. I think the discipline in this organization has some sort of trickle down affect to how people in this locker room treat women, because with extremely few exceptions, I’ve found the Patriots locker room to be very respectful, and they don’t really notice. It’s not different to them.”

AR: What’s the one project you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?

NP: I will say, being a beat writer, big features and big stories are important to do. But I’m always most satisfied when I feel like I have a really good week. This is weird, but the week the Patriots played the Dolphins in Miami last year, it was just a Dolphins week, but I think I wrote four or five stories that week, all of which I felt were really good and I was really proud of. There’s something in me where that, if I’m going to be perfect honest, is the most satisfying thing to me –– on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, just putting something out there that is going to show somebody something in a different light. That’s really what being a beat writer is. 

 

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