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O say can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly UCLA hailed as its resurgent football team?
The Bruins will no longer be a sleepy story line Saturday morning, even if most people are asleep when they take the national stage before facing No. 10 Oregon at the Rose Bowl. ESPN’s "College GameDay" is breaking new ground, not to mention daybreak, with a predawn broadcast from UCLA’s Wilson Plaza in its first appearance on campus.
The show’s 6 a.m. local start time will beat sunrise by a little more than an hour. Realizing that’s when many students are just entering REM sleep, Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond is visiting dorms, fraternities, sororities and dining halls late this week to tout the chance to be part of history.
“This is arguably going to be one of the best moments in your college career,” Jarmond said of his message to students. “Not everybody gets to experience something like this.”
"GameDay's" only other appearance before a UCLA home game came in 1998, when it ventured to the Rose Bowl before the Bruins defeated Oregon in overtime. (UCLA running backs coach DeShaun Foster was a freshman on that team who departed in the second quarter with a sprained knee ligament.) The show hasn’t visited a Pac-12 school since going to Pullman, Wash., in 2018 before Washington State beat Oregon.
UCLA and ESPN agreed it would be better to host the show on campus than at the Rose Bowl so that students could more easily provide the needed jolt of energy. The school is providing 1,000 breakfast burritos, as well as free tickets to the game, as incentives for students to roll out of bed for the show before boarding buses to Pasadena.
UCLA’s football team will be nearby, having spent Friday night at the Luskin Center on campus, but don’t expect to see players in crowd shots behind hosts Lee Corso and Desmond Howard. The players’ schedule includes breakfast and a morning stretch before a 9 a.m. departure for the Rose Bowl.
There’s a game to win, after all, when the Bruins (5-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) face the Ducks (5-1, 2-1) a few hours after the campus crowd has dispersed.
“I think it’s awesome for the fans, I think it’s awesome for their families, I think it’s awesome for the students on this campus, I think it’s awesome to show what a great university this is, but for us, our sole focus and attention is on the game itself and playing a really good Oregon team,” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who nevertheless is scheduled to appear live on the show at 7:30 a.m.
Kelly was in an unusually buoyant mood when he met with the media this week, even joking that he would have selected one reporter as the show’s celebrity guest picker ahead of UCLA basketball legend Bill Walton, his second pick.
“I think Bill Walton and Coach Corso would … I would pay to see that,” Kelly said, alluding to Walton’s roundabout rants and Corso’s witty retorts.
Other suggestions from UCLA players included Lakers star Russell Westbrook, actor James Franco and Bruins football legend Troy Aikman. The guest picker, revealed during the show, won’t necessarily have UCLA ties, though it would be widely considered a plus.
“The No. 1 priority is having someone who has the ability to entertain, to have fun, to interact with our guys on the set, to be playful on air,” said Drew Gallagher, "GameDay's" coordinating producer. “Name recognition is great, college football knowledge is certainly not a prerequisite, but being able to have fun with that is, if that makes sense, so it doesn’t always have to be a connection to the school, although that certainly is a positive thing.”
Hosting "GameDay" on campus is a major boost in Jarmond’s efforts to restore buzz around UCLA’s football program. The show is averaging 1.841 million viewers this season and could spark a bump in attendance at the game between the Bruins and Ducks.
“When you’re chosen by 'GameDay,' ” Jarmond said, “it signifies a national importance to the football landscape.”
Exciting stuff here. I see a miniseries in the making. pic.twitter.com/6bk8MvAEip
— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) October 21, 2021
My guys stopped by to see the setup, watch for the feature they do on GameDay Saturday am! 💙🐻💛 pic.twitter.com/H9DRNImqTt
— Martin Jarmond (@MartinJarmond) October 21, 2021
UCLA is averaging 48,081 fans this season for games at the Rose Bowl, a slight improvement over the record-low 43,849 it averaged in 2019 but well below the crowds needed to put a significant dent in the athletic department’s $40.6-million deficit.
Jarmond understands the carryover effect that "GameDay" can have on attendance from his time as Boston College’s athletic director, having watched a season-high capacity crowd of 44,500 pack Alumni Stadium for the Eagles’ loss to top-ranked Clemson in 2018.
“It galvanized the campus community, it was electric, it gave the students an opportunity to gather and celebrate their classmates in a way they never had and it was a big deal in the city,” Jarmond said, “so it moved the needle.”
— Martin Jarmond (@MartinJarmond) October 21, 2021
Jarmond might have been nearly as instrumental in UCLA’s "GameDay" appearance as any of the team’s recent wins. Gallagher said the athletic director had been in touch with show executives since the Bruins beat Louisiana State early last month, asking if there might be a slot for the team.
“He definitely wanted to make sure that UCLA was on 'GameDay’s radar,” Gallagher said, “which certainly they were anyway — I mean, UCLA’s a great story this year.”
ESPN chose UCLA-Oregon over the weekend’s other top matchups, Gallagher said, because the one-loss Ducks remain relevant in the national championship picture and the Bruins are enjoying a renaissance under Kelly. The pick was finalized Sunday morning, not long after UCLA defeated Washington to sustain its hopes of contending in the Pac-12 South.
Beating Oregon on a nationally televised ABC broadcast would represent an exponentially larger triumph; it would give the Bruins their first victory over a top-10 team since toppling No. 7 Texas in 2010 while assuring UCLA of becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2017.
If all goes well, it will be a daylong celebration of a long-suffering brand, starting with a three-hour show that might make UCLA feel like the center of the college football universe.
“That’s why you come to a school like this, why you want to play Power Five football,” Bruins tight end Greg Dulcich said, “to get opportunities like that, playing in big games, so that’s something that’s going to be really cool for us.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.