There’s a lot going on inside that giant mascot head.
Maybe it’s a cougar head, or maybe a duck or a buckeye – whatever’s the cranial representation of the mascot of the college football team that Lee Corso believes will win the showcase game of the week.
ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast, a cultural phenomenon in part because of Corso’s showmanship, makes its first visit to Pullman for the Oregon at Washington State clash on Saturday.
As he has for decades, to the delight or dismay of the boisterous home fans, Corso caps off the panel prognostications by slipping inside the mascot head of the team he picks to win.
I guarantee you this: Inside that absurd headgear, Lee Corso is grinning like crazy, astonished that at age 83 he still can be a part of college football and entertain others who love the game just as he does.
“Life is goo-ooo-ood,” he always likes to remind people. “I’m doing something I love to do.”
The quotes in this story came from a 2016 interview I did with Corso when the GameDay crew was on its way to Seattle for a University of Washington game. Corso’s personal dynamism in his 80s seemed hardly diminished from when I met him almost 50 years ago, when he recruited me to play football at the University of Louisville, where he’d just been named head coach.
The facilities were awful, fan support nonexistent, and the 33-year-old Corso had been hired as head coach for the laughable sum of $12,500 a year. Why would an athlete with options decide to play there? It’s hard to explain, but Corso had a way of convincing people that great things could be accomplished – and he knew the secret to it.
He expressed his existential credo with a sign on his office desk: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
From the start, Corso was indefatigable, trying to make the team something it had never been at that school. He rode an elephant in a parade trying to sell season tickets (he claimed it sold four – a triumph). He scheduled our spring scrimmage one year on a field inside the Kentucky State Penitentiary – surely college football’s most extreme outreach for a captive audience.
Before one Thanksgiving Day game, he brought into the locker room a live, white turkey, with a red “L” painted on its side, and had the captains take it out to midfield for the coin toss. It was something for fans to talk about, something to make them consider coming to games.
Even when the team struggled, Corso’s press conferences were always nationally ranked.
Truthfully, other people’s enthusiasm can be exhausting. College sports has had its share of colorful coaches who end up having shallow substance beneath the veneer. So, players were suspicious at times.
But Corso’s approach worked: We ended up nationally ranked, our facilities improved, and our travel and schedule were upgraded. The strength of his will was contagious, and it made a huge difference.
In an era when Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes were the coaching paradigms, wielding imperial powers with cranky countenances, Corso wanted the game to be fun. It was almost apostasy. But it worked, and players appreciated a loose leash.
Corso suffered a stroke in 2009, and said he needs to be careful about how much rest he gets during his withering schedule of road trips every week. He expressed deep gratitude to ESPN for being patient during his recovery.
But his mind is still sharp. When I called him in 2016, he recalled his great friendship with legendary UW coach Don James. He reminded me of our game against James’ Kent State team in 1972, when one of their defensive backs was a guy named Nick Saban.
“We beat ’em 34-0 if I recall,” Corso said, getting the score exactly right, and we both laughed at the delicious memory of a lopsided win more than four decades earlier.
More astonishing to me was the first thing he asked me: Did I have any lingering effects of an injury I sustained my senior season? He remembered the exact circumstances of the injury. And then he remembered the time I won the team’s annual hamburger eating contest. (For the curious: 19 in 30 minutes).
“I haven’t heard from you, Dave, but I think about you often,” he said.
No lie, that choked me up. I was no all-American, just one of many hundreds he had coached. But his personal recall meant more to me than I could have imagined. Our conversation went from shared nostalgia to something much deeper, something that revealed a great deal about the bond between a good coach and the players whose lives he or she can influence.
I told him that I was certain his lessons had made me a better person. He answered that it was the best thing that a coach could hear. I think we were both puddling up a little by then.
So I’m happy to tell you this: The charismatic Corso viewers see every weekend is exactly the one I knew when we were both much younger men. Always smiling, always joyful, even now – even if he’s talking from inside the head of a duck.
Dave Boling is a former columnist at The Spokesman-Review and the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveBoling.
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