The final three words on Lee Corso’s work phone voice mail are “life is good.” Actually, it’s gooood, Corso’s throaty delivery emphasizing that sometimes just waking up in the morning makes it so.
“I believe that. Life is very good,” said Corso, the former Indiana University football coach who since 1987 has brought a measure of lightheartedness to college football as the amusing foil on ESPN’s hugely popular “College GameDay,” which airs from a different campus each week. “I’ve got my health, I’ve got my family, and I’ve got my faith in God.
“That is all I need. That’s it.”
It can be debated now and long after the 77-year-old Floridian is gone that no one lands on his feet quite like Corso, the unofficial embodiment of glass half-full.
Upon being fired at IU in 1982 after producing far more unforgettable postgame quotes — of Nebraska All-American tight end Junior Miller after the Hoosiers’ 69-17 home loss to the Cornhuskers in 1978, “I’d hate to see Senior Miller” — than victories (41), Corso exited the coaching ranks for a year before becoming head coach at Northern Illinois University.
Then it was off to the United States Football League for one largely unproductive season as head coach of the Orlando Renegades. The team and the league folded shortly thereafter, which left Corso, a married father of four, standing at a career crossroads at age 50.
Always the opinionated performer, Corso made his way onto the “College GameDay” set with show host Tim Brando and Beano Cook. Filmed in a studio, those were far more subdued GameDay episodes than what we’re now accustomed to.
Changes were on the horizon, when a 27-year-old Chris Fowler took over as host in 1989, and the network gradually moved more and more of the broadcast outdoors to college campuses in 1993, complete with sign-wielding fans and cheerleaders.
Former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit joined the set in 1996 as the network’s lead analyst for college football, a move that helped birth Corso’s tradition of slipping on the helmet or mascot head of the team he believes will win that day’s big game.
Legend has it Corso used Herbstreit’s connections to retrieve the exaggerated head of Ohio State mascot Brutus Buckeye for his show-closing prediction segment one day in Columbus. Since then, Corso has covered his graying hair with everything from LSU’s Tiger to a miniaturized version of Oklahoma’s Sooner Schooner to Oregon’s Duck, and so much more.
The man who once had a photo taken of the scoreboard after one of his IU teams jumped out to a 7-0 lead on mighty Ohio State (only to lose by a lopsided margin) celebrated his 200th headgear fitting in 2011 at a game at Michigan State.
Predictably, Corso has been cheered wildly and booed lustily. He’s been called pretty much everything in the book and comes back the following Saturday as enthusiastic as ever about the college football industry and his role in it. This grandfather of 10 (including 2½-year-old triplet boys) understands the degree of passion fans have for their favorite team and takes it all in stride.
He’s not out to offend but entertain. All in the name of a sport and network he loves.
What follows is a question-and-answer interview with Corso, a college roommate of actor Burt Reynolds in their playing days at Florida State University.
What is the most uncomfortable GameDay mascot headwear?
The Florida Gator. I love Florida State, and sometimes I have to put the Gator on, but I still do the Florida State chop, and that drives them crazy. I have to show them that I wear my loyalty on my sleeve.
DJ: Does celebrity ever get old?
LC: No. You’re just nice to everybody. It’s not hard at all. I got that from my mother and father. They were great people. My father, Alex, came over here from Italy at 15-years-old and worked as a coal miner. He had a second-grade education and my mother (Erma) had a fifth-grade education.
DJ: You and Bob Knight were on the Indiana University campus together a total of 10 years (1973-82). Your thoughts on him and when was the last time you spoke to him?
LC: I enjoyed every minute. He’s the greatest teacher of basketball ever to coach. We had him on the (GameDay) set at Texas Tech a few years ago, and he was great. Away from the cameras we talk about our families, how they’re doing and how proud we are of them.
DJ: Is there a campus you don’t like to visit?
LC: Purdue. You have to remember that for 10 years I was involved in the (Old Oaken) Bucket game. The first time we beat Purdue in West Lafayette (in 1976) I said, “Where’s the bucket?” and the guy from Purdue said, “We don’t know where it is. You haven’t won it here in 14 years.” The next day I sent one of our assistant coaches, Phil Dickens, up there to get it. I slept with it that night. I loved it.
DJ: Were you aware one of your Internet biography pages lists you as being born in 1910 and being 103-years old?
LC: (Laughs) No. Maybe that was me in an earlier life.
DJ: Whatever became of the red pants, red sweatshirt combination you would wear during games?
LC: I still have them in a place in my den. I wouldn’t get rid of that stuff for nothing. I still have replicas of the four I’s from the bucket games and all of the Holiday Bowl stuff.
DJ: Your best IU memory?
LC: At the (1979) Holiday Bowl we were a four- or five-touchdown underdog and were given no chance. (Brigham Young) was undefeated and ranked eighth in the nation. We played unbelievably well, and they played unbelievably well. Their guy missed a field goal. Before he kicked it, I told Father Jim Higgins, “Father, it’s you against 8 million Mormons.” He missed the field goal, and they carried both of us off the field.
DJ: Did you like the hire of Kevin Wilson at IU?
LC: I don’t know Kevin, but I was really disappointed that Bill Lynch wasn’t there anymore.
DJ: Use one word to describe your three GameDay cohorts?
LC: Chris Fowler, professional. Kirk Herbstreit, handsome. Desmond Howard, Heisman.
DJ: The worst thing a GameDay spectator ever said to you?
LC: No comment.
DJ: Where was it?
LC: No comment. I cannot repeat them.
DJ: Do you have quiet time? If so, how is it spent?
LC: I fish. I have a lake in my back yard. Lake Corso (laughs). I fish bass with my best friend, Ed Fasula, who taught me how to fish. I catch and release. You don’t eat them or you would glow at night. You throw them back in.
DJ: Are you better at this job or as a football coach?
LC: Obviously, I’m better now. Now it all depends on me. Remember, I coached football at Louisville and Indiana, two of the best basketball schools in the country.
DJ: ESPN just extended your contract to include the 2013 and ’14 seasons. Would you like to do “College GameDay” beyond that?
LC: Oh, sure. I’ve got a great job. I want to do it as long as I’m capable. And I’m especially proud that I’ve been with one network my entire career.