While hosting a late Friday night SportsCenter show in Bristol, Connecticut on Feb. 28, 2020, Scott Van Pelt had one thing on his mind; getting to College Park by 11 a.m. for College GameDay.
Van Pelt arrived at Xfinity Center just in time for the show and immediately had a microphone slapped on him. He then headed to “The Wall,” and descended down to the court through a sea of Maryland students and fans, firing up the crowd.
“The excitement that was going to be part of that day, like I was never missing that,” Van Pelt told Testudo Times. “I mean if I had to stay up all night and figure out a way to get there I was gonna try to make that happen.”
At this time last year, Maryland hosted College GameDay for the first time since 2005 before a matchup with Michigan State, just the school’s second time doing so. This also marked the fourth time that Maryland was playing in a game that College GameDay had featured, including a game with the Spartans just a few weeks prior.
The importance of this day and event was not going to pass by the super-fan Van Pelt, and he made sure to express that to the Maryland players once he connected with them during the show.
“I think it’s important in life to be aware of moments as they’re happening and not be too cool to enjoy them so to speak,” Van Pelt said. “The fact that all those guys were there showed you that they were...intent upon enjoying it, which was great.”
College GameDay was quite the scene in College Park Saturday morning. @morganweaver_ reports on the electric atmosphere ahead of No. 9 Maryland men's basketball's matchup with No. 24 Michigan State. pic.twitter.com/usPMSlG9Ou— Testudo Times (@testudotimes) February 29, 2020
When the men’s basketball schedule was first released before that season, the athletic department knew this game had the potential to get the national spotlight of College GameDay. Once the season got underway and the team started to perform well, the department started to campaign for it.
“I think everybody was using their different connections of who they knew from ESPN,” Sean Ellenby, the team’s sports information director, told Testudo Times.
Once it was determined that Maryland was going to host College GameDay, the athletic department had to think of the perfect way to announce it to fans.
“If [Anthony Cowan Jr.] can do what he needed to do on the court, I want to do everything I could off the court to make sure that people recognize Anthony for his incredible career,” Ellenby said. “And so, I wanted him to be the face of GameDay for us.”
Ellenby can’t quite remember if he thought of the idea beforehand or if it just came to him during that meeting. The pitch was: “Why don’t we do [something similar to] Saturday Night Live where we get as many students as we can, we have Anthony in the middle of them and he says ‘Live from College Park. It’s College GameDay,’ and then it zooms out and all of the students go nuts.”
The video was released exactly one week before GameDay and got about 85,000 combined views across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Next Saturday. Live in College Park.— Maryland Basketball (@TerrapinHoops) February 22, 2020
IT'S COLLEGE GAMEDAY!! pic.twitter.com/0PVlazZqoo
The man behind the camera for that announcement video and most of the video content for the team is Tony Price, the assistant director of video production in the athletic department. Price, who was then in the first year at the position, also realized the significance of having GameDay come to Maryland for the first time since 2005.
“This was a really great opportunity for the basketball program…to put ourselves nationally on the map,” Price told Testudo Times.
As someone who travels with the team, Price was in East Lansing, Michigan two weeks prior when the Spartans hosted GameDay.
Price did say he talked to his counterparts at Michigan State just so he knew what to tell his team back at Maryland in regards to how to prepare and what to expect if they were to get GameDay.
And he reminded Testudo Times that there was a major difference between the two schools.
“Michigan State [has] hosted GameDay almost every year it seems, so it was interesting to kind of get their perspective [and] their expectations,” Price said. “For us, it was very different because it’s been a few years since it had been here, so the energy level is a little different.”
When College GameDay comes to host a show from an arena, the stage is typically at midcourt with fans filling in behind the stage and scorer’s table. Maryland’s show was anything but typical, with the wall as its backdrop.
Kassidy Brown, the director of marketing for Maryland athletics, remembers once the show was announced, she along with others from the department did a walkthrough of Xfinity Center with the ESPN crew. Brown says they were in awe of everything the arena had to offer.
After sleeping on the idea, producers came back and said they were going to make the wall work as the backdrop.
“If [ESPN had] shot it the other way, it wouldn’t properly portray what Maryland basketball is to the nation,” Brown told Testudo Times.
Brown felt overwhelmed when planning what elements to have during the one-hour show because they have such a high standard for typical games.
“I think schools typically hear that they’re hosting College GameDay and they’re just like, ‘Oh okay, we’ll just open the gym for them and let them do their thing,’” Brown said. “I was going into the TV production truck and I’m looking at how [the producer] is viewing the cameras to figure out the best way for us to properly show what Maryland fans do and how spirited Maryland fans are.”
Brown and her team wanted to throw everything they had at the ESPN crew. What ended up sticking for the show was two Maryland flag drops, the group We R F.L.Y. performing their hit Swag Surfin live, SVP descending down the wall during one of the flag drops, and a cellphone flashlight mob coordinated by Megan Piluk & Jen Miller of Out of the Blue Dance Productions.
Brown mentioned the flashlight mob earlier in the week to the ESPN crew, but never fully committed to it as one of the elements. The plan was to discuss it again on the day of the show to see if it could be pulled off. Brown said that the flashlight mob was the last thing the crowd practiced before going live.
“It was literally like 90 seconds before the show was going to go live on air. And Rece [Davis] I guess, in his headset [said] to the producer, ‘That was frickin awesome. We’re starting the show with that no matter what,’” Brown said.
College Park is ready. Are you? pic.twitter.com/tegbhdiOxv— Lila Bromberg (@lilabbromberg) February 29, 2020
Brown said she stood next to an ESPN staffer the entire show, meanwhile talking to the rest of her marketing staff about getting people and things in the right place at the right time.
When thinking back to seeing the flashlight mob happen live to start the show, Brown remembers verbatim what an ESPN staffer said to her.
“He looked at me and his words were, ‘This is [expletive] awesome.’ Like it was really, really, really cool,” Brown recalled.
Brown says she still keeps in contact with some of the crew from ESPN.
“The two main guys who have been to every single College GameDay for the past 5-10 years, they [said], ‘This was the coolest one that we’ve done,’” Brown said.
For fans that were in attendance, getting able to experience College GameDay was a captivating experience. Zach and David Leotta, a son and father duo, were two of the thousands of fans in attendance.
Zach said he had gone to Looney’s Pub in College Park for the first matchup between Michigan State two weeks prior and knew that he had to experience College GameDay in person.
“I didn’t care that I wasn’t a student, I didn’t care if I didn’t go to the game that day, I [just] had to get in,” Zach told Testudo Times.
Zach, now 26 years old, asked his dad, David, a 1984 graduate of the university to come after a friend said he didn’t want to wake up early.
“It didn’t take much to convince me,” David told Testudo Times.
The two arrived at the arena around 8 a.m and were able to get pictures with the GameDay bus parked out front before heading up the steps to the main entrance. After the gates opened up, they were able to get seats in the lower bowl of the wall.
With the show getting ready to start and the flashlight mob starting to happen, David found himself watching what was happening instead of participating in it.
“I stopped and pulled my phone out and videoed it,” Zach said.
Though the team didn’t get the result it wanted later that night, as an alum of the school, David said he was happy that the team and school were being recognized on national TV.
“I was always jealous of the blue blood programs like Duke and Kentucky, getting all the notoriety, all the top recruits,” David said. “This [was] our chance ... [to] show the recruits what we’re like, what the fan base is, like, the support they’d get.”
There aren’t any fans allowed in Xfinity Center this season due to COVID-19 and the unique energy and buzz of a signature Maryland crowd is no longer there — even Van Pelt can’t barter his way into the arena. But an unprecedented year removed from College GameDay, Terrapin fans can still hold on to the memories of that special day fondly.
“I’ve said this a million times but it’s the truth, long after I’m not the guy from ESPN, I’ll always be the guy from Maryland — I think I said it that day,” Van Pelt said. “And so that’s it; I’m just a kid from Maryland, and I got to come back and walk down that wall like I was some big deal, which I’m not. That feeling, that emotion is something that I will not forget, ever.”