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Opinion: ESPN's Lee Corso is back and college football is better for it

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College football will officially return at about 11:53 a.m. Saturday. That’s when an 86-year-old man will put on a mascot head.

Lee Corso will be back. For at least one crazy moment, all will be right with the world.

“It’s about time,” he said.

Corso, of course, is the man beneath the mascot heads. He’s been at it for three decades on ESPN’s “College GameDay,” capping that morning’s festivities by putting on a Trojan helmet or Gator head or some other apparatus to predict that day’s winner.

The show has become an event unto itself. If ESPN builds a “GameDay” set near your stadium, you are the center of the college football universe.

This week’s center is Atlanta, where Alcorn State will play North Carolina Central. It’s billed as “Week 0,” ESPN’s annual nod to schools that don’t get much spotlight.

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Week 1 will be Charlotte, and the Clemson-Georgia showdown. Week 3 will probably be in Gainesville, when Alabama comes to town.

Delta surge willing, Corso will be there.

“The first two weeks of the season, we’ll definitely be on the road,” he said. “After that, I might have to reconsider depending on conditions.”

Consider that another reason to pray the pandemic lightens up. It sapped the life out of last season. Games went on, but they lacked fans, enthusiasm, pomp, circumstance and delightfulness.

Corso is all those things in one irrepressible package. But in pre-vaccine 2020, it was too risky for that package to hit the road.

“GameDay” carried on, playing to empty parking lots while Corso hunkered down in his Orlando home. It was like a weekly family reunion without everyone’s favorite uncle.

ESPN did its best to incorporate Corso into the proceedings. It built crazy sets, like a winter wonderland for him to play Santa Claus. Then there was the 17-foot elephant statue Corso climbed to predict the Alabama-Georgia winner.

“I had to get permission from the HOA for that one,” Corso laughed.

The Zoom approach was entertaining, but it wasn’t the same.

“Nothing beats the enthusiasm you get from the crowd,” Corso said.

That cuts both ways. The mere appearance of Uncle Lee on “GameDay” fuels the crowd, and that reaction fuels Corso.

“The Sunshine Scooter” is a born showman. That was Corso’s nickname at Florida State, where he was Burt Reynolds’ roommate and a two-way star on the football team.

Corso was a good coach with a great sense of humor. He needed both traits to survive 10 years at Indiana. After a bad loss one week, Corso opened his TV show by rising from a casket and saying, “We ain’t dead yet!”

Hard to imagine Nick Saban ever doing that.

Fate had bigger things than coaching in mind for Corso. After the USFL Orlando Renegades folded in 1986, he caught on with ESPN.

The rest is broadcast history featuring hundreds of mascot headpieces and trademark phrases like “Hello!” and “Not so fast, my friend.” But history will not adequately record how hard Corso worked to make it happen.

A stroke in May 2009 left him unable to speak or even swallow. Corso grinded through therapy, determined to return for the fall season. He made it, though he’s never been the same.

“The one thing I was really good at was being spontaneous. I was quick-witted,” Corso said. “I lost that with my stroke.”

He has to script and rehearse his spots on “GameDay.” He’ll duck away from the pep-rally mayhem to the quiet of a nearby bus, where he can rest up for the show’s closing crescendo.

It’s not an easy act to pull off, and Corso’s grateful he can do it. About 800,000 Americans suffer strokes annually, and 165,000 die from them.

“I’m so happy to be called a stroke survivor,” Corso said. “I have nothing to complain about.”

He sleeps at least 10 hours a night, naps regularly, exercises and has speech therapy daily. But the stroke left him vulnerable to his emotions, and Corso can’t hide the fact he’s a big softie.

“I cry a lot,” he said. “I cry at TV commercials.”

A Paralympics ad featuring a girl with no legs really got to him the other day. Corso’s worked with Special Olympics since 1968, and he plans to do more.

“That’s one thing I’m going to put more emphasis on when I retire,” Corso said.

Retire?

The football world dreads the day, though there’s no reason to panic.

“I want to last as long as Amos Alonzo Stagg did,” Corso said.

That legendary coach retired at age 98. Will Corso be putting on a mascot head when the 2031 season kicks off?

“I hope so, God willing,” he said.

We should all hope so. Saturdays in the fall aren’t the same without the fans, the hoopla and the final few minutes of “College GameDay.”

Whatever mascot head he puts on, Lee Corso is one act that will never get old.

Follow David Whitley on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Lee Corso back on ESPN College GameDay set and football should rejoice