HARRISONBURG — The dominoes had to fall just right for ESPN’s “College GameDay” to return to James Madison.
“Well, James Madison had been on our list for this coming weekend for quite some time,” said Lee Fitting, vice president of college sports at ESPN. “Low on the list, but on the list. They were probably in the fifth or sixth spot as we looked at things over the course of the year.”
ESPN announced Sunday that its flagship college football show would originate from JMU’s Quad on Saturday beginning at 9 a.m.
Fitting, a 1996 James Madison graduate and former coordinating producer of “College GameDay,” said the show keeps a running list of potential sites to visit each week of the season. That list is updated based on wins, losses and storylines.
“Heading into this past Saturday, the Red River Rivalry was No. 1 on our list, and then Oklahoma lost,” Fitting said. “Then we were really intrigued at the Youngstown State-North Dakota State game, which at the time it was No. 2 vs. No. 6 in FCS. And then Youngstown State lost.”
Utah-USC and Boise State-San Diego State were options as well, according to Fitting.
“But we just got a little skeptical about the early start out there,” he said. “So we were kind of left with, why not go back to JMU? We know the scene is going to be great and going to be energetic, and it’s going to make for a fun backdrop.
“They’re No. 1 in the country and on a 17-game winning streak.”
As fan and alum of the school, Fitting said he keeps up with the Dukes. He checks the score of the JMU game each weekend, even with his busy schedule.
Since being promoted to oversee college sports programming at ESPN, Fitting not only has to keep up with “GameDay” on Saturdays in the fall, but also all the college football games ESPN televises on its different networks.
“I’ll probably go out to three or four ‘GameDay’ shows a season, but again, we have a million games on our air every week that I’m also responsible in helping oversee,” he said. “Last week I was at Ole Miss-Auburn. I was at the Clemson-Auburn game, so I just go where I think I need to be on a given weekend, and a lot of the time it’s home and that’s from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. to see what’s unfolding on our network.”
Fitting will be in Harrisonburg this weekend, though. He said he plans to arrive in town Thursday.
It’ll be his third trip back to JMU since he graduated, he said. The last time was for “College GameDay’s” first show at JMU back in October of 2015.
“We were sort of debating and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t want to push us there because I went to school there,’” Fitting said. “The show is so important to me that I would never put anything in front of the show, so I needed everyone else to weigh in here on if this is the right thing or not.
“Once a decision was made, I was psyched and I can’t wait to be back later this week.”
Fitting said this week’s “College GameDay” will run a feature story on JMU running back Trai Sharp, who’s father passed away in North Carolina on Sept. 16 while Sharp was rushing for 130 yards and scoring two touchdowns in the Dukes’ win over Norfolk State.
Additionally, the show is likely to have a live on-set interview segment with second-year JMU coach Mike Houston, according to Fitting.
“We’re looking for the best story each week,” Fitting said. “Often times the best story is the best game, and then there are other times when there are cool stories out there that we want the college football fan base to be made aware of.
“It could be Clemson versus Florida State, Alabama-Auburn, or it could be James Madison-Villanova. There are no guidelines. There are no rules, but we do like to have a diversity of sites over the course of the year.”
JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said the show provides the school with an invaluable opportunity.
“The actual exposure, you can’t buy that,” Bourne said. “We talk about it all the time, and you can’t buy exposure like you get from ESPN and the larger networks, so it’s going to be large.”
Standard tracking software placed the value of the media exposure JMU received because of the broadcast at $3.5 million in advertising equivalency.
“I think the viewership will be even larger this time and I feel really sure that on the Quad that there will be more people than there were here last time,” Bourne said.