ATLANTA — It was 10:30 a.m. on the first full Saturday of college football and Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso were together again, just as it should be. Only, it wasn’t. Fowler was unshaven, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, picking over a plate of fruit and yogurt while the dapper Herbstreit and Corso appeared on ESPN’s College GameDay on a TV across the room, previewing the epic Florida State-Alabama opener.
“Yes,” Fowler admitted, “it is a little weird.” Like watching your own life replayed, but without you actually in it. He could hardly look in 2015, the first season in 25 years that he was not the host of GameDay. “If it was worse — or if it was better without me … I just couldn’t.”
He’s over that now, using his old show as an alarm clock on Saturday mornings that suddenly allow him to sleep in a little. For years, Fowler stayed up deep into the night on Fridays and was back at it before dawn doing all the homework it takes to become the man America trusted to set the stage for each Saturday in the fall.
“I’ll always miss GameDay to a degree,” he said. “I’ll miss coming onto the air and the last part of the show, because you can never replace that experience. Working in front of a live crowd and the energy of that — I miss being around it. But then you step back and take a wide look at it, and getting to call games is really what I wanted to do since I was 8 years old.”
And that is why Fowler is no longer the face of ESPN’s wildly popular preview show, because now he has an opportunity to become something even grander: the voice of college football. In 2014, he replaced legendary Brent Musburger as play-by-play man on Saturday Night Football on ABC. For a year, he did both that and GameDay, a herculean feat that might’ve killed a lesser man.
“I never felt comfortable throttling back and coasting on preparation,” said the 55-year-old Fowler who is still built like he could play in one of the games he announces. “For all those years, my day was basically done at noon and the fun started. Even if it was four hours of sleep for a couple nights, if I could just get to noon, I could relax and be a fan. The year I did both, it was extremely challenging mentally, trying to stay into it all day.
“There is a much bigger audience at night than there will ever be in the morning, so you have to be at your best at 8 o’clock and stay at your best until midnight. You have to have your fastball.”
To watch Fowler get himself ready to throw that heat is to understand why he couldn’t continue with both Saturday shows. He allowed SEC Country to shadow him throughout the day leading up to his call of the showdown between the top-ranked Crimson Tide and third-ranked Seminoles — and it was a master class on preparation.
With meticulous notes sprawled in front of him, Fowler’s attention to detail during a morning production meeting was astounding. He tweaked the grammar on a planned graphic for that night’s broadcast, nixed a video package because the tone of the music didn’t feel quite right for the subject matter.
He implored everyone involved in the broadcast not to “come out of your shoes” treating this (albeit terrific) matchup as too much more than what it was: two teams’ first game of the 2017 season. Restrained is a word that frequently comes to mind with Fowler, and to that point he led a heartening discussion with the crew about violent collisions in the game.
“Be careful not to glamorize headshots,” he said, acknowledging that both he and many viewers feel torn these days as they watch players get knocked silly while ever scarier scientific findings about the effects of concussions emerge. “Let’s be mindful of the climate.”
Mindful is another word that fits Fowler. He is no mere talking head, rather a thinking man. He has thought long and deep about his craft. The way he describes his pregame process and in-game mentality mirrors that of many elite athletes and coaches.
“We’re not going to be screamers,” Fowler said of himself and Herbstreit, who is still by his side as color commentator on Saturday nights. “What I’m shooting for is not to freaking trample what’s going on out on the field. You hope to punctuate it — and sense the momentum changes, look for turning points. I aspire to be as good at that as [Nick] Saban is in a game, because he’s the master of sensing a momentum change, of knowing something is about to happen and how to be ready for it. That’s a lot of what this job is.
“It’s not just sitting there and recording what you see; it’s sort of anticipating, ‘Oh, that missed third-down pass, remember that.’”
One of the calls Fowler is proudest of — and hears most often about from fans — is from the national championship game two years ago when Alabama returned a kickoff 95 yards to go up two scores in the fourth quarter against Clemson.
When he howled, “Look out! Kenyan Drake can fly!” the blazing return man was still at his own 25-yard line.
“It’s early in the play. It’s just, ‘Heads up, this kid is fast — and he’s got a crease.’ That’s not a typical call, because I’m losing my mind and I don’t usually get that excited. But a kick return in a huge moment in a back-and-forth game, if ever there’s a moment to come out of your shoes, that’s it, right?” said Fowler, who hopes that his generally understated manner means that fans get an extra tingle when Mr. Cool finally does let loose. “If you listen to some of Keith Jackson’s great calls, people don’t always know why it’s great, but it’s because he anticipated. Listen to the Miracle at Michigan for Colorado in 1994, Hail Mary — great, great call. ‘He’s got three people down there, the ball is up in the air.’ He’s telling you this could happen. There’s a brilliance in that.”
But Jackson stopped calling college football in 2006, and Musburger followed suit after last season, as did fellow legend Verne Lundquist. That left a void, but also an opportunity. Fowler is best positioned to step into that space and truly become the preeminent voice of the sport.
He will tell you that’s not on his mind — and that with so many games on so many channels now, the idea of becoming the singular voice for college football is all but impossible — but those around him disagree.
Bill Bonnell, producer of Saturday Night Football and whose career in sports television production began in the 1980s, believes there is “no doubt” Fowler is in line to assume the mantle.
“You take big voices like Brent Musburger and Dick Enberg, they weren’t Brent Musburger and Dick Enberg when they first started. Brent came from the studio and Dick wasn’t always the great storyteller that he turned into,” Bonnell said. “It’s years of getting those reps and really learning your craft. I think Chris is well on his way to becoming that next generation of Bob Costas, Dick Enberg, Brent Musburger. Chris Fowler is our next generation.”
Three-and-a-half hours before Florida State and Alabama kicked off Saturday, Fowler was aboard ESPN’s luxury tour bus underneath the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, sitting in the back where there are leather recliners and five screens all showing a different game. Herbstreit was sprawled out, cracking jokes and making observations on the afternoon action.
Fowler, with media guides strewn at his feet and still more notes scattered all around him, wore reading glasses and hunched over a tablet, searching for just a few more nuggets of information he might share with viewers later. He was largely oblivious to Florida-Michigan on the biggest screen.
“What you can control is being mechanically very sound, not making mistakes, navigating the telecast. I think that is really important, not just yelling out,” Fowler said. “There’s probably too much focus [by announcers] on the hollering or putting your stamp on a big play.”
His other passion, though, has helped him learn restraint. Fowler is also the voice of ESPN’s tennis coverage — a gig that is not given to fits of wild shouting.
“That’s why I love doing tennis,” he said. “You save it. When a guy rips a running forehand winner on match point in the fifth set, then it’s time to go crazy.”
Bonnell believes that bringing that approach to football has earned Fowler the trust of fans. They know when his voice rises, something really important has happened — even if they happen to be across the room with their head in the beer fridge.
“Listening to people since I’m 8 years old, succeeding by being authentic is what’s important to me,” Fowler said. “If I catch myself sounding too announcery, I like to check it.”
So there aren’t really any catchphrases and he does not plan ahead for championship taglines, a la Jim Nantz, because they feel forced. He trusts that his preparation — which includes countless conversations with coaches, players, former opponents and old connections in the days leading up to a game — and years of mingling with the sport’s fans via GameDay will push all the right buttons in his brain when the moment arrives.
As Ezekiel Elliott busted through for one final touchdown in Ohio State’s 42-20 victory over Oregon to claim the first College Football Playoff crown in 2014, Fowler spontaneously belted: “Elliott dots the i of this national championship!” It was a nod to the longstanding tradition of the Buckeyes’ marching band, but it also made sense in the context of the game.
“I didn’t think about it, I promise you. He just ran in there and I’m thinking, ‘Well, there’s the punctuation.’ It’s like, holy shit, something just popped into your head and you trust it and go with it,” Fowler said. “The reason I know it landed is I looked over in the booth and Kirk [a former OSU quarterback] and the spotter — who is an Ohio State guy, too — both were excited, because Ohio State fans know that’s what you do.”
Saturday night in Atlanta, Fowler spent most of the hour before what was being billed as the greatest season-opening game in college football history standing on his mark in the broadcast booth, staring down at his chart, the bible for any broadcaster, filled with copious stats and storylines about Alabama and Florida State and anyone who even had a prayer of playing in that game.
He’d said earlier in the day that he felt a little behind on this one. While he has mostly cleared the deck to focus on Saturday Night Football, these first two weeks of the season will be a challenge.
He called two tennis matches a day at the U.S. Open in New York last week, studying the Tide and Seminoles during breaks, before flying to Atlanta on Friday. He’s back on tennis duty all this week before flying to Columbus for another monster showdown — Oklahoma at Ohio State — after which he’ll immediately return to New York for the men’s Open final.
It sounds overwhelming. It looks overwhelming. But at 8 p.m. Saturday, Fowler, clean-shaven and sharply dressed by then, stood up straight, took a deep breath and removed his glasses. Bright lights clicked on and he welcomed the largest opening-weekend audience in ESPN and ABC history.
“No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Florida State,” he said. “Almost too good to be true.”