Dave Boling

Dave Boling: Lee Corso more than the man under the mascot head

ESPN College GameDay hosts Lee Corso, left, and Kirk Herbstreit confer prior to an Auburn-Mississippi game in Starkville, Miss. If you think Corso is a wild personality on TV, you should have seen him as a coach.
ESPN College GameDay hosts Lee Corso, left, and Kirk Herbstreit confer prior to an Auburn-Mississippi game in Starkville, Miss. If you think Corso is a wild personality on TV, you should have seen him as a coach. AP file, 2014

I was 17 years old and sorting through options about where to play college football when I first talked to Lee Corso.

The University of Louisville wasn’t really high on my list — not until Corso was hired there — but within five minutes he convinced me that he would turn it into a nationally ranked program.

I can’t recall specifics, only the impression he made. He was a force of nature, all energy and optimism, preaching the glory and nobility of building something up from the bottom.

He was an evangelist, a ringmaster, heck, maybe even a bit of a hypnotist, making me a little dizzy with his whirlwind pitch of hopes and visions of success.

Yes, yes, yes, hallelujah, where do I sign?

I didn’t care about the shabby facilities, the lousy stadium or the spotty tradition. Coach Corso was going to change all that.

I bought the dream that he embroidered. And then he made it come true.

It’s amazing how much the Lee Corso I talked to back in 1969 was like the 81-year-old I chatted with on the phone Thursday afternoon, freshly arrived in Seattle to fill his duties as an icon on ESPN’s College GameDay program at Washington’s Husky Stadium on Saturday.

For nearly 30 years, Corso has offered football insights and comic relief on the popular Saturday show that bounces from campus to campus to the site of the hot game of the week.

“I say this, we’re in the entertainment business, and college football is our vehicle,” Corso said of the GameDay mission. “You make them laugh, make them cry, make them smile, make them happy and you’ve got a show.”

The schtick that has come to be his trademark arises every week when the panel members make their picks; Corso does so by donning the head of the mascot of the team he favors to win.

“It’s unbelievable — I make a living by putting something on my head,” he said. “(The fans) remember it for years and years when I pick against them.”

A showman at heart, Corso loves the connection with the fans, and being on a bright stage. “I’m doing something I love to do,” he said.

Still energetic and clever, Corso concedes his delivery has changed a bit. “A couple years ago I had a stroke,” he said. “It affected my speech and my right side. You have to adjust. I have to get as much rest as possible or I can’t talk.”

It was at the time of his stroke that he came to realize how much he appreciated his employers at ESPN. “They could have dumped me right then, but they stayed with me as I recovered and went through therapy for weeks and hours and months. That’s why I’ll never leave ESPN. They showed me something about character.”

The job allows him to stay close to the game. “But … it isn’t as good as coaching.” he said. “That relationship you had with the players was the difference.”

And that is at the heart of this column.

Whenever players from his teams get together, we remember the atmosphere Corso created even more than the games we won. Truly uncharacteristic in the days when Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant were the coaching kingpins, Corso believed the game could be fun.

One year when we had a game on Thanksgiving, he showed up in the locker room before the game with a turkey. A live turkey, with an “L” painted on its side. He had the captains walk it out on a leash with them to the coin flip.

It was so crazy. It was so Corso.

Another season, Corso called us in and said he hated that uniforms eliminated all manner of individual expression. He didn’t like that concept. So he supplied little bottles of white and red paint for each player to decorate their cleats any way they wanted.

I was a plodding offensive lineman, but I remember feeling like Mercury when I painted my shoes white with red lightning bolts on the side.

Another year, he moved our spring scrimmage to the Kentucky State Penitentiary. He said he had heard that some of the inmates had become big fans and always listened to our games on the radio.

I suspect it was the one way he could assure that our first opponent on the fall schedule couldn’t scout our new schemes in the spring game. But it served as community outreach and made for great press coverage, and a classic newspaper photo of a guard with machine gun looking down from a tower at the action below.

It was different and it was fun, and we flourished in the process.

One story led to another during our phone call.

On the topic of the highly rated UW team hosting USC on Saturday, Corso recalled former coach Don James, a dear friend whom he admired as much as anybody in college football.

But naturally Corso reminded me that our Louisville team of 1972 beat James’ Kent State team (he remembered the exact score, 34-0, off the top of his head) with Nick Saban as a defensive back, and Jack Lambert as middle linebacker.

It is natural that a coach should be remembered and, in some cases, revered by his players. They play such a large role shaping and steering young peoples’ lives. Good or bad.

But here’s what makes Corso different.

When he returned my call, set up through an ESPN PR person, he immediately started asking me about an injury I suffered my senior season. He remembered the exact circumstances, and how it influenced our season.

I hadn’t really talked to him since I exhausted eligibility, and he moved to Indiana University in 1973. I was no All-American, just a role player, but to this day I feel that being a part of that team was a rare and cherished thing.

That Corso still has some recollection of the contributions of one minor guy is the greatest testament to the connection that can be made through sports, a bond so strong and elastic it can stretch over 44 years.

I thanked him for all he had taught us, and for how meaningful the experience had been. And he told me that it was probably the most important thing a coach could hear.

By then, I think we were both a little weepy, or swept away with the rush of nostalgia.

And it’s only now, as I write, that I realize he’d kept his promises — he improved all the facilities and turned us into a nationally ranked team.

And every one of us was bettered by the experience.