MINNEAPOLIS -- The NBC sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live” is well known for starting each episode with a cold open. On Saturday morning, live from TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, there was much focus on the cold when ESPN College GameDay opened its second all-time visit to the University of Minnesota campus.
It was around 20 degrees at 8 a.m. when host Rece Davis and co-host Kirk Herbstreit began the show bare-headed from their traditional curved desk, set up on the stadium’s plaza behind the west end zone. Those two were joined by former Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard and former NFL linebacker David Pollack, both of whom chose to keep their heads covered.
Things are much different for ESPN’s signature on-location pregame show in 2020, in recognition of the pandemic and the need to avoid groups of people gathering and potentially spreading COVID-19. The crew on set was socially distanced. The stadium was empty, save for a few dozen cardboard cutouts of fans in the student section. There were no throngs of fans surrounding the set, like we saw last November on the campus mall at the U of M, and filling the street in front of the Fargo Theatre on GameDay’s two previous visits to NDSU. Even the Gopher band, playing into and out of commercial breaks, featured musicians standing 6 feet apart, with coverings over their instruments.
Still, there was much of the local flair and color that have made the show a Saturday morning staple for college football fans since they first started going live from the site of a weekly big game in 1993. As of a year ago, Minneapolis was one of the rare Power Five cities that had not hosted the GameDay crew. Now they have had the show at the U of M twice in the past 11 months, in recognition of Gopher football’s rise in national prominence with coach P.J. Fleck at the helm.
Still, Michigan is clearly the alpha dog in this rivalry that goes back more than a century. Along with tributes to recently-deceased Minneapolis sportswriter Sid Hartman, a feature on Gophers star wide receiver Rashod Bateman and an on-field interview with Fleck, the show took an extensive look at Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh and his currently uncertain contract situation, due in large part to his inability to beat arch-rival Ohio State.
By the time Minneapolis-born celebrity guest Vince Vaughn, who beamed in from what looked like his California home, picked the Gophers and Lee Corso, from poolside at his Orlando home, donned an oversize Wolverines helmet to predict a 17th straight Michigan win at Minnesota, there was little talk about the cold, and more of just a focus on what would happen on the field.
And in a year where little makes sense, there were sure to be head-shaking moments, like when Davis brought in prognosticator Pat McAfee from a faraway studio. McAfee waxed fondly of Minnesota, claiming to have once caught a beluga sturgeon in Lake Minnetonka. That sounds like a bit of a fishy story.