Brookings, university communities get up for GameDay

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

ESPN’s College GameDay may have left just as swiftly as it came, but the show’s impact on South Dakota State University won’t soon be forgotten.

Thousands of Jackrabbits, with a few Bison sprinkled in the mix, crowded the College Green for the live broadcast Saturday morning, some lining up more than 12 hours ahead of time to guarantee their place in the pit.

The result was an energetic, engaged crowd that helped validate ESPN’s choice to host its popular traveling college football show in Brookings for the first time.

“From what I understand, I think ESPN was very, very satisfied with the show,” said Mike Lockrem, SDSU’s Director of University Marketing and Communications. “Whether or not they ever come back, you don’t know, but we certainly wanted to stay on the list. We wanted them to look back and say, ‘Yeah, that was a place where we had a great show, environment and participation,’ and I think we checked all those boxes. The exposure you get from that is unbelievable and hard to quantify. People want to put a number on it, but you really can’t.”

That crowd not only showed up for GameDay, but carried the energy and enthusiasm over to the afternoon’s rivalry game against North Dakota State.

A record crowd of 19,371 people, including 3,562 students, was on hand to watch the 110th edition of the SDSU-NDSU rivalry — the first sellout in the history of Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. If the past is any indication, filling the stadium regularly will be a tough ask, but SDSU head football coach John Stiegelmeier is optimistic that Saturday’s turnout will spark something in Jackrabbit Nation.

“I hope people enjoyed that environment,” Stiegelmeier said. “I’ve been here for 32 years and that was the best football environment I’ve ever been in, not even close. Credit to our fans, and it starts with the students — to stay and be invested was very special to our football program. I mean, we built (the stadium), let’s fill it. I think we can do that.”

An oft-asked question in the week leading up to the Dakota Marker showdown centered around the idea that GameDay’s presence in Brookings would be a distraction for the Jackrabbit football team. Though SDSU was unable to topple the top-ranked Bison, the team’s performance was an indication that any distraction was minimal.

“They didn’t go out there to prove that they could go to GameDay and still play a good football game,” Stiegelmeier said. “We recruit really special student-athletes, so I expect them to be able to go from chemistry class to the practice field and be totally locked in. I expect them to go from a disappointing experience with a girlfriend or a friend and go out to the practice field because we recruit winners. I think the recipe we used last week was perfect for our team.”

GameDay traditionally has a guest picker, usually someone with a relationship to the host university, during the last segment of the show.

Former Jackrabbit and NFL all-time scoring leader Adam Vinatieri was an obvious choice, but there was one problem — he had a game Sunday and couldn’t make it.

Instead, former Indianapolis Colt punter turned sports media personality Pat McAfee, who served as the holder during Vinatieri’s kicks for nearly a decade, stepped in for the SDSU legend.

“I know a lot of our students were excited about him being here,” Lockrem said. “… I think at first people were saying, ‘Okay, we kind of see the connection,’ but the guy nailed it. He was just outstanding.”

When ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit revealed he picked the Bison to win, prompting a chorus of boos from the pro-Jackrabbit crowd, McAfee uttered a phrase that resonated across social media for several hours: “Please excuse my dumb friend, Kirk.”

While Herbstreit ended up being correct and the final score didn’t favor the Jacks, the importance of the weekend wasn’t diminished inside the SDSU locker room.

“ESPN did an amazing job,” Stiegelmeier said. “To treat us the way they did, to treat Brookings, South Dakota, the way they treat Columbus (Ohio) and Baton Rouge (Louisiana) and Miami, I think it says a ton about who they are and why they go to a community. I was really impressed with how this city and university embraced it, and I thought we did everything we could do. I think they would be saying the same thing about their experience — that they were really impressed with the whole thing. I loved the energy, loved how close we got to the whole experience. I just feel very appreciative.”