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Not so fast, my friend: A stroke couldn’t rob ESPN’s Lee Corso of ‘College GameDay’

Lee Corso dressed as James Madison when “College GameDay” visited the JMU campus in 2015. (Allen Kee/ESPN Images)

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Lee Corso shuffled hurriedly out of a room in a building near Bridgeforth Stadium on James Madison University’s campus, offering his apologies and a firm handshake on a misty Friday morning.

He didn’t want to keep anyone waiting. An assistant was helping him type his final script for the following morning’s “College GameDay,” the ESPN program he helped launch in 1987 that has become a Saturday-morning staple for college football fans across the nation.

The script, which Corso had been working on since Monday, was almost exactly what he planned to say on Saturday’s broadcast, and he’d been learning his lines all week. It’s a necessity nowadays, eight years after he suffered a major stroke that makes it difficult for him to talk — sometimes his speech is slightly slurred and he mispronounces words. He may hesitate or stutter at the start of a sentence, and he can’t ad-lib on air like he used to. But he can memorize a script, and that helps Corso, 82, stay on track.

More importantly, it means he can still slip in a few quips throughout the show.

“The reason I’m doing it,” Corso said, “is first of all, I work for ESPN. Remember, I had a hell of a stumble and they could’ve dumped me. ESPN was good to keep me. I work with great people, people that, I think, respect me enough to allow me to make the mistakes I do. Second of all, the most important thing is, I’m in the entertainment business.”

In the midst of his 30th season with “College GameDay,” Corso’s perspective on the show hasn’t changed.  He followed a 27-year coaching career by remaking himself into an entertainer. Everyone from Kirk Herbstreit, an analyst on the show for more than 20 years, to Rece Davis, who stepped in to host in 2015, knows Corso’s mantra by heart.

“ ‘It’s entertainment, sweetheart. College football is the vehicle,’ ” Davis said Friday, quoting Corso. “He says it almost every week, and he’s right.”

Corso said it again on Friday morning as the “GameDay” crew prepped in conference rooms behind him. Then he paused.

There was a period in 2009 when Corso thought his second career might be finished. After his stroke on May 16, he couldn’t speak for about a month.

He said he spent about four months in therapy teaching himself how to talk again because he couldn’t imagine his life without “GameDay.” Even his therapist was surprised when he returned to the show on Sept. 1, 2009.

“It hurts me not to be able to communicate like I used to,” Corso said quietly Friday morning. “I used to be pretty good at coming back, you know, quick one-liners. I don’t have spontaneity, I can’t do that as much now. … Every single week, I memorize the show, so that when I get on, I can actually do it. It gets frustrating, because I want to be able to be like I was. But the doctor told me about two or three weeks after, he told me, ‘Lee, you’ll never be the same. You might as well adjust to how you’re going to be.’ I haven’t. But I was determined to get back on television. I wanted to get back.”

“GameDay” made adjustments for him.

Lee Fitting, ESPN’s vice president of college sports and a longtime producer of the show, said bringing Corso back after his stroke was always the plan. Beyond being the face of the program, those who work closely with Corso describe him as a father figure, someone who doles out life advice as much as professional counsel.

Now, Corso’s fellow analysts help him pronounce names, sometimes finish his sentences when he can’t and gently correct him if he makes a mistake on air. The producers adjust segments on the show to accommodate his needs.

“We said we had to take it slowly. We said, ‘Let’s not put Coach in a position to fail,’ ” Fitting said. “ . . . He’s always on the set for the most important parts of the show: The beginning, the middle and the end, and that’s where we need him. We love and value his opinion and analysis, and we work around sort of all of our comfort level to put him in the best spot.”

When Corso isn’t on camera during the show, he sits in a roomy bus in front of five screens. There, he can monitor the program, go over his lines and get a little rest. He needs 11 or 12 hours of sleep each night or else he won’t be able to speak the next day, and he travels with speech exercises. His therapy isn’t over.

“I can’t help it,” Corso said. “Words don’t go from the brain to the lips in time. That’s what a stroke does to you … and that hurts me.”

The slowed speech pattern is at odds with the verve Corso has never lost.

Prepping for the show on Friday morning, the former Florida State quarterback stood and shuffled his weight from side to side so he could launch into pantomime should he feel the urge to act out a point he’s making, which happens often. Corso said he always tried to be animated on the sideline throughout his coaching career, which began with stints as an assistant at Maryland and Navy before he landed at Louisville in 1969 and then made a name for himself as the head coach at Indiana from 1973 to ’82.

When a two-year stint coaching in the short-lived U.S. Football League turned into an opportunity with ESPN, Corso slipped naturally into broadcasting. A newly minted entertainer, he firmly believed he needed to develop a catchphrase or something that would make him stick with audiences. But it had to be authentic.

Corso finally found one in 1996 at an Ohio State game when he saw Brutus the Buckeye walk past the “GameDay” set. He asked Herbstreit’s then-fiancee, a former Ohio State cheerleader, to secure him the mascot head.

“I said, ‘You know, I could put it on tomorrow and I wouldn’t have to say anything, and everyone would know that I’m picking Ohio State,’ ” Corso recalled. “When they said, ‘Okay, Lee, it’s your turn,’ I reach over, I put it on, and the crowd went nuts. And the truck went crazy, the ESPN people loved it. And I said, ‘I think I got a shtick here.’ Now I’ve done it 300 times.”

Corso’s 301st headgear pick came Saturday. He put on a Duke Dog mascot head, a subtler sequel to 2015’s “GameDay” broadcast at James Madison, when he dressed as the university’s namesake.

Corso said he didn’t want to dress as the president again because JMU was upset by Richmond after he did it the first time. No such problem Saturday: JMU beat Villanova, 30-8, to give Corso another correct prediction.

“I still hear about it,” said Corso, whose record of picks after Saturday’s win is 198-103. “I’ll tell you, people remember every single pick I make against their team, they really do. There’s just so much passion in college football, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Corso feels that passion every weekend. He was stopped three times during the two-minute walk and golf-cart ride from the building behind ESPN’s set to the “GameDay” desk — twice by fans asking for pictures and another by a former running back who played for him at Louisville. Countless more people shouted his name or reached out for a high-five. Behind the set, signs that read “Lee Corso 2020” and “Lee Corso, show me your Dukes” dotted the crowd.

That level of recognition is part of what made Corso so indispensable to ESPN. He signed a new, multiyear contract with the network earlier this year.

“I got no resistance from above,” Fitting said. “I called our bosses all the way up to John Skipper, the president, and said, ‘Coach Corso’s contract is up and we want to renew him for a few more years.’ Everyone was like, why wouldn’t we? He’s Coach Corso, he’s on the Mount Rushmore of ESPN. As far as I’m concerned, he’s here for a while.”

Corso doesn’t like to think about what he’ll do when his time at ESPN is up. He has four children and 10 grandchildren, many of whom live near him in Florida. For now — for a long time — he would like to continue entertaining.

“I tell you what, I’m going to be like that vaudeville guy, the one who gets dragged off the stage with a cane,” Corso said, placing his hands on his neck and doing a side-shuffle. “Hey guys, not so fast! They’re going to have to pull me off. It’s like stealing, why would I give it up? I won’t give it up. It’ll be up to ESPN when I leave. And when ESPN says they’re going to move in another direction, I’ll say, ‘Thank you very much. It’s been a great run.’ Because it has.”