ATLANTA -- Has it been nearly 40 years? Yep. Way back then, on the campus of Indiana University, Lee Corso was often as serious as he is now hilarious, and he never called me by my name.
"Hey, Cincinnati," Corso would say, which sort of made sense. I worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer during the late 1970s, and among my assignments was Indiana, where Corso was mostly a no-nonsense coach during the second of his three lives in college football. You know about his third and current life, which involves ESPN and the wearing of crazy headgear. You're probably a bit hazy on his first life, so let's put it this way: He was such a splendid college player during the mid-1950s that he is tied for third-place in career interceptions at Florida State with somebody named Deion Sanders.
Now let's return to Corso's second life, which involved coaching.
Yes, Corso really was a coach, and, yes, he wasn't into foolishness (with an asterisk) after he blew his whistle. Corso was a stickler for time. He rarely met a punishment he didn't like for naughty players. He was a smash-mouth guy, but in contrast to his Big Ten peers such as Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, he didn't equate the forward pass with devil worshipping.
Corso was good. Actually, he was better than that when you consider he began his coaching career at Louisville, where he never had a losing season in four years. He won the Missouri Valley Conference, and he tied for the conference title another season. Then he left to encounter a two-headed monster during his decade at Indiana: Since the turn of the 20th century, the Hoosiers have fluctuated between dreadful and mediocre in football for long stretches, and the unofficial king of the athletics department, university and the state of Indiana throughout Corso's stint with the Hoosiers was Bobby Knight, the local messiah disguised as the basketball coach.
"Yeah, you were with me at Indiana during my only good year," Corso said, chuckling, when we huddled earlier this week at the College Football Hall of Fame after an ESPN luncheon. His reference was to 1979, when his 7-4 Hoosiers shocked undefeated and ninth-ranked Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl. His only other winning season at Indiana was in 1980 at 6-5, but he had a bunch of little successes throughout his years with the Hoosiers. They managed home-and-away victories over a Washington team led by the legendary Don James. They upset LSU. They almost did the same to a powerful Ohio State team coached by Hayes. And they had Michigan beat in Ann Arbor until Schembechler's lordly bunch won at the end with an illegal play.
So, if you thought you knew everything there is to know about Lee Corso, well, not so fast, my friend. There. I said it. I figured I'd get that out of the way before we return to his second life.
First, about Corso's third life: Every Saturday during the fall, he is the grandfatherly looking dude with the No. 2 pencil who causes ESPN's ratings to spike like crazy at the end of College GameDay. As hundreds of fans scream in the background while hoisting signs with various messages, Corso reaches down and yanks on the mascot head of a cow, an elephant, a wagon train, a Ben Franklin impersonator or nearly anything else you can imagine to illustrate which team he picks to win that particular game on campus.
"I realize that I'm nothing more than an entertainer," Corso said, easing into a smile. "We're all in the entertainment business, and college football is our vehicle. If you ever forget that, you're done."
Except Corso never is done with amusing those around him, not even with his 80th birthday approaching on Friday. He said during the luncheon that Auburn is "the only school in America" that won't allow him to put on the headgear of their mascot. "They have some kind of rule that you have to be a special kind of human being to wear this guy's headgear," Corso said, before adding with a laugh, "So I'm not going to pick them."
The audience laughed, too.
In contrast, there was more cringing than chuckling from the opposition during Corso's first life in college football. He played back then, and he was such an athletic stud that even the Brooklyn Dodgers wanted him as a shortstop. In addition to starring as a defensive back at Florida State, he did so well as a quarterback that he started in a national all-star game. His roommate in college was Burt Reynolds, who also was one of his teammates. More famously, Reynolds joined Corso as "an entertainer," but much earlier and in Hollywood instead of ESPN.
This isn't to say Corso wasn't a showman before he became the longest-running member of the College GameDay crew in 1987. Remember my asterisk earlier regarding Corso and foolishness? During his coaching career that ended in 1985 after one year with the Orlando Renegades of the United States Football League (he also coached Northern Illinois in 1984 after he was fired two years earlier by Indiana), Corso was into strategic foolishness.
"Really, at the beginning of my career, especially when I went to Indiana, I had to be funny, because we had so many crappy teams," said Corso, whose most striking comedy routine as a coach happened in 1976. The combustible Hayes was in Bloomington, Ind., with his Buckeyes, and Indiana had never led Ohio State at any point of a game in 25 years.
Just like that, Indiana took a quick 7-0 lead, and Corso called time out. He sent the rest of his team onto the field for a team picture with the score of the moment as the backdrop to it all.
Hayes was not amused.
"He grunted, and then he just threw his cap at me," Corso said, rising from his seat before he swung his left arm from high in the air toward an imaginary spot on the floor. "Woody's left-handed, so that's why I did it with my left hand, and he threw his cap at me like that (swinging and pointing a few yards in front of him), and he just growled."
The media loved it. So did the part of the public that wasn't into singing the "Buckeye Battle Cry." In case you're wondering, Ohio State proceeded to score 47 unanswered points. That said, Corso delivered an ongoing message to his players regarding that Ohio State thing and other such things from the coach: Don't get infatuated with the sideshow.
Play football. Period.
"I was very serious when dealing with my players at Louisville and Indiana, but I always told them what I felt, and I always told them that I never believed humor was a sign of weakness," Corso said. "Society puts humor with weakness, and intensity with strength. I think it's exactly the opposite. In fact, a good sense of humor can get you through a lot of things."
Like a dreadful football tradition at Indiana. You know, except for a few Corso-inspired miracles here and there.