Lee Corso is 78-years-old, and he admits age is beginning to catch up to him. He still experiences the remnants of a stroke he suffered a few years ago.
Corso has cut back on his schedule and he must do daily vocal and throat exercises to maintain his voice. Hot tea with lemon and honey always is close to his side.
“I gargle twice a day,” Corso said. “You ought to be with me some time.”
The bigger issue, Corso says, is that his brain doesn’t work like it used to.
“I lost the ability to be spontaneous,” Corso said. “My mind used to be really quick. I’m not as quick as I used to be. I have a harder time getting what I want to say from my brain to my mouth.”
Yet you could have fooled me after I recently spent a few minutes with the former Indiana coach on a Friday during preparations for that Saturday’s “College GameDay” on ESPN. Corso was full of energy and anticipation. There was the ever-present twinkle in his eye that spoke of passion, if not a bit of mischief.
He set me up perfectly by telling the story of his final days as a coach in the USFL during the 1980s.
“When the league folded, I knew it was time to get out of coaching,” Corso said. “You know how I knew?”
“No,” I replied, playing the straight man.
“People quit asking me to coach,” said Corso of a line that he surely has said a million times. As I laughed, he had a works-every-time-smile on his face.
It turns out leaving coaching was the best thing that happened to Corso. It also has worked out pretty well for ESPN too.
In 1987, ESPN hired Corso to be an analyst for a fledgling new college football pregame show. Now 26 years later, the man in his 70s is arguably more popular on college campuses than any of the young players he analyzes.
“Coach is the same anywhere we go,” said “GameDay” producer Lee Fitting “His energy and enthusiasm is unbelievable. He’s bringing it every week. It’s hard to put into words what he’s meant to college football. He’s done more to popularize the game than anyone in the last 25 years.”
Corso actually started prepping for the job during a 10-year run as the Hoosiers’ coach from 1973-82. Hardly the Big Ten’s most successful coach with a record of 41-68-2 in Bloomington, Corso realized he had to find another way to keep them entertained.
“At Indiana, I was more famous for my (coach’s) TV show than I was for our teams,” Corso said. “I tell the guys (today’s coaches) all the time, ‘We’re in the entertainment business. College football is our vehicle.’ People think if you’re funny, you can’t be serious. Well, that’s not true.”
Some, though, are better showmen than others. Corso shines when the lights go on. The turning point came in 1993 when “GameDay” went on the road for the first time. Now it has morphed into a three-hour spectacular that transforms campuses on Saturday mornings.
The highlight comes when Corso dons the mascot head of the team he’s picking to win that Saturday’s game. “My shtick,” he said. Saturday, he was so worked up, he even got his lip bloodied during a playful swordfight with Kirk Herbstreit.
That’s part of the act for Corso, who likens to the “GameDay” stage to another stage.
“It’s like an actor going to Broadway and feeling the excitement of the crowd,” Corso said. “It pumps you up. You feed off the energy.”
However, it almost ended for Corso in May, 2009. “You know I had a stroke,” he said, bringing it up without being asked.
In the initial days of therapy, Corso faced the uncertainty about whether he would be able to work again. “It was devastating,” he said. “It felt like a part of my life was dead. But I had the faith that God would take care of me.”
Corso credits “my terrific therapists” for allowing him to return to “GameDay” by September of that year. He tries to pay back what they did for him by visiting stroke patients in hospitals several times a year.
“I had a guy come up to me who had a stroke,” Corso said. “He said he heard me speak and that I inspired him. Well, I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”
If Corso’s stroke has robbed him of some of his quickness, he clearly has made the necessary adjustments. He still knows how to get the job done and deliver the goods on fall Saturdays.
Corso has been a part of college football since 1953, when he made his debut at Florida State. “That’s a lot of years,” he said.
When asked how long he plans to keep working, Corso looks at me like I’m crazy.
“Are you kidding?” Corso said. “I travel first class. I stay at the best hotels. I get to go to the best game of the week. Then when I’m done, they fly me home first class.”
Corso’s voice then rises to enhance the wonder of it all. “And they pay me. I mean, this is like stealing.”
Hopefully, the old Indiana coach will keep “stealing” for many more years to come.