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Erin Andrews draws catcalls, Houston doubted as ESPN College GameDay brings the silly and pumps up a cancer fighter

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College GameDay found Houston. Photo by Jim Manning
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Erin Andrews and Jim Manning take a picture together. Photo via @ErinAndrews
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Erin Andrews GameDay with Jim
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As the red T-shirted throng in "The Pit" continues to cheer for their man, Erin Andrews turns to Kirk Herbstreit and says, "They're making a case for Case Keenum for the Heisman. Get it?"

Herbstreit simply shakes his head. Welcome to ESPN's College GameDay where almost anything goes.

Bad puns, crazy headwear, shorts with suit jackets . . . it's all accepted with little more than a small groan or a giant smile. No matter if it's ESPNU Friday when the College GameDay cast goes on its next hastily constructed, yet surprising solid set and tapes segments for the network that relatively few watch or the real deal on Saturday morning on ESPN when it can seem like the whole college football world is tuned in, this is a production that strives to put the show into sports show.

With College GameDay at the University of Houston for the first time (they're not counting a 2005 appearance at Reliant Stadium for a UH game because it wasn't on campus, and that show centered on Hurricane Katrina rather than the Cougars), it's easy to see the frat boy allure.

College kids and more than a few Old School trying-to-relive-college types will start lining up at 4 a.m. Saturday to get into "The Pit" — ESPN's self-dubbed (GameDay is big on self glossing) version of an audience mosh pit below the raised high TV set stage. But on Friday, anyone can walk right into "The Pit"and make sure their screams or pleas are heard.

There's Herbstreit up on the stage, talking about how many playmakers Houston has on offense. "They're really looking forward to the chance to show their talents," Herbstreit says.

Only those around the Cullen Circle lawn know that Herbstreit is wearing shorts with his perfectly-made-up suit covered top as he banters with Andrews, whose pop culture celebrity far outshines anyone else on GameDay (sorry Lee Corso).

"The good news this week is we can understand them," Andrews says on air about the UH fans — with the remarks played on loudspeakers across the lawn. "Last week at Stanford with the math problems, we had an issue.

"We can understand Houston."

 Wait, is that a compliment?

A Beautiful Life

Give Andrews a break though. One of the first things you notice from a College GameDay set visit is how under the microscope the 33-year-old sportscaster is. Even Herbstreit, the still quarterback handsome commentator, can quietly go pretty much anywhere he wants. But when Andrews moves, the crowd usually follows.

Whether it's her Dancing with the Stars run, the videotaping stalker case that took her from the sports pages to the front page of the tabloids while shattering her privacy, or the long-running focus on her looks, Andrews quickly becomes the center of attention. College-aged guys scream out that they love her. At one point, the crowd calls for her to take off her jacket (she keeps it on).

Two guys behind "The Pit" basically spend two full hours shouting out things to Andrews — and Erin Andrews alone.

"Erin, I'll show you the world!" one of these geniuses yells.

"I'll show you the campus!" the other counters.

It's all comes across as mostly in fun, albeit with a sometimes creepy undertone. Andrews handles it all with grace and a quick grin. She's heard it all — and worse — before. She still comes across as the most personable person on the set, praising the Houston weather, getting in something of an impromptu still-seated, arm dance off with commentator David Pollack.

"Does anybody at Houston ever go to school?" she asks the crowd at one point.

It's a line Andrews likely's used before. But it's still effective, producing more loud cheers. Later, an ESPN producer reveals that the several hundred who show up is a good Friday crowd, but nowhere near a College GameDay record. Saturdays when the hundreds can turn to a few thousand for the big show is the true test anyway.

 Two guys behind "The Pit" basically spend two full hours shouting out things to Andrews — and Erin Andrews alone. 

And yes, College GameDay's stewards like to keep records of this sort of thing.

It's easy to think of GameDay as nothing but a silly TV show — one of the silliest in a land of sports shows that sometimes seem determined to live on groan tracks. There's the 76-year-old Corso making picks by putting on the most ridiculous headgear he can find. There's Herbstreit trying his best to stay serious. There's all those screaming (and let's face it, sometimes completely trashed) college kids competing to get a moment of precious camera time.

On a day when the college sports community's been rocked by a small plane crash that killed Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna (who played one season at UH), it can seem especially frivolous.

But then you run into someone like James Manning.

A Houston Dream

Manning — from tiny Wamego, Kansas (population 4,300 or so, home to the OZ Museum) — is in Houston to visit the GameDay set thanks to the Make-A-Wish foundation. Diagnosed with testicular cancer, Manning came back to play his senior year of high school football only six weeks after the news shattered his sense of normalcy.

"Through it all, that was the only time I saw him down," Berta Manning, James' mom, tells CultureMap. "When the doctors told him there was no way he'd be able to play football. But then he told me, 'Mom, I'm going to play.' "

Manning didn't just play — he played both ways, starting at offensive tackle and defensive tackle, sometimes at defensive end. He almost never left the field.

When Make-A-Wish asked the Eagle Scout what he wanted to do most in the world, a trip to College GameDay seemed like a natural.

"I've watched College GameDay for years," Jim Manning says. "It's my favorite show. I get a kick out of everyone on GameDay. I love when Corso makes his picks."

So there Manning, his mom, his dad Patrick Manning, his best friend from the high school team, Brad Stanlee, "his brother" as the Mannings joke, and Make-A-Wish helper Michelle Wright are on the set. Andrews stops by to spend several minutes with Jim. She signs a football, takes pictures and thanks him for coming.

 Manning didn't just play — he played both ways, starting at offensive tackle and defensive tackle. He almost never left the field. 

Later, Andrews will tweet about meeting him to her 850,000 plus followers.

Jim Manning and Stanlee will also marvel at how former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard pulls off a suit jacket and sweats look, somehow making it cool. They only found that they'd be going to this week's GameDay on Wednesday. It's been quite the whirlwind trip, a few H-Town lessons included.

"Traffic in Houston's been . . . " Berta Manning laughs.

"Going from a town with 5,000 people to one with what five, six million is a little adjustment," Patrick Manning says.

Just some more funny, priceless memories. Who doesn't come to Houston and marvel at some of the crazy drivers? Sometimes a little silly is exactly what you need.

It's impossible to talk to Jim Manning and not understand why College GameDay matters. 

An L looms?

It matters to the red-clad throng too of course. 

When the UH fans start chanting for Alabama (if 10-0 Houston wins its last three games, there's a chance it could land up in the Sugar Bowl opposite the Crimson Tide), Herbstreit notes, "They're calling out Alabama back there."

"Do you think you should tell them what that means?" Andrews deadpans.

 Pollack believes Case and The Coogs will lose to Southern Miss in the Conference USA title game. 

But Pollack — the former three-time All-American linebacker at Georgia who turned to TV after a horrific injury cut his NFL career short — is the one who really isn't sold on these 10-0 Cougars (now one of only two undefeated teams in major college football) as BCS bowl material.

Oh, Pollack expects Houston to beat SMU soundly on UH's College GameDay spotlight weekend. In fact, he openly wonders how the Mustangs can possibly stop Keenum. But he believes Case and The Coogs will lose to 9-1 Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA Championship Game.

That draws more than a few boos from the crowd, but they don't last long. It's a perfect fall day in Houston and everyone's enjoying a sun-splashed afternoon talking college football. It's only a game, but a beautiful game.

Andrews, Jim Manning and almost all the rest (even the two relentless would-be Casanovas) seem to understand this. There's nothing wrong with a little silly.

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