Chris Fowler has been the host of College GameDay since 1990 but he might as well carry a producer credit for ESPN’s college football traveling circus. Fowler has long served as a consigliere for the show’s executive producer, Lee Fitting, and the pair are tight enough where Fitting has a nickname for Jennifer Dempster, Fowler’s wife and a former television host: Roone, which pays homage to the late ABC Sports and News chief Roone Arledge. Dempster and Fitting often share good-natured text messages about GameDay's production and have enjoyed a longstanding friendship.
Those texts will likely abate this fall. As part of a new multi-year deal with ESPN that runs through 2021, Rece Davis will replace Fowler as the host of GameDay. The news was first reported by author and writer James Andrew Miller and confirmed by ESPN on Thursday night.
As part of his new deal, Davis will give up his play-by-play role for ESPN’s Thursday primetime game, but still call select bowl games. ESPN said Davis will continue to host the network’s college football Tuesday night rankings show, the Sunday selection show and anchor on-site coverage at the College Football playoff semifinals and national championship. He will also do play-by-play for college basketball and host ESPN’s men's Final Four coverage. Fowler will continue to host and announce tennis coverage from the Grand Slam tournaments along with his lead college football play-by-play duties.
“The past 20 years have been extraordinarily rewarding and this new chapter as the host of College GameDay is one I eagerly embrace,” Davis said in a statement. “I’ve cared deeply about college football my entire life. As a result, I’m humbled and grateful to join the brilliant men and women who have built GameDay into the sport’s defining show.”
With his contract coming up for renewal and a strong reputation as a host and commentator, Davis and his CAA representatives were in a strong negotiating positioning. CBS must eventually replace Verne Lundquist on its SEC Game of the Week package, and Davis is an Alabama native with a passion for the SEC. With admirers at CBS, he would have been an interesting candidate.
Fowler's surrender of GameDay is not a shock. He told SI.com in 2014 prior to his own contract negotiations that he wanted to focus on live events heading forward. When he signed a nine-year contract extension last March, he used the leverage he had with ESPN management to morph from the studio into the broadcast booth.
“I really have a passion to document live events as they happen,” Fowler told SI.com at the time. "Hosting is wonderful and remains really satisfying but the joy for me is calling big matches and it was very hard for me to give up calling Thursday Night Football [he preceded Davis] on ESPN. It became too much to manage with GameDay's increased schedule and travel. But giving up calling football in the booth was the toughest decision I have had to make. That remains something I am drawn powerfully to.”
In a statement ESPN PR released last night, Fowler said, “In choosing to shift my focus to play-by-play for Saturday night football, the College Football Playoff, and the biggest tennis events year-round, it was important to me that GameDay be left in excellent hands. It certainly will be with someone as talented and dedicated as Rece Davis. I know viewers will welcome him and I am excited to watch GameDay's continuing evolution.”
Fowler is on vacation with his wife in Southeast Asia and politely declined to comment when reached by email beyond saying he was touched by the “explosion of kindness on Twitter” and what he tweeted Thursday night:
The job changes create additional openings in ESPN's college football coverage. Joe Tessitore is the in-house favorite to move from an ESPN primetime Saturday game to replace Davis as the Thursday night play-by-play commentator. Other candidates include Dave Pasch, Beth Mowins, and Dave Flemming (I don’t think ESPN would move Brent Musburger back from the SEC Network to do these games).
Davis also hosted the pregame, halftime and postgame college football studio coverage on ESPN every Saturday with analysts Lou Holtz and Mark May. Since Davis was the only thing making that duo tolerable, ESPN would be wise to create an entirely new group. If management sticks with the Holtz-May shtick, Adnan Virk would be a strong candidate given his excellent work on ESPN2 as a college football host. Scott Van Pelt and Chris Cotter may also receive consideration.