ESPN’s “College Gameday” road show is bringing its production to Athens this weekend for Georgia’s home opener against Auburn. While COVID-19 restrictions will shift the broadcast inside Sanford Stadium, meaning no throngs of fans with outrageous signs, this does offer an opportunity to tell a story involving two of your humble editors here at BTT. On September 28, 2013, ESPN visited Athens to host its popular football preview show in advance of a Top 10 matchup between Georgia and LSU.
The game itself was heralded as one of the biggest ones to be played Between The Hedges in years with LSU bringing Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry to the Classic City to tangle with Georgia and its All-American running back Todd Gurley.
At the time, Joe and Johnathan were working at a regional public relations and marketing agency with an Athens office known for its own brand of shenanigans and hijinks. Joe was knocking on the door of his 30th birthday, and the team in Athens decided to celebrate the only way they knew how — by printing out a massive photo of Joe’s face and getting it on “Gameday.”
Given that the game signaled the return of Zach Mettenberger, a former Oconee County standout who had been dismissed from Georgia before transferring to LSU, many of the signs were expected to focus on him. As such, it was important for the sign to stand out … physically.
JOHNATHAN MCGINTY: Perhaps more than anyone I know, Joe fancies himself a weekend road warrior. So he regularly had trips where he would head out mid-day on Friday, and our office probably would think through a few pranks to play on him in his absence.
BRYAN HARRIS, team member of the Athens office: Joe was turning 30, so we came up with the plan at lunch on the Thursday before to get this done.
JOHNATHAN: I can’t remember whose idea it was. I know it spiraled out of control once we began kicking around the idea of doing something.
BRYAN: We had to get it to the printer by the close of business on Thursday so we could pick it up on Friday.
JOHNATHAN: The conversation quickly turned to how big we could print this thing. There were going to be several thousand people with signs at this thing, and we wanted it to stand out.
KERI POTTS, former public relations head for ESPN’s college sports: We don’t have regulations on the size of the sign.
ELEANOR SAMS, then-lead graphic designer for the Athens office: Physical size (of the image) is not difficult at all. You just have to make sure the scale is accurate to account for the percentage enlargement you need — but yes, it will only work if the image is high res. Otherwise you’ll just see pixels when it is enlarged.
JOHNATHAN: We probably really confused our printer, Athens Blueprint, because we didn’t tell them what we were printing, we just asked how big they could print something. However big that was would be what they were getting from us.
ELEANOR: We only had from like lunchtime (on Thursday) to the end of the day to get it finished. The quality was insane – you could see the hairs on his head.
JOHNATHAN: Cody Nichelson was assigned the responsibility of bringing the sign to show. He was planning on going anyway, so we made him pick up the sign and get it on Gameday.
BRYAN: I don’t think there was any asking about whether or not if Cody wanted to do it.
CODY NICHELSON, then-intern at the Athens office: To this day it shocks me that Athens Blueprint asked zero questions (when I picked it up).
ELEANOR: I think (Cody) had to get there before the crack of dawn.
CODY: (My friends and I) arrived at the South Campus parking deck somewhere between 4:30 and 5 o’clock in the morning. We had been told it was going to be crazy, and there were going to be a lot of people who wanted to be up in the front at the set.
BRYAN: One last second thing we did is when I called Athens Blueprint, they asked ‘do you want anything on the back?’ and I told them to put our logo on it.
CODY: I was going through the line, and ESPN literally had people who were checking every single sign. If there was some sort of branding or profanity or anything like that, they either took your sign from you or — if it was like a small mark — they had a Sharpie to scratch through it and send you on your way.
JOHNATHAN: Oh, I’m pretty sure that logo was clearly against the rules.
CODY: I looked at my friends and said ‘they are for sure going to take this sign.’ I mean, the logo is huge, and it has a URL on it. They are for sure going to take it, and everyone is going to be so disappointed.
BRYAN: I think he had to scratch out the website to get it in.
CODY: I don’t know what came over me, but I said (to the security guard) ‘I am so sorry, but I really don’t know why the print shop put their logo on this sign, and you can do whatever you need to do … you can scratch through it or we can put something over it.’ She is like ‘well, let’s just scratch through the URL and you’ll be good.’
JOHNATHAN: Sometimes you do what you have to do, and Cody did what he had to do that morning.
CODY: As history now knows, we were pretty close to the front.
Meanwhile, Joe was in his hometown of Ocala, Florida after spending a week in Miami staffing an event for Toyota, his primary agency client at the time. His pre-birthday week plans were fairly tame. A golf date with his dad and some quality time with his mom.
JOE VANHOOSE: I got home late (Friday night), and I was fully planning on sleeping until at least 10 Saturday morning. I had to play golf with my dad at 11, but I don’t require much time to warm up.
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JOHNATHAN: The whole point of this was to not text or call Joe about it. We wanted to make sure he either saw it on TV or social media, and then slowly started to put things together. It had to happen organically.
JOE: So, around 9 or so that morning, I could hear my cell phone vibrating, and I just knew it was my dad wanting to make sure I was at the golf course on time. And then the phone kept vibrating and vibrating. I mean, I worked 80 hours that week, and my dreams of getting caught up on sleep had evaporated. I was pissed.
BRYAN: (My son) Hannon had soccer practice, so I was streaming (“College Gameday”) from there. The opening sequence comes on, and he’s right there.
JOHNATHAN: It took Joe a while to put together what was happening.
JOE: But then I heard my mom turn on the TV, and she just started howling. So, finally, I get out of bed and she’s hollering that I am on “College Gameday.” What the hell is she talking about? I turned the corner into the living room and looked at the TV, and there I was, right over Chris Fowler’s shoulder.
CODY: The people behind me were very annoyed. They clearly could not see anything at all, but, first of all, that should be an expectation when you come to “College Gameday.”
JOHNATHAN: It got pretty big on social media. But, I mean, you tasked pulling off an elaborate prank to an entire office full of communications professionals. We were going to go big.
BRYAN: I think we were trending nationally for a brief moment in time. We definitely were locally.
JOE: Man, I have a large forehead.
CODY: A real testament to the arm strength because I held that bad boy up pretty much the entire time.
JOE: And of course I only get to see it for a minute because I have to go play golf with my dad. And then we get paired with two guys who are like ‘you look like this giant cardboard face we saw on Gameday this morning.’
Briefly, #Hoosehead was trending on social media and Joe was a viral sensation, earning a listing in the “Athens Power Rankings” from Flagpole Magazine in addition to his national television exposure. All in all, it made for not only one of the better tailgates for those involved, but also a pretty unique birthday present for Joe.
SCOTT HARTMAN, a longtime member of the Tent City tailgate: Of all the times “College Gameday” has been there, that was the most nutty.
JOHNATHAN: As I recall, we had a few people who stopped by and said they saw it on TV. And we mandated any visitor who came by had to pose for a photo with it.
DOUG GILLETT, a longtime member of the Tent City tailgate: I feel like I remember Jessica (Lumsden Black) starting out being resistant to having her picture taken with it, for some reason, but (Johnathan) managed to wear her down. Or maybe it was a beer or two. Either way, she was clearly downright affectionate by the time the picture was snapped. As for me, if someone says “Hey, have your picture taken with this guy’s giant head,” I don’t even have to ask whose head it is, I’m there.
JOHNATHAN: It’s easily a top three tailgate experience for me. It’s hard to beat the 2007 Auburn blackout game, but this one was pretty close.
KERI: In the tailgating tent after I recall making a joke about a knife cutting through butter (whatever food they were making or prepping) like Sherman’s March to the Sea and hearing complete silence and stares. And Steven Godfrey explained to me how that’s a no no.
CODY: Let’s just be clear, to this very day, it was the best day of my life, not at all having to do with carrying Joe VanHoose’s head across campus.
JOE: As far as I can tell, it was the second most proud moment for my dad — behind me playing Augusta.
DOUG: It was a GREAT day. “College Gameday” was in town, we had plenty of people at the tailgate, and the weather wasn’t even too ungodly hot for late September.
CODY: That probably cemented my full-time job, so, I mean, it worked out pretty well for me.
JOE: My cousin Stephanie was putting together a coffee table book about my first 30 years — complete with a lot of nice notes and stories from friends and family — and she needed some art for the cover. She was able to pull a solid screen shot.
JOHNATHAN: In terms of elaborate pranks or jokes, this was probably the most extensive of them all. But it also was a bit sweet too. It was Joe’s birthday, and not only did we all think this would be funny, but it would be something he’d remember for a long time.
JOE: I wish I could have been at the tailgate. It looked like a nice time.