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ESPN's 'GameDay' showcases 'The Pete'

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007

Jay Bilas is used to the student sections razzing ESPN's "College Basketball GameDay" crew, but he had to spin around in his swivel chair when he heard a member of Pitt's Oakland Zoo singing a cappella.

Pitt senior Eric Burnett, a theater arts and film studies major, sang renditions of pop songs, adding Pitt-related themes, to anchor Rece Davis and analysts Bilas, Hubert Davis and Digger Phelps during a commercial break.

"I doubt they've ever been serenaded on 'GameDay,'" said Burnett, of Fox Chapel.

He was one of about 1,500 Pitt students who turned out en masse Saturday morning for the live airing of "GameDay," an increasingly popular college basketball preview show whose stage was set at center court of Petersen Events Center.

"The turnout was unbelievable," Bilas said. "They're clearly an enthusiastic crowd. Pitt's right at the top. We've been to Florida and Gonzaga, Kentucky and Kansas. The kids all take pride in showing how spirited they are. They're each unique. I thought the kid singing was hilarious. Every crowd, there's always something that gets you laughing."

The show opened with a "SportsCenter" hit at 10 a.m., and almost 1,000 students continued to trickle in before "GameDay" went live an hour later. The combination of the pep band, cheerleaders and dance team on the court and cheering student section quickly drowned out the analysis.

"The crowd is helpful to us because it gives us energy," Bilas said, "but it makes it harder to hear, too."

As the camera panned the Pete with an overhead shot of the Zoo, most dressed in gold T-shirts, Davis opened by saying, "(Pitt coach) Jamie Dixon says this crowd is the envy of the Big East" and predicted an "old-school Big East basketball" game between Pitt and Georgetown.

"It was loud, a great atmosphere," said Barry Sacks, ESPN senior coordinating producer. "It was a good shot."

"GameDay's" first one-hour segment included memorable moments, from Jerome Lane breaking the backboard with a dunk against Providence in 1988 with Bill Raftery's call of "Send it in, Jerome!" to an interview with Dixon.

"We've had a fantastic five-year run," Pitt associate media relations director Greg Hotchkiss said, "and today is validation that the Pitt program has arrived."

The show included an on-court demonstration of Pitt's box set that ended with Panthers senior center Aaron Gray dunking on Bilas. "I'm getting dunked on by every big man in America," Bilas said. "I'm getting tired of this." Gray also was featured prior to the 9 p.m. tip-off.

The Oakland Zoo also helped Pitt's football recruiting cause, chanting "We want Shady" when highly touted tailback prospect LeSean "Shady" McCoy entered the Pete, one of a dozen prospects making their official visits.

"It was a great experience," said Dave Jedlicka, a graduate student from Butler who is one of the Zoo's leaders. "Usually, they only show us during games. To have Digger Phelps and Jay Bilas mention us and what a great atmosphere we create really put us on the map."

This was the first visit to Pitt for "GameDay," in its third season, and it took some wrangling of the schedule. The Big East first cleared it with the NFL last summer, making sure the AFC Divisional playoff game was in the afternoon to prevent a potential conflict with the Steelers.

"We've been trying to get a Pitt game on 'GameDay' since Year One," said Tom Odjakjian, the Big East associate commissioner who worked with ESPN to bring the show to the Pete. "If we can bring 'GameDay' to all the big-time atmospheres, we can show all the pockets of passion."

ESPN returns Tuesday for the Pitt-Connecticut game. The Oakland Zoo will be showcased as part of the network's "Spirit Week," featuring the top student sections.

Dixon likened "GameDay" to an all-day infomercial on the university, and Pitt athletic director Jeff Long was pleased that the Panthers put on their best face so early in the day.

"It's really a testament to our program, what Jamie has done and the environment the Oakland Zoo has created is known throughout the country," Long said. "It's a great day for the university."

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