“I founded Penn! This is my school!”
No, those are not the words of Benjamin Franklin. That’s Lee Corso while making his pick for the Penn-Harvard game 20 years ago, dressed as Benjamin Franklin.
On Nov. 16, 2002, ESPN College GameDay — the network’s weekly college football pregame show — came to Franklin Field for the first and only time in school history, which also marked the first time GameDay had ever gone to an Ivy League or even FCS school.
At the time, the Quakers held a 5-0 conference record entering the last two weeks of the season and were slated to face Harvard, which also possessed a pristine Ancient Eight mark, for their penultimate matchup. The winner would earn at least a share of the Ivy League title.
The season prior, both teams were in the same spot heading into the game, and Harvard emerged victorious, 28-21, and ended up claiming the Ivy title.
All this leadup — combined with the allure of Penn’s historic Franklin Field — led GameDay to forego its typical SEC and Big 10 draws and do its 90-minute pregame show on the Quakers’ stomping grounds.
Chris Fowler — one of the three cohosts — began the proceedings.
“They are one of America’s most cherished shrines of higher learning, temples of knowledge, bastions of tradition — with long legacies of excellence in athletics as well,” he said. “And now, onto this hallowed ground arrives … College GameDay?”
The show then cut to a clip of Lee Corso sitting next to the Ben Franklin bench just outside the Quad.
“Yo Ben, College GameDay is at the Ivy League: Can you believe it?”
In the stadium, Corso, Fowler, and Kirk Herbstreit were positioned on the opposite side of the scoreboard, as hundreds of Penn and Harvard fans eagerly surrounded their booth.
Though GameDay fans are known for being fairly rowdy, at Penn, that tone was downgraded a notch.
“For a moment the Ancient Eight rumbled the way the Big 10 does weekly, although, you could not find a single fan, male or female, with nipples painted in Penn's red-and-blue colors,” Richard Deitsch wrote for Sports Illustrated. “It was a cold, wet day, and Penn kids are smart.”
During the rest of the broadcast, the crew talked about the upcoming Penn-Harvard game, the Swami himself came on for “Chris Berman’s Ivy League Minute” (where he talked about the history of the conference), and they made their predictions.
Berman picked Penn to win 23-21, Herbstreit predicted a Quaker victory, and Corso — dressed as Benjamin Franklin, costume, wig, and all — chose a Penn win.
All three were right, as the Red and Blue dominated the Crimson, clinching at least a share of the Ivy title by a 44-9 margin in front of a Franklin Field crowd of over 18,000. The Quakers would go on to earn the entire Ancient Eight crown that season with a perfect 7-0 conference record.
When the ratings for that edition of GameDay were tabulated, Penn’s appearance actually wound up being the highest number of households (1.52 million) to ever tune into the show up to that point.
It was a baffling statistic to many at the time. The viewership could’ve been due to the appeal of GameDay’s first FCS game, Corso picking Penn in Benjamin Franklin attire, or maybe even the high stakes of the Penn-Harvard game.
But in reality, it most likely wasn't caused by any of those factors, and it’s still very much in question why so many people watched.
“We and Penn and Harvard did everything possible to let Ivy League people know this was happening,” Jeffrey Orleans, the former Ivy League executive director, said to the New York Times. “You hope people would think it was good football, and that Penn-Harvard was the best matchup of the day.
“Having said that, I can’t figure it out.”