When Chris Fowler, now the television voice of college football’s national championship playoff and one of the nation’s leading sports broadcasters, visits schools for career days, he talks to eager students about “paying your dues.”
And to make his point that getting to the top requires starting at the bottom and working hard to learn and advance, he recalls his days as a collegian at the University of Colorado.
“I tell them about all the Friday nights when I would have liked to have been in Boulder, having fun, but instead was downtown at the Rocky Mountain News, taking high school agate (box scores),” Fowler says. “It was a definite part of starting my career, and I haven’t forgotten it.”
Fowler graduated from Palmer High in Colorado Springs, and then attended CU Boulder as a broadcast major. He was there just before the Buffs reached the pinnacle of college football under Bill McCartney – another part of his “dues-paying.”
“When I was a student there,” he recalls, “they were one of the worst programs in America. I gave up a lot of weekends, keeping stats on an IBM Selectric in the pre-computer era, for one of the worst teams in America.”
Dave Plati, associate athletic director for sports information at CU, succeeded John Clagett as what then was called sports information director while Fowler was a student working in the sports information department.
“We hired about six students a year back then,” Plati says. “I inherited Chris, and, of course, kept him on the payroll.”
In the last 30-plus years, Plati estimates that 200 students have worked in sports information. He rates Fowler in the top five.
“Chris had the work ethic,” Plati notes. “He sank his teeth into whatever we assigned him, even if it was typing stats late into the night after games when most college kids want to go hit The Hill or the Boulder Mall.
“You notice that work ethic right away with some of the kids. They’re smart. They ask good questions. They’re self-starters. They want to do more things. They quickly move off the grunge stuff by earning your trust.”
Fowler began his professional career at Channel 4 in Denver, editing videotape for the weekend sportscasts of Les Shapiro, who, like Plati, inherited Fowler upon arriving at KCNC in September 1984.
“I worked him pretty hard,” Shapiro recalls. “And Chris was really good, and really bright, always.”
Channel 4 needed another reporter, Shapiro says, a part-timer to gather sound bites for the weekend sportscasts, and Fowler jumped on the opportunity in a way Shapiro will never forget.
“One day he dropped a videotape off on my desk’” Shapiro says, “and said, ‘Do me a favor. Take a look at this, would you?’ So I popped it into the tape machine, and it was an incredible 10 minutes.
“It was Fowler sitting in front of a fireplace, I believe in his apartment, and ad-libbing a sportscast – for 10 minutes, without a teleprompter – and it was incredible. My jaw hit the floor, he was so good and so fluid, and sounded so knowledgeable.
“That tape blew me away. I knew he needed to be on the air; he was that good.”
The following Monday, Shapiro took the videotape to his boss, Marv Rockford.
“I said, ‘Marv, you know we need some help. Why don’t you give Chris a shot on the air? Take a look at this, and if you like it, give him a shot on the air.’
“Marv looked at it and also thought it was wonderful, and hired Chris to report, one day a week. That’s all he got, one day a week. He allowed Chris to put together a weekend package, a minute and a half, a sports feature, and put it on the air. He also was to continue as my weekend sports editor.”
It was Fowler’s big break, but also the beginning of the end for him at Channel 4.
“Chris was so enamored with being on the air that he didn’t do quite the same job on the weekends that he did for me previous to being on the air,” Shapiro says. “And I understand that. Once you get a taste of being on the air, that’s all you really want to do, especially if that’s your goal in life.”
Some of the veterans who had to work with the upstart chafed at his demands in the field, too, Shapiro recalls. In May 1986, Rockford told Fowler it was time for him to move on.
“Almost immediately,” Shapiro says, “Chris got a job with ESPN. His first assignment was co-hosting Scholastic Sports America, a half-hour national high school sports show.”
A few years later Fowler was on the field at the Orange Bowl, living what he calls his fondest sportscasting memory.
“I covered the Buffs winning a national title in the Orange Bowl, beating Notre Dame,” Fowler says. “That was a huge thrill.
“People ask me about my most memorable games. It’s hard to top it. You’re just out of school; you worked for this team and they’ve been complete doormats. Then there they are at the top of the mountain, and you get to cover it for ESPN.”
That Orange Bowl was played Jan. 1, 1991. Fowler had begun hosting the half-hour version of College GameDay the preceding fall. At this game, he was part of a pregame show, then the on-field reporter for SportsCenter. Viewers that night had no idea the near-calamity Fowler overcame in the immediate postgame crush.
“I had a microphone with a wire attached to the camera,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Now, typically, everything is wireless. I remember the mic cable getting tangled in my feet and everybody else’s feet as McCartney was being shepherded to me. We had the first postgame interview after he had done the live one with the TV crew.
“Here comes McCartney, and I look down at my feet and the mic cable is wrapped around my ankles about three times. So I had to literally spin around – do like a 720 and get untangled – right as he arrived, put the mic in his face and start the interview, because there was no time to mess around. There was just a mob scene down there around him.
“If I hadn’t gotten untangled right then, I could have toppled over in the middle of the interview. I’ll never forget that. It’s still the most memorable postgame interview I could ever do.”
Fowler now roams the country covering the biggest sporting events – always. But he’s never completely left Colorado. He and his wife Jennifer have a second home in Breckenridge. He returns every chance he gets.
“My mom grew up in Denver, my dad in Boulder. They met at CU. We came out here summers since I was a kid, and moved back here in the spring of 1977 at the end of junior high. I feel like a Coloradan even though I wasn’t born here.”
Fowler will be 53 on August 23. He was 28 when he hosted his first College GameDay at the start of the show’s fourth season.
“In 1990, it was basically nothing,” he recalls, “a half-hour in the studio, just me and (Lee) Corso leading into games nobody watched. There were some people at ESPN who thought we should just kill the show.”
And then Florida State played Notre Dame Nov. 13, 1993 in a matchup of unbeaten teams ranked 1-2.
“We took the show on the road for the first time,” Fowler recalls of that fateful day in South Bend, Ind., “and we knew we had something. The next year they granted us permission to go on the road a handful of times, five or six.
“By the late ‘90s, the show had arrived. We were having 20,000-30,000 people show up at places like Virginia Tech, Nebraska and Kansas State. These monster crowds would show up, and we’d do the show in a stadium and put it on the Jumbotron.
“The challenge since then has been to improve it, refine it – integrity is a big word for a crazy pregame show – but protect what is precious and unique about GameDay. That was a constant challenge. We never gave in to some forces that would have reshaped the show or made it become something it shouldn’t have been.”
In March 2014 ESPN announced that Fowler had agreed to a nine-year contract extension, and this spring broke the news that Fowler is turning over the host chair of College GameDay to Rece Davis so he can focus on his other center-stage gig: calling the season’s top games and, ultimately, college football’s national championship playoff, for ABC and ESPN.
As shocking as it may seem to those who followed Fowler having fun with Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard in front of raucous student bodies on college campuses across America, it is a culmination for Fowler.
“To have one of the biggest games every week, and then call the biggest games at the end of the year, that’s a dream thing for me,” he explains.
“Since I was 10 years old, I wanted to do this job. And what attracted me to it then, and still does now, is documenting the excitement of a live event. To me, nothing else ever seemed better than that. Well, maybe (being a) rock star. But I have no musical talent. If I can’t be Bono or The Edge or somebody… I fell into something I always wanted to do.”
Over the 25 years that Fowler served as its steadying hand, College GameDay grew – “from an hour to 90 minutes, to two hours, to three hours,” Fowler notes with pride. “What we found over the years is that it became harder and harder to prepare, because the audience became better and better-informed. There’s so much out there online and with the networks 24-7.”
In 2015, that explains his decision to leave GameDay.
“The key to making GameDay relevant and fresh is the last 36 hours,” Fowler says. “The angles emerge as the week goes on. The preparation was intense near the end of the week.
“When you’re juggling that with doing a game, which is something Kirk Herbstreit’s done very well for a number of years, the challenge is significant. I won’t have GameDay on my platter this year; my focus will be solely on getting ready for the two teams on Saturday night. I’m excited to be able to give 100 percent focus to that.”
Les Shapiro is happy for his one-time weekend videotape editor. But, he adds, “I’m sad for everybody who likes College GameDay because I know that nobody can do a better job than he did on that show.”
When the news broke in the spring that Fowler was leaving GameDay, some writers wondered if it was Fowler’s decision. Dave Plati, who has known Fowler for almost 40 years, wasn’t the least bit surprised by the change.
“I knew he had an eye toward concentrating more on play-by-play,” Plati says. “Chris is very meticulous and a perfectionist and wants to do everything right. They were only at the same place (College GameDay and ABC’s national TV game of the week) four or five times, so they had to fly him to a different place a lot. That wears on you after a while, doing notes on the plane and trying to prepare like that. I could tell.”
Plati predicts this move will establish Fowler among the sportscasting greats.
“I see him literally retiring 20 years from now as the next Keith Jackson,” he says, “where his name becomes synonymous with the biggest games in college football.”
“Chris is one of the best sports broadcasting talents I’ve ever seen,” he says. “He has a knack for it. He has an uncanny ability to do what he does and do it in a really comfortable, informative, articulate manner.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that Fowler, in this era of the national playoff tournament, would love to call a championship game involving Colorado.
“I still have great feelings for the program,” he admits. That’s not to say he sees it happening anytime soon, though.
“They’re headed in the right direction football-wise,” he offers, “though I’d like the pace to be quicker, as anyone who cares about the program would. They got much more competitive last season, improved a lot on offense; they were in games. They were achieving some small steps and some moral victories.
“I don’t want to sound harsh, but you have to get beyond that. You have to win games. Under no circumstances is a winless conference record anywhere close to acceptable.”
Fowler sees improvement in recruiting under head coach Mike McIntyre, but says: “You have to put together a team that knows how to win games instead of figures out how to lose games. That’s a pretty hard lesson to teach players; just ask any coach who has inherited a rebuilding job. You’ve got to make people believe you can win.
“You can sell the chance to play in a hurry at CU. There’s no doubt about that. But no one wants to sign up believing they’re never going to go to a bowl game or compete for a division title. That’s not how recruits are wired these days. You have to find guys who want to be a part of rebuilding something, sell the tradition you do have, and have a clear recruiting blueprint.”
It’s not an impossible task. In fact, it’s one that Fowler witnessed firsthand as he blossomed from Buff to broadcaster.