Getting on GameDay

Hello MIAC friends. It's been an extremely busy fall, and unfortunately that means fewer MIAC Media Blog posts than I'd like. Hopefully you've all been tuning into the outstanding MIAC Weekly Podcast with Mike Gallagher in the meantime to get your MIAC Media fix and checking out all the content on our web site.

The blog returns today with a feature I've been sitting on for awhile. The 2013 MIAC football season - which is still going thanks to Bethel's postseason victories - was both successful and extremely fun. It's been well-documented that our teams went 16-2 against nonconference competition (18-2 if you add in Bethel's Playoff wins) this season. We had four teams ranked in the Top 25 for much of the year, and at one point had five teams all ranked in the top 30. In a conference known for its outstanding football, the 2013 may have been one of the best.

However, one of the biggest highlights of the season occurred not on the field - but on national TV. ESPN College GameDay - the network's big Saturday pregame show with a cult-like following - paid a visit just outside MIAC country with a trip to Fargo, N.D. When that was announced, Concordia Sports Information Director Jim Cella started brainstorming how he could possibly get the Cobbers - and their big rivalry game with St. Olaf which was on that Saturday's schedule - featured on a show that rarely - if ever - takes a break from its NCAA FBS coverage to mention Division III.

Cella worked some magic via social media, connecting with the show's host, Chris Fowler, and when Saturday arrived, there was "The Troll" trophy that is awarded to the Concordia-St. Olaf winner on the set, as well as a small replica of the Cobber mascot. Lee Corso - famous for his predictions on the show - even picked the Cobbers to win, which they did later that afternoon.

That level of exposure is almost never achieved by schools or conferences our size, so it was fascinating to see it all unfold on Twitter and then on my TV on Saturday morning. Following it all, I caught up with Cella to find out all the details of how he pulled off such a Cobber coup. It's a fascinating tale of perseverance and the always-growing power of social media. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how "The Troll" and "Kernel Cobb" ended up on ESPN's flagship show.

MIAC MEDIA: Take me through the initial idea and the communications. When did you get the idea to reach out to GameDay, and did you expect them to respond?

Jim Cella
CELLA: "I just wanted to get something in the Fargo Forum that week [about the Concordia-St. Olaf game], because I knew it would be all about NDSU. We're playing St. Olaf for our conference opener, so I just wanted to get something in the paper. Eric [Peterson, Forum sports reporter] had talked about doing a feature on one of the players. I knew it would get buried, so I talked to him about The Troll. I had the background from the alumni, the guy who actually purchased it. I asked him, 'What about this? It's kinda off the wall and has never been done before.' He thought it was pretty cool, and then I could tell it was something I could run with. That's when it started to gain speed.

I knew people at the TV station up here had been in contact with the producers at GameDay. I asked if I could get the producer's email address. We're always on the ESPN list of mascots. I pitched the idea to their producer that WDAY had been in contact with. I pitched the mascot thing and The Troll trophy. She emailed me back, which I was even surprised to get. She said they'd talk it over with the production staff. That was Monday. I hadn't heard something Tuesday, so I deduced to throw it out at [Chris] Fowler and I Tweeted out the picture of The Troll. I didn't expect to hear anything but then 15 minutes later he Tweeted back at me and said, 'What the hell is that?' I first thought, 'Who is playing a joke on me? Chris Fowler doesn't Tweet me back.' So then I wrote him back and he said if we could verify it, they'd put it on the show.  

The Troll on national TV.
I wrote the producer back, and told them Fowler as interested. She said they'd talk about it in a production meeting and get back to me. I hadn't heard back from them on Thursday so I decided to go back at Fowler with one last attempt. I tweeted out my Hail Mary pass to try and get The Troll on GameDay. I told him it's been verified and that was the day it was in the Forum. Front page. Huge story. I sent him the link to the story. I hashtagged it '#bestdougflutiepass.' I wanted to put in the football connection, and that's when he Tweeted me, 'Yep, bring it to Fargo.'

When he tweeted me back on Tuesday, it blew up around here. The media picked it up and ran with it. I had Bison fans tweeting me telling me not to bring it and [GameDay] was their spotlight.

Fowler direct messaged me and said he'd talk it over with the producer and I should direct message him back. So I wrote him Friday and got nothing back. So then I took a picture of a bunch of Cobber gear, and I Tweeted at him: 'Cobber swag for you and your crew if you get The Troll on GameDay.' He direct messaged me back and said, 'How early can you be there?' I ended up going at about 5:30 a.m."

MIAC MEDIA: What was it like when Chris Fowler started to respond, and the media started to take notice?

CELLA: "It was all the TV. Up here all the TV and their sports anchors are all on Twitter and they use it, which is great for me. They got a hold of it. One of the biggest ones, we have a radio show host Mike McFeely. He's got a huge fan following so he picked it up and asked Bison fans what they thought of the troll getting on Gameday? He was trying to stir things up and he got people going. He wrote to me then, and I wrote him back and he put that on his blog. Eric Peterson has a blog too and it was on there. They do a thing on the web site for things that don't appear in the paper. Any time there was any response or communication, [Peterson] would put it there on the site. On campus I was getting calls and people were wondering if we'd really get on GameDay. That was great, but it spiraled into this huge thing and I was trying to get my normal work done. It was all anyone wanted to talk about. It was great and it was a lot of fun.

For me, I just wanted to make The Troll a bigger deal. Up until three or four years ago no one really cared about it. It was just a funny little thing we hand out. We got rid of our trophy game with Moorhead State, and I love those rivalry trophy games in college football. so I wanted to pump this up and get it to take off."

MIAC MEDIA: You brought The Troll to the Game Day set and were there for the taping. What was that like?

CELLA: "I went there at 5:30 a.m. I got in touch with the production guys, and they brought the producer out. At that time, there were already fans there camped out. I had to go through these fans, and he takes me into this room. I go into this hallway and we empty into this room and there's Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard, Lee Corso and Jesse Palmer. Folwer looks up and goes 'Hey, you're the guy with The Troll!' I take it out, they're all laughing about it. He asked if I minded if he made fun of it.

Even Niblet the Cobber got some GameDay love.
Fowler told me he wasn't going to show it until late, and asked if I was willing to hang out until then. Let me see, go to my regular job, or hang out with you guys? I think I'll stay here. He told me to hang out in this room, there was food, anything you want to drink, and I just got to hang out. So it's literally me and those guys in the room and they were just talking football. That was the best part of the day for me. They were giving each other a hard time and doing impressions. It was hilarious. I was constantly pinching myself. 

Then Fowler comes over to me before he's going to get ready for the show. He says thanks. I brought a whole duffel bag of the Cobber gear and I show them the 'Fear the Ear' stuff and they thought it was a cool slogan. I said, 'You guys take as much as you can.' That's where Niblet was [the small plush version of mascot Kernel Cobb]. I gave them bobbleheads and then fowler found Niblet and he said, 'That's kinda cool.' So I said if he could get that on the show, that'd be awesome. He said he didn't think he could. I gave him a Concordia soccer scarf because I know he's a big soccer fan, and we spent like 10-15 minutes talking about soccer.  

They have a pre-show with Jesse Palmer and Samantha Ponder, and the other guys left. Then later it's just me and Jesse Palmer and Samantha Ponder sitting in the room. The producer comes back, gives me a pass, and now I can go right up on the set and watch the show. I just walked around and there are times I'd be standing right behind the cameras. I'd be 10 feet away while they're talking about football on TV. I was laughing to myself, saying, "This is not happening."

Then, about 10 a.m., I was talking to some NDSU people I knew and I see them bringing The Troll up, and I rushed to get up there and I almost got hit in the head by the big camera that shoots the crowd. I got some pictures of it. I was just shaking my head that it was on TV. Then fowler pulls out the Cobber and asks Corso if he's picking the Cobbers. 'Yeah,' he said, 'I'm picking the Cobbers!'

Then they're taking a break. I give my phone to the makeup lady and ask her to take a picture when I go up there to get The Troll. The producer says they do not take pictures on the set during the show. Fowler sees it and says, 'Jim, come on up, let's take it.' So I go up there and they take the picture for me.

Jim Cella secures a rare on-set photo with Chris Fowler and the gang.
I take The Troll off the set and I gotta get back to campus. We have football and soccer that I have to get back for, and every step through the crowd someone wants to take a picture with The Troll. Then I get to the area where they have local media, and they start interviewing me. I finally got out of there and got to the Cobber game around 11:45."

MIAC MEDIA: What has the reaction been like since The Troll made its national TV appearance? Talk about the feedback you've received.

CELLA: "The football team and everyone around here was just jacked. To see them mentioned on GameDay was just surreal. The other surreal moment for me, it's family weekend and we have a big  tailgate set up. Literally every place I went it was all people were talking about. I was just walking by laughing and thinking, 'If they only knew the whole process.' Just hearing the buzz about it was great. The team and the players, for them to see it all happen, it was great. The alumni and stuff we've gotten out of it has been incredible. [Cobber Head Football Coach] Terry [Horan] said the people who have contacted him about it have been great as well."

MIAC MEDIA: One of the coolest aspects of this, to me, is it really showcases the power of social media. Ten years ago, there would have been so many hoops to jump through and people to communicate with. Today, you can try to correspond directly with someone like Chris Fowler, and as you proved last week, get results. What has this done for your perception of using social media to promote Concordia athletics?

CELLA: "For me, having done it and being the first [Division III] school to do it helps to understand the power. It reconfirms the power to reach such a broad group of people in a way you can't through the normal media. I can get things out there, instantly. I can reach people in a way that a small college normally can't. A small college can get their message out, where we couldn't before.

And now, Fowler's actually following @CobberSID. He only follows like, 150 people, and I'm one of them. Now every time I put something out there, he'll see it. After the game, I Tweeted the final score and I Tweeted it at him. He wrote back that it was great to hear Concordia's keeping The Troll. I had fun with it on the set. Terry and our alums pushed that out to their followers. It's really incredible."

MIAC MEDIA: Any future plans to push the Cobbers into the national spotlight on social media?

Troll talk on ESPN's flagship college football show.
CELLA: "There are always plans. Last year, I got one - one of our guys did a basketball trick shot - but it got out there. I started it on Twitter and social media, too. I understand what I can do with it. I'll keep trying to push the envelope. Now that we've had the one success, hopefully the national people will be more accepting of us. They'll think, 'Hey, aren't you the guys who appeared on GameDay?' I've got my foot in the door. Going forward, it's gotta be something special, but I've got my foot in the door so we've got a chance.

The biggest thing that's come from this, the number of followers we have on Twitter has grown immensely. I've gotten more local media people - the strong media people - whether it be the magazines in Fargo-Moorhead, and also some national-level people. To me, you talk about things going forward, now that we're on their radar and these people are following us, maybe we won't get another story like this out there, but the recognition we'll get going forward is incredible. To me, that's huge - the followers we added and some of the people in the media.

I'm constantly shaking my head, saying, 'All this because of a stupid Troll.'"

MIAC MEDIA: Well, a stupid Troll, and the ever-growing power of social media. Well done, Mr. Cella. It was certainly a thrill to see a MIAC mention on a show with the relevance and reach of ESPN GameDay, and great to learn the details and dedication it took to pull it off.

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