UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - On a Thursday afternoon in Happy Valley, Penn State's iconic Old Main lawn is anything but low key, bustling with construction as ESPN's College GameDay prepares to go live ahead of Saturday's primetime matchup a little more than a mile across campus inside Beaver Stadium.
Beyond the seemingly perfectly coordinated crew busy bringing the set to life, following the twists and turns of 1,000 feet of tightly bound fiber-optic cables all the way back behind Old Main though, is where the magic of College GameDay really happens.
Tucked inside the production office is Judi Weiss, College GameDay's senior operations producer and also, a Nittany Lion alumna.
While the Emmy award-winner's name might not be instantly synonymous to the average College GameDay fan, Weiss' responsibilities include just about everything related to pulling off the perfect show. From location to set up and breakdown, the behind-the-scenes College GameDay operation is like a highly organized logistical feat and Weiss is always up for the challenge.
Weiss' path to ESPN's College GameDay started at Penn State in 1987, when she transferred to University Park and later graduated in 1989 before returning to pursue a master's degree in film. With an interest in documentary filmmaking, Weiss wasn't interested in the go-to "Penn State parking problem" angle that most film, broadcast and journalism students opted to pursue. Also taking Russian studies, Weiss decided to spend a summer abroad in Volgograd, Russia at the Pedagogical Institute.
"I went there with four other Penn State students and it was a program that accepted you on all levels," Weiss said. "You didn't have to be advanced Russian because to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg, you already to be in advanced Russian and I was like, I don't time for this. I want to go fast I want to learn and I'm going to bring my eight millimeter video camera and get footage."
Intending on shaping a project around Russian musicians and the day-to-day lives of women living in Russia. Already dealing with some culture shock, things got even more interesting to Weiss upon arrival.
"We got to Volgograd and we found out the Pedagogical Institute in summertime is pretty much defunct," Weiss said. "So they gave us private teachers from the university to tutor us in Russian."
It was one of those tutors, a Ph.D graduate student from South America, who happened to be a musician who invited the group to band's studio.
"We went to the studio and the man sitting at the console working on, you know recording some musicians at the time, some Russian musicians, which is the music part, wound up becoming my husband," Weiss said.
Weiss never returned to Penn State to finish out her master's degree, having partnered with friends to start the first private radio station in Volgograd, Russia bolstered by some internship experience she picked up in her freshman year.
Drawing on contacts from her brother, an ABC Sports staffer, Weiss had done work as a runner in the past, but it soon took off. From the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Weiss moved to Atlanta Olympic Broadcasting later moving up to ABC Sports, where she spent several years on college football and figure skating as a production manager. All because of her simple choice to opt out of the Penn State parking problem of course.
Among nine Olympic Games, Weiss is the only person to own a tie-Emmy. In her third season on College GameDay, Weiss was also freelancing for Turner Sports' pregame basketball studio show, which earned a submission for its playoff coverage. In 2013, College GameDay took home the Emmy for best weekly studio show alongside the NBA studio show.
"It's a tie for weekly studio show and it was us, and the NBA studio show, so I have a certificate from them and a statue from College GameDay in the same category in the same year," Weiss said.
After years of traveling across the world with figure skating, with the Olympics also sprinkled in, it was her boss at the time who came to her and asked if she would consider College GameDay.
"At that time GameDay was a big show, but it wasn't the way it is now and nobody wanted to work on it," Weiss said.
With an unpredictable location as the weekly norm, Weiss' boss asked her for two years, but four shows in, Weiss was sold. It's been seven years on College GameDay and she hasn't looked back.
"I fell in love with the show," Weiss said. "It's extremely challenging. It's fresh. It's just exciting to be a part of this project."
It takes six semi-trucks to haul ESPN's College GameDay setup to its weekly location, and that's not counting the bus or the other sponsor box trucks that go along too.
Once finding out the location, it's Weiss who reaches out to the schools to begin the conversation before a site survey. Penn State's bye week allowed some extra time for surveying, allowing for just the right location - this time not Beaver Stadium.
"We want to capture an iconic set location," Weiss said. "What the campus locations allow us to do, is give our audience a sense of place. The idea that we are at Penn State, this is Old Main. It's that sense of place and sometimes with the stadiums, it's not always obvious what stadium you're in front of."
With everything in place, Weiss deployed the trucks to Happy Valley, where the crew arrived late Wednesday, typically needing around four to five hours to begin early construction. Thursday brings another full day of building, which wraps up in the early evening.
"Usually about six or seven at night on Thursday everybody is gone and clear of the set, clear of the truck, ready to go for TV at 8:30 in the morning on Friday," Weiss said.
On the ground, Weiss is driving everything from on-site policy to overall procedure, brining all the pieces together to ensure that nothing skips a beat.
"I kind of connect a lot of the dots during the week, so I'll get legal talking to the legal at school, I'll get I.T. talking to our I.T. department and I just connect a lot of the dots for everybody," Weiss said. "That's how it works is just making sure you get the right people talking to the right people and delegating."
Facing the challenge of a massive cable run to encompass all of Old Main in the perfect College GameDay shot, Weiss worked alongside all involved parties to execute a major undertaking.
Looking past the bright Home Depot orange, the faintest sight of cables looped through street lamps along the sidewalks and tethered to trees can be seen in the distance.
Regardless of what happens when the lights pop on and the show airs live at 9 a.m. ET Saturday morning, it's her experience at Penn State, that Weiss credits to her success.
"I really do credit my experiences here, my education here, but the study abroad, learning a second language, that was key," Weiss said.
Making an impact on her career, it's now mission critical for Weiss to continue making an impact on students following in similar paths. Hosting tours for students and challenging her staff to take an all-in approach at all times, it's hard not to be inspired by her motivating work ethic.
"It's really important to me to get the next generation, trained, engaged, excited and educated on working in this business," Weiss said.