Lee Corso’s signature catchphrases like “Not so fast, my friend!” and his beloved mascot head picks have made him a staple of ESPN’s College GameDay pregame show for over 25 years. But before becoming a broadcasting icon, Corso had a long and successful career as a college football coach spanning over 30 seasons.
So how did Lee Corso’s coaching journey unfold and what were the highlights of his time leading major college programs? In a career that began in the 1950s, Corso served as head coach at Louisville, Indiana University, and Northern Illinois University, compiling nearly 100 victories. He coached numerous future NFL stars, won Coach of the Year honours, and led teams to major bowl games. Though his later coaching years were marked by struggles, Corso left a lasting legacy on the game.
This article will recap Lee Corso’s extensive college football coaching journey from his early years as an assistant at Florida State to his final head coaching stop at Northern Illinois. Read on to learn more about Corso’s accomplishments, tenure at Indiana, retirement from coaching, and overall impact on college football.
Early Coaching Years at Florida State
Long before becoming a broadcasting personality, Lee Corso started out doing what he loved most – coaching football. His career began in 1953 when he was hired as an assistant coach under Tom Nugent at Florida State University. Corso spent 16 seasons as an assistant with the Seminoles, coaching positions like defensive backs and quarterbacks. He quickly gained a reputation as an enthusiastic, football-obsessed young coach with a knack for teaching the game.
Corso’s tireless work ethic and football prowess caught the attention of other programs. In 1969, he finally got the chance to become a head coach when he was hired to lead the Louisville Cardinals.
Taking the Reins at Louisville
At just 33 years old, Lee Corso took over a Louisville football program that had gone 14-23 over the previous three seasons. As the 20th head coach in Cardinals history, Corso faced the tall task of rebuilding the program into a winner.
Over his three seasons from 1969 to 1971, Corso led Louisville to a 16-20 record, finishing above .500 in his first year at 8-3. The 1969 Cardinals gave Lee his first triumph as head coach with a thrilling 18-17 victory over instate rival Kentucky. Though the team struggled to maintain that success, Corso laid the groundwork for future excellence at Louisville.
Just two years after his departure, his successor Howard Schnellenberger would lead the Cardinals to their first bowl game in 15 years. Corso’s brief but energetic tenure had clearly moved the needle and set the program on an upward trajectory.
The Lee Corso Era at Indiana University
In 1973, Lee Corso landed what would become his longest coaching tenure when he was hired as head football coach of the Indiana Hoosiers. He spent the next decade leading the team he grew up watching as a child in the state.
Corso took over an Indiana program that had only finished above .500 twice in the previous 17 seasons. The team was in dire need of new leadership and direction. In his first season, Corso led the Hoosiers to a 4-7 record – an improvement of 3 wins over the prior season.
Over the next 10 seasons from 1973 to 1982, the passionate coach compiled an overall record of 41-68-2 at Indiana. While ending his tenure with a losing record, Corso did achieve a number of program milestones that Were important building blocks:
- Led Indiana to 2 winning seasons – After 24 losing seasons in a row, Corso guided the 1979 team to an 8-4 record and the school’s first bowl win in over a decade at the Holiday Bowl. His 1980 squad also went 7-4.
- Won Big Ten Coach of the Year – In recognition of the team’s resurgent 1979 season, Corso was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year, the first Indiana coach to earn this honour since Bo McMillin in 1945.
- Defeated Ohio State – Corso’s Hoosiers broke a 16-game losing streak vs. Ohio State in October 1979, topping the Buckeyes 31-10 in Bloomington.
- Recruited future NFL stars – During Corso’s tenure, he recruited and coached future NFL standouts like Trent Green and Anthony Thompson, the 1989 Heisman trophy runner-up.
Though he was unable to post a career-winning record, Corso brought renewed energy and belief to a struggling Indiana program. His tireless promotion and enthusiasm planted the seeds for future success in Bloomington.
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6 Up and Down Seasons at Northern Illinois
In 1984, Lee Corso took over as head football coach at Northern Illinois University, located just outside his hometown of Chicago. He led the Huskies for six seasons, three of which resulted in winning records.
Corso’s most successful season came in his first year, when he led Northern Illinois to a Mid-American Conference title and 11-2 record culminating in a California Bowl appearance. The team knocked off conference powers like Central Michigan and Toledo and earned a top 25 national ranking.
After two more winning seasons, Corso’s final three years at NIU were a struggle, as the team posted back-to-back 2-9 records in 1988 and 1989. Some fans and commentators questioned his commitment to recruiting and failure to maintain early success.
Following the 1989 season, Corso retired from coaching at age 54 with an overall record of 28-47 at Northern Illinois and 73-85-6 for his career. Though his Huskies tenure ended disappointingly, he added one more bowl appearance and conference title to his coaching legacy.
Why Lee Corso Hanged Up the Headset for TV
After nearly 15 years as a college head coach, Lee Corso decided to retire from coaching at age 54 to embark on a new career in television broadcasting. Based on his energetic personality and football knowledge, ESPN hired Corso to join its new College GameDay pregame show in 1987 while he was still at NIU.
Corso continued coaching the Huskies while appearing on GameDay until his retirement in 1989. There were a few factors that went into his decision to trade the sidelines for the media booth:
- Losing seasons – Corso’s final 6 years at NIU saw declining success, including consecutive 2-9 seasons. He had a losing career record of 73-85-6.
- Criticism of recruiting – Some questioned his waning commitment to recruit at an elite level during his later NIU years.
- Exciting TV opportunity – With ESPN’s new College GameDay venture, Corso saw a promising new challenge where he could stay involved in the sport he loved.
- Health issues – Years of the taxing coaching lifestyle likely led Corso to seek a less stressful position in broadcasting as he entered his mid-50s.
Though his coaching career ended on a lower note, Corso found phenomenal success in the next phase of his career as a GameDay icon beloved by millions of fans.
Lee Corso’s Lasting Legacy on College Football
While Lee Corso’s overall head coaching record was just over .500, his energetic presence and coaching achievements left an indelible mark on college football:
- He mentored dozens of All-American players and future NFL stars like Trent Green and Ted Brown.
- Corso led teams to 4 major bowl games and a conference championship.
- At Indiana and Louisville, he laid the foundations for future success.
- His 79 Indiana wins are the 3rd-most in program history.
- He finished his career with the #31 best record of coaches active in 1989.
- Corso was revered for his passionate, animated coaching style and for caring deeply about his players.
Above all else, Lee Corso will be remembered for bringing boundless energy, charisma, and fun to generations of college football fans, both during his coaching career and iconic broadcasting tenure. Though the losing seasons mounted late in his career, Corso never lost his love for teaching players, promoting the game, and inspiring crowds – the qualities that make him a legend today.
Conclusion: An Enduring Passion for Football
In a career spanning over 60 years in football, Lee Corso has made an indelible mark on the sport he loves. From pace-setting assistant in the 1950s to head coaching in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Corso always gave his teams an enthusiastic, spirited identity.
Though his later coaching years met controversy and losing records, Corso displayed the ability to build programs and develop all-star players at multiple stops. Above all, his passion for the game and gift for entertaining crowds made him a perfect fit for College GameDay, where he took on a new role as everyone’s favourite lovable uncle of college football.
Lee Corso’s career embodies never losing one’s youthful enthusiasm for football. With his zany costumes and one-liners, he reminds us that ultimately, the game is meant to inspire joy and fun. For Corso, football has always been life itself – and he gifted us all by sharing his quirky spirit and love for the game’s simplest pleasures.