Bulldogs Beat

Back home: Georgia alumna Maria Taylor makes most of return to Athens for College GameDay

Maria Taylor stood in front of a scrum of reporters. That’s dangerous territory for David Pollack who bites at the opportunity to show his quick wit.

“Oh my god, it’s Maria Taylor!” said Pollack, the former Georgia star football player who returned to campus for College GameDay for the first time since 2013. “Can you sign my forehead?”

Pollack constantly jokes around, and this gesture poked at Taylor for being a celebrity figure around these parts.

He’s not too far off, either. Taylor is loved around the University of Georgia campus. A banner of her broadcasting work hangs inside the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A framed image of Taylor’s volleyball days sits inside the Ramsey Student Center. Pollack might be the football icon, but Taylor is the university’s star for her ascent to broadcasting stardom as a former two-sport athlete — who played on Andy Landers’ women’s basketball team.

These two Georgia alumni cherish their return to Athens for ESPN’s College GameDay ahead of the top-10 showdown with Notre Dame (8 p.m., CBS). Pollack couldn’t believe he could sleep in his own bed ahead of a College GameDay show. Taylor was giddy for the 40-minute drive down SR 316 into Athens.

Each of the analysts spent their return home in different ways, but Taylor did so making her rounds. Through a two-day span, she visited most of the Bulldogs’ non-revenue sports teams and also gave back to the university’s academic departments. She started by speaking to a group of Grady students about balancing her non-stop schedule with broadcasting, and reflected on her beginnings on the program’s NewsSource television show.

She also met with many of Georgia’s teams: soccer, track, softball, basketball (men’s and women’s teams), gymnastics — including a routine on balance beam with Mikayla Magee — and volleyball teams. Some of her lessons included media training and virtues of leadership in coordination with her organization, Winning Edge Leadership Academy. All of those stops were intertwined with her ESPN duties.

“It’s important, especially when I’m back in Athens,” Taylor said. “To look student-athletes in the face and say ‘I literally sat where you were. I had the same accounting tutor. I changed my major three times like you might end up doing. I remember being a freshman and not knowing where east-west (bus) will take me as opposed to north-south.’ Everything is going to be OK, and I think it’s important for alumni to speak that message into them.”

Set aside her appearances on ESPN and the profile she’s built through her work, her most important duty is to share her values and experiences. She continued that with an open session with athletes at the Rankin M. Smith Academic Center, then had some fun on Friday afternoon on the GameDay set.

Georgia’s women’s basketball team was the last group to cross paths with Taylor, arguably her most-beloved team across campus. Taylor took control of the team’s social media accounts, had each of the players pose for on-set photos, made jokes with Georgia head coach Joni Taylor and had Quavo, the lead rapper of Migos, join them for a shootaround contest with sophomore guard Caitlin Hose.

“It was great to see her come back and give tips from someone who has been there,” Georgia guard Que Morrison said in a team-issued video. “Coming from her, it just means more.”

As Taylor made her first appearance on Saturday morning’s show, her backdrop was mayhem. Students filled the lawn at Myers Quad. No space could be found upon thousands of die-hard Georgia fans who invaded the campus with signs, spiked shoulder pads, celebrity appearances like former WWE star Ric Flair, and spectators with painted chests and red wigs.

Some of the signs included “TYLER SIMMONS WAS ONSIDES,” a front-and-center reference to the 2018 National Championship loss. Fans created a Myers mob at 7 a.m. for a show that began two hours later.

A student-led team known as the UGA Paint Line camped out on south campus around 5 p.m. Friday evening and painted up 12 hours later with the help of some friendly assistants. They drafted to determine who wore each letter of “GO DAWGS” with cans of Dr. Pepper, and most attention went to the student who didn’t wear a letter. He’s known as “Space Man,” and the crowd chanted “SPACE SPACE SPACE” while he shared the anecdote on ESPN.

Crowd interaction continued as the show went live at 9 a.m. The team of a host and three analysts went live on a stage while a mob paraded behind them. Georgia-based references were sprinkled throughout the show’s opening minutes. A loud “Oooooh” emerged when discussing Washington quarterback Jacob Eason — a Georgia transfer. When Georgia head coach Kirby Smart’s appearance was announced, repetitive shouts of “KIRBY” followed.

Just the beginning of an eventful Saturday afternoon. One with such intrigue that might not occur on a regular basis.

College GameDay made its first trip to Athens since 2013, when Georgia beat LSU 44-41. Not often has the show visited Athens, but this non-conference top-10 matchup (the first in Sanford Stadium since 1966) means pulling out all of the stops. ESPN’s crew has made Georgia its centerpiece since arriving in town on Wednesday.

“It’s a different feel in the SEC,” said College GameDay host Rece Davis, who didn’t diminish football in other regions. “People who haven’t experienced a huge game weekend on a campus like Georgia with such rabid fans, I don’t know if you’ve experienced the ultimate in college football.”

For Taylor, who spent days involving herself in the festivities, this trip had a special significance. She has cemented her place in Georgia lore, not only as a two-sport athlete but as an announcer who jumps across the country and is seen nationally on a daily basis — although she attributes much of that to last season’s on-air exchange with Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

Taylor, at least for a moment, slowed down and took in her favorite place. This is where her ascent began.

She wouldn’t want it any other way.

“This is something I never could’ve dreamt up.” Taylor said.

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