How New England-raised Ryen Russillo became an SEC evangelist
“I’ve been to 60 campuses now — maybe more. This is really good. But it’s not LSU on a Saturday night.”
You don’t know what you don’t know.
Now, Ringer podcast host Ryen Russillo has been to 10 SEC stadiums and attended every LSU-Alabama game since 2008 except this past pandemic-affected season’s. However, before Russillo realized that the atmosphere of SEC football was supreme, he used to drive around in his truck in Vermont and listen to ESPN Radio’s College GameDay program, a show that he would later host for six seasons, which was previously co-hosted by Mel Kiper Jr.
“I loved the show,” Russillo tells Saturday Down South. “I thought it was the coolest thing. When you’re in New England, you’re a little detached from college football. I went to the University of Vermont, where the last football season of the school was 1974.”
Russillo, 45, shared a story of his first semester of freshman year in 1993. Garrison Nelson, a political science professor who still teaches there, wrote on the chalkboard:
3. UC Santa Barbara
2. Florida State University
1. University of Vermont
What was he getting at there?
“Congratulations!” Russillo recalls Professor Nelson telling a lecture hall of about 100 students. “You were once again named the No. 1 party school in the country by Playboy Magazine. I don’t know how you do it. We don’t have the beach like UCSB. We don’t have football like Florida State. But you guys keep it going!”
“We were all laughing, thinking we were so cool and had this awesome campus,” Russillo says. “Look, I love UVM as much as anything, but you don’t know what you don’t know when you’re in the Northeast. You think the campus is awesome.”
Until people experience for themselves the insane tailgates, with acres and acres of tents and strangers huddled around hundreds of makeshift satellite TV setups to watch the early SEC games, they miss the magnitude of the spectacle. It can’t truly be captured on TV. And that’s before you even get to the football game, where the ballgame is life and death for the 90,000-plus people in the stadium. “You don’t know because you don’t live in the South,” Russillo says.
Fast forward 15 years to 2008. Russillo had landed at ESPN Radio, the Saturday College GameDay program he’d loved listening to for years had an open hosting slot, and he jumped at it. A huge benefit of the gig was getting to travel. While there was a running joke amongst ESPNers that reaching most of these college campuses required two flights and a drive, Russillo was nonetheless psyched for the opportunity.
His first trip to SEC Country was for an Auburn home game against LSU. This was a back and forth game where LSU came from behind as Jarrett Lee hit Brandon LaFell for an 18-yard touchdown with 1:03 remaining to give the visitors a 26-21 victory. Russillo was blown away.
This feeling was supersized seven weeks later when he went to Baton Rouge for LSU-Alabama. While this is always a blockbuster matchup, it carried even greater magnitude because this was Nick Saban’s first time returning to Tiger Stadium as coach of the Crimson Tide. This was a poignant game for obvious reasons. Saban has certainly been an adversary for LSU since he left the Miami Dolphins for Tuscaloosa, but many LSU fans nonetheless have immense respect for the national championship and further foundation he gave the program.
This game went to overtime. On LSU’s possession, Jarrett Lee was intercepted by Rashad Johnson on third down. John Parker Wilson hit Julio Jones for a 23-yard catch — he had 7 catches for 128 yards on the day — and Wilson punched it in two plays later to give Alabama the 27-21 victory. This was a massive game. LSU was the defending national champion and Saban, in his return to Baton Rouge, all but declared there would be a new king in the SEC West.
“That took it to a completely different level,” Russillo says. “There was this thing in your head when you’re young and you haven’t been everywhere and you think you know everything, and that baptism by the South and SEC football on a Saturday made me realize there’s a whole other level.”
After seeing it live, Russillo would call his college buddies and say something to the effect of, “We should be embarrassed that we ever thought we had a good time because what these people do in Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa or out at Auburn — I don’t want to leave anyone out — there’s a level that you don’t even realize exists until you’ve actually been down there.”
Russillo grew up in New England, where people lived and died with the Red Sox. This remains true today but was especially true when he was growing up and there was supreme desperation to vanquish the 1918 Curse of the Bambino. He came to realize that the SEC pageantry was on a whole other level. “Certainly, Red Sox fandom is up there with anything — but to see people live and breathe it for a home game — the city starts to shut down on a Wednesday, and they’re setting up their tents and preparations, and there are weeks in the Fall where there’s about a half-week of work — I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
That first time he went to Death Valley, he thought to himself, Oh my God.
After that LSU-Alabama game, Russillo wanted to go to that game every year, and the only one he missed was this past season due to the pandemic. He’s been to 10 SEC stadiums — all except Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Ole Miss. He plans to get to all four of them — when he mentions where he hasn’t been, he says he “can’t believe” he hasn’t been to South Carolina yet. He had a ticket to LSU at Ole Miss in 2019 but couldn’t bring himself to take a sixth flight from Los Angeles as he went to five other LSU games that season.
When people hear where he has and hasn’t been, they wonder how he got to Vanderbilt before some of them. The answer is that in 2015 he was a sideline guest of former Vandy pitcher Matt Buschmann, who is married to NFL reporter and former ESPN host Sara Walsh. He is close friends with the couple. They played Missouri and Russillo politely describes the game as having been a “defensive game.”
He also had an awesome time at a Mizzou game in 2010, when they were still in the Big 12, and saw them defeat No. 1 Oklahoma 36-27 in a game where Blaine Gabbert threw for 308 yards and a touchdown.
Even after moving to Los Angeles in 2018 and leaving ESPN in 2019, Russillo has continued to fly to SEC games on his own dime. He has developed a special affinity for LSU. He went to five of their games during their perfect 2019 championship season, which featured Joe Burrow engineering one of the greatest college football offenses of all-time. These games included the 45-38 victory in Austin over Texas, the SEC title game in Atlanta, where LSU thumped Georgia 37-10, the semifinals blowout of Oklahoma also in Atlanta, and the 42-25 national championship win over Clemson at the SuperDome in New Orleans. He even got to narrate one of the team’s hype videos that season:
This is as good as it gets.
The Tigers are rolling. It’s Saturday in Baton Rouge.
Let’s have some fun! pic.twitter.com/VaHWKV3GKU
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) October 3, 2019
Nonetheless, and this is strange to the LSU die-hards he knows, he doesn’t hate Bama. In fact, he gets chills when Sweet Home Alabama plays at Bryant-Denny on a Saturday night. “This sounds cheesy, but there’s something about community,” he says, speaking generally about all of his experiences in SEC Country. “There’s something about shutting everything off in your head, and thinking about this thing you care about so much. Some people say that it’s unhealthy. I think it’s an amazing escape. I think it’s something that’s cool that these smaller communities — not major cities — take this enormous amount of pride in it.”
He’s been to campuses all over the country. He loves Oregon, which is “awesome when it’s right.” He saw Wisconsin beat No. 1 Ohio State on a majestic evening in Madison in 2013. He has been to Penn State for multiple games against Ohio State. Nothing else he’s experienced is quite on the same level as the SEC, though.
“When you’re at Alabama-LSU, and a title is on the line, and that place is rocking on a Saturday night, and the student section is chanting You should come here to the recruits that are standing there wave along to the crowd,” he emphasizes. “I bring friends from the Midwest or Northeast and stand on the sidelines with them, and they go to me and say, ‘I can’t believe this exists. Whatever my expectations were, they’re absolutely shattered.’”
I understand. I also grew up in New England, went to college at Wisconsin and have been to all of the iconic stadiums in the Big Ten except Nebraska. Camp Randall and Kinnick and Ohio Stadium are amazing. But nothing could prepare me for seeing Alabama at LSU in 2012 and LSU at Alabama in 2015. In the first case, I went with my Dad and we got invited to a four-RV tailgate that was doing a pig roast, and I couldn’t believe the energy in the stadium. It is impossible to realize how electric it is until you experience it. It’s unlike anything else.
Of course, the red carpet has been rolled out for Russillo. This has been the case as he was traveling to campuses — SEC and otherwise — for GameDay, and also while he and Scott Van Pelt were ESPN Radio co-hosts. They got great access and everyone wanted to show them a good time.
Russillo says that he would constantly have to fight the notion that he was talking up the SEC due to bias with ESPN’s partnership with the conference. ESPN has deals with most conferences, he said, and never told him he had to talk about the SEC. He said even his Big Ten friends gave him grief about it.
“If another conference like the Big Ten won seven titles in a row with four different teams, we would say the Big Ten was the best,” he said. “People were so sick of hearing about the SEC, but it was really because the SEC was so successful. I got sick of friends from Big Ten schools giving me s— about it. So I was like, ‘Alright, you’re coming with me this year to LSU-Alabama. Within two minutes of kickoff, they go alright you know what, we’re gonna apologize to you right now. You were right.”
CVS on LSU campus. pic.twitter.com/XaazkmMLk4
— Russillo (@ryenarussillo) November 22, 2013
Once again, you don’t know what you don’t know, and Russillo has had myriad times over the past decade-plus where he has had to choose between being an SEC evangelist or being insincere. He remembers a time where he was at Penn State. A young staffer on the sidelines approached him, politely, and said, “Best place you’ve ever seen, right?”
Russillo had to reckon with whether to answer the question affirmatively — which, in his mind, would have been lying — or to say what was really on his mind.
“I’ve been to 60 campuses now — maybe more,” he told the Penn State staffer. “This is really good. But it’s not LSU on a Saturday night.”