Samantha Ponder Shares The Greatest ‘College GameDay’ Location, And The Importance Of Being Unbalanced

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Samantha Ponder has seen her star rise over the past few seasons, especially with her work on College GameDay. But when she and husband Christian (a former first-round pick for the Minnesota Vikings) had their first daughter, Bowden Sainte-Claire, who goes by Scout, in 2014, things got even more hectic. Ponder was met with the struggle every parent has of trying to be at home as much as possible and active in her daughter’s life, but still be present at work.

When she signed her new deal with ESPN over the summer, she focused exclusively on College GameDay, taking away basketball duties as well as sideline duties. And Scout comes along to games. It’s a battle to achieve that mythical work/life “balance” that doesn’t and never really can exist. But she’s doing the best she can – while Scout has become an Instagram star in the meantime.

UPROXX Sports caught up with Ponder as part of some promotion for XYIENCE Energy Drink, and she discussed everything from GameDay and parenting to the time she interviewed Dennis Rodman, and so much more.

What’s the most creative fanbase you’ve come across in your time on GameDay?

You know the fanbase that always stands out to me – the craziest crowds are always the smaller schools we don’t go to very often, the North Dakota States and the JMUs, that’s where you’re going to get the most distinctive crowds – but just in terms of whenever anybody asks, “if I’m going to come to GameDay and get the GameDay experience with the crazy signs and the people who are really all-in, where should I go?” I always tell them Clemson. That’s even before all of their success this year. The past four years I’ve been on the show, every time we go to Clemson, it’s just insane. They’re creative with the signs. They’re committed no matter what the weather is. This year we were out there in a torrential downpour, and they were still bringing laminated signs. That’s smart. They were doing whatever they needed to do to be out there. That’s probably my No. 1.

Where have you not gone yet that you would most look forward to going?

This is kind of a strange answer, but because of the timing when I started on GameDay, we haven’t done anything with Penn State, for obvious reasons, and so now they haven’t really had a chance to earn GameDay again on the field, but I’d love to be there. I’ve never been up there – obviously I’ve been to Pennsylvania – but I’ve never been to the school, and I would love to experience a “White Out” and all the tradition that’s there and see what their crowd would be like for a GameDay experience. And also Nebraska. I have done a bunch of Nebraska games, but never at Nebraska. Those are the two that are on my list.

I’ve never seen a game at Penn State either. I’ve been to Happy Valley before, but never on a game week. And I haven’t been to Lincoln either, and people have given me a hard time there. That’s one that I think would be a lot of fun.

I was so happy for Mike Riley to get that job. I’ve always loved him, and he’s been great to me since I first got started, and I’ve gotten to know him a little bit. I’m hoping he gets things turned around and in the next couple years we’ll get to go.

In the four years you’ve done the show, have you had one week that has really stuck out as the most memorable you’ve ever had?

Definitely North Dakota State. That experience, I don’t know if it fully translated on TV. One, I guess it really shocked me, I was living in Minneapolis at the time, but I’m not as familiar with North Dakota State football. I knew they had won a bunch, and all that, but I didn’t realize what that team and school was in that community. The whole city shut down. Everything shut down. There were people in the balconies. I felt like I was on the Yankees and this was the World Series parade. It was just crazy. It was a night I will never forget, and it was crazy from the perspective of my husband was playing for the Vikings at the time, and there were a bunch of Packers fans there, and angry Vikings fans also. It was just an insane day. That whole experience was an out-of-body deal. I’ll never forget that.

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Even that Friday night before, it must have been late night, you guys did a live shot from out there, and people were flooding the streets like it was Halloween. Screaming and yelling. They must have stayed the entire night because they had to be back out there a few hours later.

They were camped out. Sometimes we’ll get little crowds when we have a DJ or we do giveaways, but there was nothing going on. They were just out there to be together and celebrate their school finally getting some national attention. It was a cool thing to be a part of. I still run into people at airports who will come up to me and tell me, “You have no idea how much that meant to our town, and how exciting that was for us.” Stuff like that, I’m not trying to be cheesy, but it makes me a little emotional. My family is all from small towns, even though I grew up in a big city, but everybody I grew up around was from communities like that. You kind of feel ignored and you’re not a part of the national conversation, and all the East Coast or West Coast media just ignores the middle of the country. It was really fun for me to spotlight that group of people.

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When you look back at all the people you’ve talked to over the years, do you have a favorite interview or subject that bar none is – or was – the best?

I was just telling someone the other day, the way my interviewing career started was so strange that since then, nothing has really compared. The first interview I ever did, I was 18 years old and I was interning at ABC Sports Radio in New York. My boss at the time came up and it was when ABC and ESPN were merging, they were cutting a bunch of jobs and didn’t have people to do as much stuff, and I actually benefitted from that because I got to do a bunch of stuff I normally wouldn’t have. He assigned me, I did almost an hour sit-down, one-on-one interview with Dennis Rodman. Remember, I’m 18, I’ve never interviewed anyone. I just moved to New York City. It was a lot. You can imagine the kind of things, I don’t think he ever answered a single question I asked, the kind of things he turned into. That by far was the most memorable.

But in college football, the best interviews are the ones that don’t make air. Just when you’re talking to a coach. The conversations I’ve had with guys like Steve Spurrier and Les Miles. There was a time last year when my daughter was just eight weeks old at the time. She was really little. Les Miles came out before a game, it was maybe 45 minutes before kickoff. He asks to hold her, and he’s holding her, and she spits up all over him. I’m mortified. He’s in his game clothes. He wipes her face with his hand. [Laughs.] It’s the stuff like that, it’s technically not an interview, it’s conversations off air, that I’m going to remember the most when this is all said and done. Whenever you can get coaches that really do just say what they think. Art Briles is one of those guys. Last year, I felt like we needed a pulpit. He was out there preaching and getting to the crowd. I love guys like that, who don’t have much of a filter.

The more you can get them to act human and less like a “FOOTBALL COACH,” that’s when you get those moments. That’s why I think college football fans or writers gravitate toward those coaches. People may get tired of them at times, but the reason we like them is because they seem like human beings. That’s always the thing with doing so many interviews, you want these guys to feel comfortable enough that they can be people. Then you can relate to them a little bit.

Absolutely. What I learned early on, I used to try and come at coaches with all this Xs and Os stuff, proving to them I knew the game, and trying to get gameplan information. Now I’m like forget that. First of all, no coach is going to give you any information that is worth anything before the game or at halftime when it comes to Xs and Os. That’s why when I do the coach’s interview on GameDay, and people ask me, “What are you going to ask about Xs and Os?” Nothing! Because there’s not a single thing he’s going to tell me during that time that serves our audience.

And that’s my job – to get as much information I can that serves our audience. I’d much rather people get to see a glimpse inside the way this guy’s mind works, the kind of person he is, the kind of dad or husband he is, the way he thinks about the game, all the stuff behind all that. That’s why guys like Les Miles or Art Briles are so interesting, because they’re willing to show you who that person is outside of “We’re going to do this or that during the game” because nobody’s going to actually tell you that, and if they do, they’re usually lying.

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Is there a coach or a player or a person you haven’t had the chance to sit and talk with yet that you’ve been dying to?

Now I’m going to feel like this is an arrogant way of responding, but I don’t think so, and that’s really just from the combination of when I first started at FOX college sports, I was covering all the games nobody wanted to watch because we had the last choice in everything. So I was Kansas and Colorado and Texas Tech all the time, so I’d get to know coaches who were on the bottom-tier levels of performance at that time. Then working the Thursday night game, I got the middle tier a lot of the time – coaches and games – and now going to the schools we go to for GameDay, I feel like I’ve gotten to know, I don’t want to say everybody, but there isn’t anybody I don’t think yet who I haven’t spoken to that I really want to. I may think of something later and regret that.

Do you ever wish you were doing another sport like basketball again? Are you happy with being college football only?

It’s funny because my dad is a basketball coach and I played basketball growing up, so I thought I would only want to do basketball. I did basketball all the way up to this year, and I’m not doing it anymore. I signed a new deal this summer and I decided to take that out. That was a hard decision because basketball was my dream. I wanted to cover the Suns, and I got into this industry because I loved watching NBA Inside Stuff. It was such a basketball focus. Then I got into the college football world and I realized there’s no comparison.

My husband and I talk about it all the time when it comes to the NFL. You may have money and more eyeballs and everything on the NFL, but you’re not replicating a college football stadium on a Saturday afternoon. You just can’t do it. That’s why to me College GameDay was a non-negotiable. There was no way I was giving this up, and there was no way I was stepping out of college football even for a couple years. There was no other way for me to get the feelings I get on the field or being around a college football team. I know it sounds dumb, but there is something Americana about it. Something, even though there’s so much corruption, there’s still this little bit of purity to it. I don’t know. I don’t think I could ever replace that with something else.

There was that season of reckoning for me this summer too, where I felt like I didn’t have it in me to keep doing it. August rolled around, and I realized I can’t escape it. There’s this energy you can’t replace. No other sport gives me that. I just have to lean in, otherwise, what else is there?

I totally agree. I just think when you know you can’t replace it or simulate it in another way … I’m not covering games for the next two years so I can be home more, and technically I’m not doing the sideline like I was before, but College GameDay is still in that world, and I get that same feeling. Outside of that, there’s no other way for me to get that environment in any other sport. So I can’t give it up just yet.

If you talk to some of our colleagues, there’s always that idea of trying to balance parenting and home life with work for so many people in this industry. What’s the hardest thing about that? And what sort of advice do you have for someone who now has to live that life, or isn’t used to it yet, or doesn’t know what’s coming to them?

For me the hardest part is thinking that you’ll ever find a balance. Everyone always uses that word. As soon as I became a mom, even when I first got pregnant, people would ask “How do you balance…?” There’s not a day that goes by where I’ve felt like, “You know what I feel like right now? I feel very balanced. I have the perfect mix of work and home!” No matter what anybody says, as much as I love my job, it can never compare to the love that I have for my family. So to try and balance that, there’s always going to be unbalanced. I think it’s a ridiculous notion that we should balance work and home. Home will always be more important, whether or not we realize it.

What’s going on here and the relationship here, no College GameDay or amount of screaming fans or whatever can ever replace that or even come close to balancing that out. Kind of dispelling that notion of there being this Magical Balanceland that you can get to, I think that’s the advice I would give to someone who is just starting this. It’s still new for me, but for someone just starting out, don’t think you’re going to find this perfect balance in all of that. There are a lot of times when I’m on set, and I’ll think, “Oh gosh, I hope she’s okay right now.” That’s a part of being human and being a mother or a father. You’re always going to think of your family as more important, at least we hope.

I think it’s helped me to not worry or stress about feeling that sense of balance, but I also think, I grew up with a poster on my wall with a quote from Jim Elliot that said: “Wherever you are, be all there.” That’s helped me a ton. As much as my love and my affections are going to be at home, it doesn’t do my family or me any good to be on the set wondering what she had to eat for lunch. That doesn’t do me any good. I try and kind of be fully present during college football. Or if I’m home, right, during the week, it’s so hard because we’re so connected to our phones, but I don’t respond quickly. That may make me a terrible employee, but when I’m home, I’m home. Nobody has control over when I respond or how much work I do. Yes, I prepare on my own time, but I prepare when she goes to bed. Because when I’m home, I want to be all here and be a present mom.

I had kind of a breakdown moment, she’s one and a half, and I saw her pick up a book or a shoe, and she holds it up to her ear like it’s a phone and starts babbling. Being like mom. I didn’t realize that she’s picking up on how much this phone thing is so important. You always see in your in your kids your own mistakes or shortcomings. I’m just trying to stay cognizant that everything I do when she’s around, she sees. So I need to be fully here and not focused on work.

Are you surprised at how much of a star Scout is becoming? Does that worry you ever?

For sure. It’s weird. I started that because there’s this book service called Chatbooks where you pay this monthly fee or something, and they follow your Instagram page, and they create these books off of all your posts. I thought this would be such a cool way to document her first year on earth. We were going to all these places. She had been on all these flights before she was even born. I didn’t have the time to make this big scrapbook – and they just ship it to you. It started from that. And I then made it so that people who would follow college football and see her at the games with me, whatever, we’ll make this funny little thing. I did that thinking it was just this truly pure intentioned thing, I had no clue she’d be this Instagram star. It really was just for fun.

Then it kind of morphed where my agent gets nonstop emails and calls from companies trying to get her to wear their clothes and have this stuffed animal in the background, and I just said no. There’s no chance I’m doing any of that. It started to feel a little, for lack of a better term, dirty to me. Even though I wasn’t doing any of that. I just didn’t like … last week, I kind of had a sort of moment where I wondered what I’m going to do with all of it. Certainly it’s not going to be active when she knows what’s going on. She has no clue right now. I don’t like the idea of people thinking they can or will be able to capitalize off my child.

We watch these people on College GameDay, and maybe it is that family thing, but we feel more connected to Rece, and Kirk, and Lee than folks on other shows or broadcasts. Why do you think that is?

I think the reason that show works, and the reason that people feel what you’re expressing is because that’s their authentic self. There are a lot of people in TV who have a TV persona, and then their actual self. Nobody on that show does. Including Coach Corso. He’s like that all the time! Desmond Howard is the way he is on there. Rece is exactly the same. Not only in the way they present themselves, but their actual voice. A lot of people have a TV voice. None of those guys do. They’re all their authentic selves on camera, and that’s why it works. They don’t have to fake it. People can see that authenticity at home, and that’s so important.

I tell people all the time about how this generation coming up can see right through the fake, so if you’re not authentic and you don’t express your actual belief, if it’s all dressed up for TV, they’re going to see right through that. Luckily everyone on our show is not like that. They’re just themselves. That makes a huge difference. And they have that, what we were just talking about, that great family life. There’s no turmoil in something else, or this extreme imbalance in their life – for lack of a better term, off the field stuff – they’re active in their family’s lives, and they’re as close to that “balance” as you can get.

How weird is it being asked questions when you’re the one who normally asks them? I wonder if interviewing helps you become a better interviewee. 

When I started in the industry I never thought I’d be doing interviews. If it weren’t for College GameDay I don’t think I would. It’s such an event, a crazy operation. Every week we meet with the media. And I’m like, wait, we are the media. It’s its own animal. It is so different from everything else that I really had to start thinking about things differently. Just knowing what it’s like on the other side obviously for the majority of my experience in the last 10 years, and now seeing it from the player’s perspective. The combination of that, doing more interviews, and being married to someone who sees the media from a completely different perspective, has really helped me in terms of the types of questions I ask, the length of the questions I ask, the way that I ask them, that I wouldn’t have thought about earlier in my life.

Who do you read? Who are your favorite college football writers?

The great thing about Twitter is I can get a snapshot of everything, every week. I follow pretty much every major sportswriter in America right now, but I literally as part of my preparation, I print out articles and read almost every major outlet – SI, Yahoo!, Bleacher Report – I print out a stack to read on the plane. I really don’t do any of that during the week, but I favorite everything and print everything, then read on the plane and the hotel. I make sure I get a bit of it all. That’s what drives the conversations on Fridays, and what builds the debate is knowing what’s going on during the week. There’s not one guy I read exclusively, but I do my best to read as much of it as I can.