Legendary composer John Williams has written an original theme for ESPN’s College Football Playoff National Championship, airing at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Monday night prior to the TCU-Georgia game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
Titled “Of Grit and Glory,” it runs three and a half minutes and will score a specially created series of visuals that convey “the feeling behind the night, fear and anticipation, triumph and failure,” ESPN co-director and producer Martin Khodabakhshian tells Variety.
Williams’ new music – previewed for Variety late Thursday – plays like a joyful overture, opening with fanfares and shifting seamlessly from martial urgency to anthemic splendor, all richly orchestrated and instantly memorable.
Says Williams: “Intercollegiate football has been at the heart and soul of our nation’s life for so long that the opportunity to musically salute this great tradition has been a particularly meaningful joy for me. I was thrilled and excited when ESPN suggested that I write a theme for the Jan. 9 championship game.
“The games themselves always raise the collective spirit and, in the end, the competition brings us all closer to a place where the concept of winners and losers dissolves into mutual respect and admiration. The invitation to write this music constitutes a great honor for me, and I feel especially privileged to make a small contribution to one of our country’s most treasured traditions.”
Khodabakhshian and his co-director and editor Michael Sciallis of Victory Pictures had dreamed about getting the world’s most famous film composer to write music for their opening sequence. So three months ago, at the urging of lead game producer Bill Bonnell (who had worked with the composer on past Olympic events), they wrote what Khodabakhshian calls “a love letter” to Williams, outlining their thoughts and gently inquiring about the possibility of an original piece.
“There’s no better person on the planet to write about emotions and the things that come with the biggest night on ESPN’s biggest stage, our Super Bowl, than John Williams,” Khodabakhshian says. Adds Sciallis: “We wrote about the emotions of bringing people together, not just the competition side of it, but how audiences are affected.”
Two days later, word came back: “He’s started writing something.” The ESPN team jumped into action, conceiving a visual sequence that would feature “college football heroes and legends from all eras” but also add “the beauty of Hollywood and California,” where the game would take place, Khodabakhshian notes.
Williams conducted a 96-piece orchestra on the Sony scoring stage on Dec. 21. And ESPN was there with seven cameras, shooting the entire three-hour recording session, parts of which will be intertwined throughout the opening segment – “so you feel the energy of those orchestra members, and of John, playing this music for the first time, so the audience gets to feel that as well,” Sciallis says.
The “giddiness and excitement” associated with a new Williams anthem for their big college football game was palpable throughout the ESPN executive suites, Sciallis says. Yet it remained top secret until today. On Saturday, ESPN will tease the opening and the Williams score during its NFL Wild Card Doubleheader.
Williams’ new music will be heard throughout the TCU-Georgia matchup. He recorded several takes of the main piece as well as briefer excerpts, “a re-join piece and a vamp,” Sciallis reports; “cutdowns and stingers,” shorter pieces that could be useful during the game itself, were edited in the days following the Dec. 21 session.
“He captured the spirit of the night,” says Sciallis. Khodabakhshian confesses he broke down in tears after meeting the maestro. “I’m so overwhelmed and grateful because he’s the GOAT!”
This is believed to be the largest-scale musical commission ever for the sports network. What will happen with the piece after Monday night is not clear. ESPN could theoretically use it in future college football broadcasts; no plans for a commercial release have apparently been discussed.
In terms of music for athletic competition, the five-time Oscar winner has written four Olympic fanfares, a gridiron march for NBC’s football coverage, and the score for Kobe Bryant’s Oscar-winning short “Dear Basketball.” He hasn’t written music for broadcast television since his “Great Performances” theme for PBS, which won a 2009 Emmy; his theme for “Obi-Wan Kenobi” debuted last year on the Disney+ streaming service.
Williams, 90, is currently on the Oscar shortlist for his music for Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” and has been working for the past several months on the score for “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” slated for release June 30.