The Man Who Invented the College Football Playoff
Dec 28, 2016 02:38PM
By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
There are scripts,but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation. It’s improv. You get into character and run with it.
Larry Culpepper is either delusional or a consummate bullshitter, claiming, among other whoppers, that he created the College Football Playoff. He is raucous, chippy, and self-absorbed. His hair, shirt, visor, and flip-up glasses scream 1976. He’s a guy you’d buy a pop from, but likely shy away from having a beer with.
But Culpepper, the fictional character brought to life by actor/improv pro Jim Connor, is an increasingly beloved traveling minstrel who now transcends the Dr. Pepper brand he was created to peddle. Three years after his birth in an ad campaign with a potentially short leash, Culpepper now is mobbed by fans during live appearances; is part of a 10-part, football-season-long ad series; is the face of Dr. Pepper’s $35 million sponsorship of the College Football Playoff; and, increasingly, is a media darling beyond the confines of paid advertising slots.
For marketing purposes, Culpepper is from nowhere in particular. But in late August, Culpepper appeared on ESPN’s College Football Live and was asked to give his prediction for the playoff’s final four teams. His answer: Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Nebraska (fresh off their losing season).
“Nebraska?” One commentator scoffed, before asking a cohort, “Is he from Nebraska or something?”
Culpepper isn’t, but Connor is. For the Omaha native and Husker fan, that moment on ESPN illuminates why he has enjoyed playing Culpepper so much. “There are scripts, but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation,” Connor says during a call from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s improv. You get into character and run with it. It’s a great time.”
Connor, the youngest of seven children (“which explains my personality right there,” he says), attended Creighton Prep, where, along with classmate Alexander Payne, he performed with the school’s improv acting troupe. He remembers one gig in particular that fueled his passion for the rush and satisfaction of successfully winging it for a crowd. “It was for a local service group,” he says. “We did some silly birthing scene, and the women in the group—you know, who had some experience with such a thing—really had a good time with it. It’s so cool when you connect with an audience.”
Connor was a gifted ham and public speaker. He served as vice president of the student council at Prep, wrote and acted in pep rally skits, and even placed first place for Humorous Interpretation at the National Forensic League’s National Speech Tournament in Minnesota.
After what he described as a “difficult” freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (“it just wasn’t for me”), he transferred to Saint John’s University in Minnesota. After college, he moved to Boston and worked as a carpenter while performing in theater and short films, then moved to Denver to pursue his MFA in acting at the famed National Theatre Conservatory.
The goal, “was never to get famous,” he says. “I just wanted to make a living being an actor. I wanted acting to be my full-time job.”
A dream of tens of thousands who have moved to Los Angeles. And while at 54, Connor is no household name, he has succeeded at stringing together enough commercials and small parts to make acting his career.
Besides nearly 150 commercials, his film credits include Watchmen, Meet Dave, Blades of Glory, The Onion Movie, Home Invasion, and Horrible Bosses 2. Alexander Payne asked his old friend to give the drunken wedding-reception toast in About Schmidt.
He also had numerous recurring roles in television comedies such as Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs, and The King of Queens.
In 2014, Connor and about 500 other actors auditioned for the role of the Dr. Pepper concessionaire in a national ad campaign targeting college football fans. Actors were given latitude to define the character and riff. Connor created an amalgam of “a lot of people I’ve known” to create Culpepper, a loud, proud, gregarious huckster who seems to actually believe—in the face of constantly presented information to the contrary—that he created the four-team college football playoff system.
For all of Culpepper’s failings, he’s also affable, wide-eyed, and childlike in his zeal for the job and the game, appealingly un-self-aware, and extremely clever. “Larry is a real guy, he’s a smart guy,” Connor says. “He’s just got some unusual ideas sometimes.”
Among myriad other reasons why he claimed the Cornhuskers would make the playoffs: “Nebraska runs that classic passive-aggressive offense,” he told the ESPN crew. “They’re playin’ real nice, and then you’re like a puddle on the 50-yard line.”
It was inspired nonsense, which is the foundation to good improv, which is what Connor would love to spend the rest of his career getting paid a living wage to do.
Indeed, as Culpepper increasingly becomes a star beyond the confines of college-game broadcasts, as Dr. Pepper continues to expand the ad campaign (Connor’s character is now essentially the spokesman in football matters for the company, which AdWeek magazine estimated paid at least $35 million to be a “championship partner” in the College Football Playoff).
He is hoping to land more significant movie and television roles, especially in one of the increasing number of loosely scripted, improv-heavy comedies.
“I’m not going to get cast for scripted stuff in front of a studio audience,” he says. “That’s not what I’m built for. Shows like Parks and Recreation—where you have space to work more freely with a talented group—that’s where I belong. That’s where I love to be.”
Visit larryculpepper.com for more information.