Wake Forest gets the College GameDay treatment — even without fans

Winston-Salem hosted the show’s first broadcast of the season — along with Clemson, the top-ranked team in the country

Wake Forest fans gathered to watch the College GameDay broadcast on the big screen at the drive-in theatre in the Winston-Salem fairgrounds last Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Wake Forest)

WINSTON-SALEM — As they say in Hollywood, the show must go on.

And it did just that Saturday.

Even without the energy of its trademark crowd filled with students and fans dressed in team colors, holding up all sorts of outrageous signs — eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic — ESPN’s College GameDay aired as scheduled from Truist Field.

Spaced safely on a set erected at the 50-yard line of the Deacons’ home field, hosts Rece Davis, Desmond Howard, David Pollack and Kirk Herbstreit spent three hours talking about college football in general and the upcoming matchup between the Deacons and top-ranked Clemson in particular.

It was different, to say the least. And not just because it was the popular show’s first visit to Winston-Salem.

But with Wake Forest’s band and dance team performing in the background, periodic cut-ins to fans stationed in their cars at a drive-in function at the fairgrounds nearby, and appearances by the likes of Lee Corso and Chris Paul via Zoom, the crew did everything it could to make the broadcast seem as normal as possible.

“I’ve stolen a quote from Mike Krzyzewski that he uses with his team and modified it,” Davis said during a teleconference with the media on Friday. “He tells his team that the game’s important because we’re playing in it.

“I tell our guys and remind myself all the time that every show is important because we’re putting it on TV. We approach it with the same type of sensibility, the same insights, the same commitment to storytelling, entertaining — all of those things that we always do.”

ESPN’s College GameDay made its first visit to Winston-Salem last weekend, broadcasting from Truist Field before Wake Forest hosted Clemson last Saturday. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

In addition to the usual features, including a round table with coaches from Big Ten and Pac-12 schools whose fall seasons are currently postponed, a heavy emphasis was placed on subjects related to the host school.

Co-host Howard described Saturday’s show as “a three-hour infomercial for Wake Forest.”

There were interviews with football coach Dave Clawson and athletic director John Currie, along with references to the tradition of rolling of the quad after big Deacons victories and eating Stamey’s Barbecue and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, two of Davis’ admitted vices.

Although the crew wasn’t able to get the full Wake Forest experience by being able to walk around campus, it was still able to get a feel for the smallest school in the Football Bowl Subdivision safe from COVID-19 by driving around the grounds in a car.

“We love going to new places,” Howard, the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan, said while noting that Wake’s campus was particularly hilly. “We always talk about that, just because the reception is so grand.

“We’re football junkies. We love football, and part of that is going on these campuses around the country. It’s always a unique experience going to a new campus, seeing how they do things, the restaurants. We get a big thrill out of that. We look forward to going to new campuses.”

On this particular occasion, though, the excitement of that first visit was dampened by the pandemic that has adversely affected virtually every aspect of our society.

“I don’t want to term it as disappointing,” Davis said. “We have to deal with the circumstances as they are. We can’t change them. Obviously, we would prefer to have a full stadium and have a huge crowd on campus.

“But I wouldn’t term it as being disappointed because from our standpoint, we try to remember that there are millions of people out there that are eager for this season to start and are looking forward to the first show on campus. And we want to deliver for them. We don’t want to come into that with an attitude that this is somehow less because it’s not.”

 The highlight of the show came during the final segment when former Deacon and current NBA star Paul was introduced as the College GameDay’s guest picker. He predicted several upsets, including — as expected — his alma mater knocking off the defending national runner-up Tigers.

But it was his back-and-forth with Corso, flashing a replica of Paul’s No. 3 Wake Forest jersey and jokingly panning most of his selections, that stole the show.

“You love having him there because he plays off the crowd so well, (even though) obviously at this point of the season not having crowds,” Davis said of Corso, who at 85 years old didn’t make the trip as a precaution. “But he brings such an energy, excitement and a genuine enthusiasm to our show every week.”