Tech and ESPN's College GameDay with a long history

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By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Rece Davis has attended literally hundreds of college football games in his role with ESPN, but his relationship with football at Virginia Tech pre-dates the start of his career path.

Davis’ great uncle once worked at Virginia Tech and ran a small Christmas tree farm on Blacksburg’s outskirts. So Davis knows a little more about the history of the football program than the typical sports journalist.

“The one thing I’ve noticed, particularly after they [the Hokies] got good, was the unity and pride that people who went to school here or played here feel, not only about the team, but the university,” he said. “This is a far different experience now when you see Virginia Tech football.”

Davis now serves as the host for College GameDay, ESPN’s pregame college football show that airs Saturday mornings in the fall. Davis and colleagues Desmond Howard and David Pollack took time to meet with media members Friday afternoon before resuming preparations for Saturday’s show in the lead-up to Saturday night’s game between the Hokies and No. 2 Clemson.

GameDay is making its sixth appearance in Blacksburg, but its first since the Hokies’ season-opening game against East Carolina in 2007. That particular game didn’t necessary warrant a GameDay appearance on the surface, but ESPN officials wanted to bring the show to Blacksburg to start the college football season as a way of helping the town and the Virginia Tech community recover from the April 16 shootings.

That appearance still resonates with the ESPN crew 10 years later, even though they’ve done more than 100 shows since then.

“They [Virginia Tech fans] rallied back, and they came and supported the show,” said Howard, who started with College GameDay in 2005. “I think we had a tremendous show considering the circumstances. It was great to come here and just try to uplift some spirits. Any time you can do something like that, you have to take full advantage of it.”

The GameDay show first visited Blacksburg in mid-October of 1999. ESPN officials held the show on a stage inside of Lane Stadium, and nearly 20,000 people showed up – an incredible number at the time. Later that Saturday evening, Michael Vick and the Hokies destroyed Syracuse 62-0. The GameDay contingent returned in November that season and watched the Hokies roll past Miami 43-10.

Many Tech fans say that Lane Stadium never has been louder than those two nights – and those associated with the show appreciated the atmosphere both at the show and the game.

“This place has been special to the history of College GameDay, and it’s also been special in the evolution of college football in general on ESPN,” Davis said of Virginia Tech. “I think a lot of Virginia Tech’s brand was built by a willingness to play on Thursday night, and I was the beneficiary of that, doing play-by-play on Thursday night for a number of years and calling several games here. This is a place that is unique and special to both our show and to our coverage of the sport as a whole.”

Tech ushered in a new era last season when Director of Athletics Whit Babcock hired Justin Fuente to take over for longtime coach Frank Beamer, who retired followed the 2015 campaign. Fuente guided the Hokies to a 10-win season, a Coastal Division championship and a Belk Bowl win in his inaugural season.

Tech insiders and fans know the transition from Beamer to Fuente went well, but that transition garnered national acclaim this week (please read this story from Sports Illustrated - People nationally have started noticing.

“From everything I’ve seen so far, I think they’ve gotten the right guy,” Howard said. “I think they got the guy who fits exactly what Virginia Tech needs. I think the transition has been smooth. It’s always important to get the right fit, and I think you guys [at Virginia Tech] have accomplished that.”

Fuente will be on the show Saturday morning at some point. Davis said that Gene Wojciechowski plans on spotlighting the lunch pail, and that he, Pollack, Howard, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso will break down the game.

Without getting into details, Davis encouraged people to tune in at the top of the show for something special. The best guess is that the opening features something related to “Enter Sandman,” as some sort of spin-off to the Hokies’ entrance into Lane Stadium.

One might even see the talent jumping.

“Me and Rece a couple of years ago … we were doing something on the field, and we just started jumping up and down,” Pollack said, referring to when ESPN broadcast a pregame show before the Ohio State game in 2015. “It just got your juices going. That starts it off, but it’s one of the better ones in college football.

“Fans are going nuts, going bananas. It’s important to them. It’s awesome. It’s what makes college sports awesome. It’s what makes it better than the NFL. That’s why the NFL is not as good as what we’ve got.”

ESPN’s College GameDay starts at 9 a.m. The show will be held at Alumni Mall, with the Torgersen Bridge as the backdrop. The Hokies and Clemson square off later in the evening at 8.

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