NCAA.com has previously taken college sports fans down the rabbit hole behind how some of the country’s most beloved college mascots came to be. While Yale’s living, breathing bulldog mascot Handsome Dan wasn’t the first real-life bulldog the school had, Handsome Dan I started a lineage that now stretches to Handsome Dan XVIII.
As unlikely as it sounds, Youngstown State is nicknamed the Penguins because of a remark an opposing basketball coach reportedly made five years before there was a student poll to decide the school’s mascot. All because of an unheated locker room and the lack of warmups caused Youngstown State’s basketball team to wave their arms like penguins.
Here’s the true story of how Wake Forest adopted the nickname Demon Deacons.
Why is Wake Forest called the Demon Deacons?
Wake Forest credits the creation of its Demon Deacons nickname to Mayor Parker, a member of the school’s newspaper. However there’s some dispute about the exact wording used by Parker, the year when the nickname was created and the result of the game that prompted Parker to call Wake Forest’s football team the “Demon Deacons.” One page on Wake Forest’s website states, “It goes back to the Roaring Twenties when a school reporter gave the football team the nickname ‘Demon Deacons’ after a ‘devilish’ win over the Trinity Blue Devils-now known as the Duke Blue Devils.”
Another page on Wake Forest’s website reads, “In 1922 the editor of the school newspaper, Mayor Parker ’24, created the alliteration ‘Demon Deacons’ to describe a major defeat over Trinity (now Duke).”
However, Wake Forest’s football media guide shows that the school played Duke (then Trinity) just once in 1922, which was the team’s fourth loss in a row to Trinity.
While NCAA.com was unable to find a copy of the story or the headline the sparked the university’s nickname, if we’re to believe that the nickname Demon Deacons was created in 1922, newspaper reports from the game indicate it was actually a pretty ugly game to watch, by the standards of any era of football.
Trinity College won 3-0, so not only did Wake Forest lose the game from which its nickname and mascot potentially originated, but the team was held scoreless.
“Almost throughout the game Wake Forest was on defense,” The Durham Morning Herald of Durham, North Carolina reported. The only time a pass was caught the entire game was an interception. “Both teams tried forward passing considerably, but to no advantage,” The Herald reported. “Just prior to the end of the game Johnson, Trinity fullback, gathered in a Wake Forest pass. It was the only time a pass was intercepted during the afternoon. No passes were completed.”
The Durham Morning Herald credited Trinity’s center, Jimmie Simpson, as being the game’s standout player. “Jimmie Simpson, all-state center, emerged from the annual Trinity-Wake Forest, Armistice Day gridiron battle, the hero of the day,” the newspaper reported. “It was Simpson’s trusty toe that booted a drop kick between the Wake Forest goal bars during the third period of play, enabling Trinity to leave the field victorious by a 3 to 0 score.”
Wake Forest only had three first downs all game, one of which came from a penalty against Trinity. It punted eight times.
“I think it might be ’23 but of course nothing is coming up in the Old Gold and Black,” said Tanya Zanish-Belcher, a senior librarian at Wake Forest’s Z. Smith Reynolds Library, in an interview with NCAA.com. “And it’s possible this may all be lore at this point.”
It’s not unheard of for a university’s nickname or mascot to come from a newspaper. The University of Arizona became the Wildcats after a reporter from The Los Angeles Times wrote, “The Arizona men showed the fight of wild cats and displayed before the public gaze a couple of little shrimps in the backfield who defied all attempts of the Tigers to stop them.” Arizona lost the game in question in a shutout — to Occidental College, by the way — so there’s no shame for Wake Forest if it really did lose to Trinity College in the game that led to the creation of Demon Deacons.
Zanish-Belcher said the newspaper reference she’s seen was to the team’s “devilish” play under coach Hank Garrity, who led the team to six-, seven- and six-win seasons in his three years on the job. The school had never won more than three games prior to Garrity becoming head coach. “We were always known as the Deacons,” she said, “but I think they just started putting the word ‘demon’ with it to kind of indicate how tough they were.”
Zanish-Belcher pulled up archives of the Old Gold and Black, Wake Forest’s student newspaper, to search for references to the word “devilish,” to help solve if the story about Mayor Parker’s use of the word was true.
“It has been digitized and is keyword searchable,” she said. “Let’s just see if anything pops up for that time period in 1923 and guess what, nothing comes up. Of course.”
When did Wake Forest get the nickname ‘Demon Deacons’?
Parker reportedly published the phrase “Demon Deacons” in 1922, although the university says the nickname was used after a win over Trinity College (now Duke), but Trinity beat Wake Forest in 1922. At that point in time, Wake Forest’s only win in football against Trinity came in 1889 in the first-ever meeting between the two schools, when Mayor Parker wasn’t even alive, so Wake Forest may have actually lost the game that Parker wrote they played “devilish” or like “demons.”
The use of Demon Deacons, in reference to Wake Forest, had started before Wake Forest played Trinity College in 1923, so the nickname was likely created sometime in between the two games, but the exact circumstances remain unclear.
Zanish-Belcher found a story published by the Old Gold and Black in October 1922 that referred to Wake Forest’s center playing “like a demon veteran.”
“It makes me think that they haven’t exactly put it together yet,” she said. “I think that at some point, probably, the reporters, the editors started talking.”
When was ‘Demon Deacons’ first printed?
The first reference to “Demon Deacons” in the newspapers.com database that NCAA.com could find was from a story on Oct. 31, 1923, previewing a football game between Wake Forest and Trinity College.
The following was published in The Bee of Danville, Va., on Nov. 1, 1923. “Coach Garrity’s Demon Deacons rested yesterday and today began practicing for the Trinity contest in Winston-Salem on Saturday,” the newspaper reported.
Zanish-Belcher searched the archives of the Old Gold and Black and found a reference to “demon deacons” — notice that neither word was capitalized — on Nov. 9, 1923, before Wake Forest played Trinity, which means even though the university’s nickname is often tied to a football game against (what is now) Duke, it appears unlikely the nickname came from the 1922 meeting between the two schools, and it was in place prior to their 1923 meeting.
However, in the student newspaper’s recap of the 1923 Wake Forest-Trinity game, “Demon Deacons” was now capitalized, whereas it was all-lowercase before the game.
Have Wake Forest teams been called anything else?
Wake Forest’s website says that before the university adopted the nickname Demon Deacons, “Wake Forest was the only college in the state without a mascot.”
However, the university’s teams had previously, and informally, been called the Baptists and The Old Gold and Black — the latter of which is also the name of the student newspaper.
Zanish-Belcher, the senior librarian, told NCAA.com that in addition to “Deacons,” Wake Forest’s athletic teams also used to have the nickname of a real animal.
“Of course, originally, we were the Tigers,” she said. “It’s very rare to even find references to that. The original campus museum actually has one of the — they did a metal detector and someone found one of the original tiger buttons or pins, and it is so incredibly tiny. I can’t even tell you, you can barely even see it. But it is a tiger and I know that’s where they say they got the idea for the Old Gold and Black colors.”
How did the Demon Deacon mascot come to be?
“In 1941 Jack R. Baldwin (’43) took on a fraternity brother’s dare and dressed up as he thought an old-time Baptist deacon would: top hat, tuxedo, and carrying a black umbrella,” according to Wake Forest’s website. “The football crowd loved it, and a tradition was born. In 1980 the Demon Deacon evolved into a complete costume with the large deacon head.”
Below is a picture of Baldwin “riding” North Carolina’s ram mascot during a football game in which Wake Forest was beating North Carolina. The picture was printed in The Charlotte News on Oct. 27, 1941.
A top hat has long been part of the Demon Deacon mascot’s wardrobe but what you may not know is that both in real life and in depictions, the mascot has previously held a plunger in his hand.
According to Wake Forest Magazine, which cited The Little Black Book, a book compiled by and designed for Wake Forest students, “According to newspaper clippings in the University archives, the plunger was the crowd’s favorite Deacon antic. The mascot would twirl the ‘plumber’s friend’ like a baton and swing it to the chants of the crowd.”
“I get the impression it was very individualistic,” Zanish-Belcher said of the Demon Deacons’ mascot. “Whoever took it on kind of added their own individual flavor. I don’t think it was planned in any way. I think it was basically just whoever was doing it, kind of their version of the Demon Deacon and I think that’s why you end up with things like umbrellas and plungers. OK, I got to say the plungers are kind of funny.
“Basically, just putting their own spin on it.”