Traditionby Nicholas King
Carolina Week, Sports Anchor/Producer
October 26, 2009
UNC hosts Florida State. The first Thursday night game in the history of Kenan Stadium. A chance to have the national spotlight shine on Butch Davis’ up and coming Heels football program.
Well, Carolina football really didn’t take that big step forward. They didn’t really take a step back, either. It just was what it was. They looked good for two quarters and change, but collapsed down the stretch. Looking at what the problem was is a discussion for last Friday. However, looking at a larger picture, deciding where UNC football stands on a national platform, is a discussion for today.
UNC is a basketball school. That’s the national perception, and in the past 10 years, how could you say anything differently? I’ve been a Tar Heel basketball fan since I was four or five years old, but I always followed Michigan football. I grew up in Pennsylvania and didn’t really have any allegiances to either school, so I felt comfortable having a football school and a basketball school. Anyway, I vividly remember my sophomore year, at UNC-Wilmington, when one of my roommates, who is a die-hard Caroina fan, wanted to put a UNC vs. Virginia football game on. My response, “who cares?” I wanted to watch Michigan vs. Penn State, or Florida vs. Kentucky, or Texas vs. Nebraska.
The point I’m going to make is that you can’t become a football tradition overnight. I’ve got a few examples of schools that are heavy in football tradition. How about Michigan, Notre Dame, and Penn State. The atmosphere on a game day at these schools is so far removed from what it’s like in Chapel Hill, it’s nuts.
My roommate just got back from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he had the opportunity to go to the Wolverines’ game vs. Penn State. On a cold, dreary day, as life mostly is in the Midwest, he told me how woke up at 9:30, and walked outside of his friends’ house to find the entire street in party mode. Students and middle-aged men and women alike shotgunned beers, played tailgate games, and cooked tons of food. The game wasn’t starting until 3:30, and most of these people had been out late the night before. But it was game day, and he said it was an atmosphere like he’d never seen. Certainly different than here, where he wakes up at 11:15 for a noon game, and is lucky if he shows up on time. During the game, students basically stand sideways to fit as many people as possible, and not a single person sits down for even a second. Not only that, but Michigan was getting pounded by Penn State, and he said very few people left. A few weeks back in Chapel Hill, half the stadium emptied when Virginia went up by two touchdowns with six and a half minutes left. That killed me.
Similarly, I visited my girlfriend at Penn State a few weeks back. Friday night, 24 hours before the game, the streets were packed with cars, and there were 45 minute lines to get into bars. Everyone and their mother who went to Penn State in the past 50 years comes back for these games, whether they have a ticket or not. It was an 8:00 game on Saturday night, but we were up by 10:30 Saturday morning. We had hit the tailgate scene, which is basically endless fields of grass that surround the stadium (which is right on campus), by 1:30. For the next six hours, we walked around, stopping at numerous tents to visit with friends, and grab some food and drink. Even in the pouring rain, there were well over 100,000 people out there just having a blast, and gearing up for their big night game.
The final school I’ll mention is Notre Dame. Another one of my roommates from Wilmington went there two weekends ago to see the Irish play USC. The real USC, Southern Cal, that is. Anyway, I talked to him about it this weekend, and he just gushed about the experience. He’s been to a Carolina game. He’s been to Virginia Tech games, perhaps the rowdiest place to play in the ACC. Talk about rowdy, he’s been to West Virginia games. But it wasn’t about how rowdy South Bend was. He talked about the players’ walk from the chapel to the stadium, and the number of fans that turn up for it. He talked about the feel in the air, as he stood in the parking lot hours before the game. It was special and yet indescribable without being there, he said. And while I’m talking about Notre Dame, I have a friend who went here last year, and transferred to Notre Dame. He was back in Chapel Hill for the game this past Thursday night, and I met him in the quad around 5:30. We looked around, and there were maybe 100 people in the area. He just kind of shook his head as he told me you wouldn’t be able to move if we were in the middle of campus in South Bend. When they lose, he said, there’s genuine depression on campus, and people are going to sleep at 10:00 on a Saturday night.
At Carolina, things just aren’t the same as at these other schools. If it was raining, the frat boys wouldn’t even come to the game. If it was cold, people would be inside all day. Honestly, it’s 75 degrees on Thursday all day, with no classes, and the “biggest” game in Carolina football history that night, and I just didn’t see that many people out tailgating during the hours leading up. It’s hard too, because of the way the campus is set up, to have a real tailgating atmosphere, I’ll say that. It’s not all the students’ fault. But that’s just part of it all. Students don’t think to react with depression after a loss. People are over it in an hour or two.
Now, I’m not trying to bash on our football program or our school. I’m certainly not trying to bash on Butch Davis’ attempt to make this school prominent in the football world. All I’m saying is that this is something that won’t be built on one or two years of seven or eight win seasons. It will be built on decades of national prominence. It will be built on legendary coaches that spend half their lives in Chapel Hill, a la Bo Schembechler, Knute Rockne, Joe Paterno. Maybe Butch Davis is the beginning of turning this program around. But it will be a long time before we see the results really pay off. It just can’t happen with one Thursday night game on ESPN. But, it’s a start.
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