This Thursday, Carolina football hosts Miami in the second Thursday night home game in program history. In 2009, the Tar Heels lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the first-ever Thursday night game at Kenan Stadium. Four years later, the campus, community and Tar Heel football program will collaborate - and cooperate - to pull off the feat again.
For the team itself, Thursday’s game is yet another mile marker on the circuitous road that has been the 2013 season. The Tar Heels have had trouble establishing what is ‘routine’ during the first half of the schedule: Carolina kicked off college football on Thursday August 30 at South Carolina. The following Saturday, the team hosted Middle Tennessee, then had a bye week before traveling to Atlanta. The most ‘normal’ period of the schedule occurred when the Tar Heels played Georgia Tech, East Carolina and Virginia Tech on consecutive Saturdays. Then came the 12-day stretch before hosting the Hurricanes. With bye weeks and Thursdays behind them, Carolina will play out the second half of the regular season with games on six straight Saturdays.
Head coach Larry Fedora said the unusual schedule has had an impact on a football team still adjusting to new schemes and pace of play. “We won’t get into a routine until after the Miami game, when we start playing on normal Saturdays, [when] there’s no open weeks and all those things,” Fedora said last week. “So, just not being able to be in that routine I definitely feel like has an effect on our football team.”
The Tar Heels kept a normal schedule for most of last week, practicing Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The team began installing the base game plan for Miami in the middle of the week, with days off Friday and Saturday. Fedora eschewed his typical game week press conference on Monday. Normally, the players would get Monday off, but with the accelerated schedule, the team plans to practice Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
With 12 days between games, the Tar Heels are using this time to get healthy and prepare to play the undefeated Hurricanes. Injuries - such as the one that kept Bryn Renner out against Virginia Tech - have additional time to heal. “Getting rested is probably the biggest thing, but also getting more mentally prepared for the game,” senior defensive end Kareem Martin said. “That’s extra film time, paying more attention in practice even if you’re not in, more mental reps.”
Vic Koenning, associate head coach for defense, said that film study will be invaluable against a hot Miami team. “They’re an extremely confident football team, and they’re more experienced (than last year’s Hurricanes, who fell to Carolina 18-14 in Coral Gables). They’ve got NFL players everywhere,” he said. “Last year, we played good and we created some takeaways, so we’re going to have to have some good stuff happen for us next Thursday.”
Martin said he and his teammates won’t be overwhelmed by the national spotlight of Thursday night football on ESPN. “We’ve played Thursday night games before. We’ve been in the spotlight, so it’s nothing new,” he said. “We opened up college football, so guys are used to the spotlight and now we can just go out there and play. We’re not going to be shocked with all the ESPN cameras and all the things that come along with this game, so I think we’ll be fine.”
Beyond campus, the Town of Chapel Hill is preparing to take advantage of the platform Thursday football provides. “Once again, our town is being thrust into the national spotlight,” said Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, a 1992 Carolina alumnus. “If we’re going to have the eyes of the country looking at us, then let’s throw a great party worthy of that attention.”
Back in 2009, the UNC campus shut down at 3 p.m. to allow time for game logistics such as parking. This year, university operations will not be interrupted. Campus will remain open until 5 p.m., with football parking lots opening at 5:30. To help satisfy both the requirements of normal university operations and fan interest in the game, the Town of Chapel Hill, the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and UNC Athletics are joining forces for Tar Heel Downtown, as Tar Heel Town moves from the Kenan Stadium Amphitheatre area to 140 West Franklin Street. “As a UNC alumnus and as mayor of this great town, this particular event makes me particularly excited,” Kleinschmidt said, “because this time I’m going to be inviting all my fellow Tar Heel fans from across the region to come out and help us put on a great show for millions of viewers from across the country who will be joining us right here on our doorstep in downtown Chapel Hill.”
Senior athletic director Rick Steinbacher said Tar Heel Downtown is a result of organizers turning a potential problem into an opportunity. “We needed a way to redirect people from that area of 3 to 5 o’clock because, that’s when a lot of people are coming to campus,” he said. “They’re wanting to tailgate and they’re wanting to come to the lots that they normally park in. Well, we’re going to have to tell them they can’t get there until 5:30.” With parking lots not opening as early as usual, there needed to be a place to direct game traffic while allowing time for faculty and staff to conduct the day’s business. Beginning at 4 p.m. Thursday, Franklin Street will be closed from Columbia to Mallette Street. Tar Heel Downtown features include a concert from Liquid Pleasure from 5 to 7 p.m. followed by the Tar Heel Sports Network pregame show taking place at 140 West Franklin. We’ll have everything you need to have a great time before the game, and then it’s a two-block walk to the stadium,” Steinbacher said. “Or after you come and enjoy the party, by then the parking lot will be ready for you.”
Athletic director Bubba Cunningham said Tar Heel Downtown presents the best of both worlds: a chance for the football program to perform on the field, and for the town and university to work together. “It allows us to have a weekday game with as little disruption on campus as possible, but it brings the events to the businesses in our community,” he said. “This is a great example of a university and a town working together so that we can both benefit by having the opportunity to plan for this event.”
The businesses in downtown Chapel Hill are ready. Chris Carini, owner of Linda’s Bar & Grill, encouraged his Franklin Street neighbors to put their best foot forward. “I’d like to invite all the merchants to try and be open early to make a showing for everybody coming to the town, for ESPN, to clean everything extra well, to make sure everything is open extra early and that your staff is the best they can possibly be,” he said.
One thing helping proceedings go more smoothly: this weekend is Fall Break for the students. Because of Kenan Stadium’s location in the heart of campus and the desire to continue university operations, Carolina administrators have stipulated that any Thursday night game would have to be on this particular weekend. Though some will leave town, Student Body President Christy Lambden was on the event planning committee to help encourage his fellow students to stick around. “You’re used to going to Franklin Street,” Steinbacher said. “Here’s another opportunity. Don’t go home for fall break. Stay here, come be a part of this Tar Heel Downtown, and then be in the Tar Pit for the Miami game.”
The head coach of the Tar Heels recognizes the importance of the event not only for a singular night in October, but for the future of his program. “It‘s a very, very unique and tremendous opportunity for us to showcase not only the Tar Heels, but our stadium, our game day atmosphere, Chapel Hill, the community, everyone involved,” Fedora said. “Thursday nights have become huge in college football because everybody’s watching. It’s just a great opportunity for us to showcase what we have and who we are, and what we’re trying to build here.”
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