Dear Heather Dinich,
Good for you, having been to all of the ACC stadiums â€“ itâ€™s something I canâ€™t say for myself. And kudos to ESPN for hiring an Indiana graduate and a Maryland resident to write a regular blog about the ACC.
Iâ€™ll be honest here, Heather. Iâ€™m provincially prejudiced and I donâ€™t intend to change that about myself. Iâ€™m a born and bred North Carolina boy and times have been few when I cared what an outsider thinks about Carter-Finley, but your rankings lack credibility and beg for a response. Iâ€™ve been to Lane, Memorial, Bobby Dodd, Groves, Wallace Wade, and Kenan stadiums. And when I say Iâ€™ve been there, Iâ€™ve been there on days where actual games have been played and not just to look at all the pretty columns.
My problem with your rankings for â€œtoughest stadiumâ€ in the ACC isnâ€™t that you are necessarily wrong â€“ I actually agree with your top three, in no specific order â€“ but rather that you failed to deliver any compelling argument for actual â€œtoughness.â€ Iâ€™m just a simple mountain boy that somehow learned to read and write and managed to get an engineering degree along the way, but in my experience, words like â€œpicturesque,â€ â€œgorgeous,â€ and â€œappreciativeâ€ arenâ€™t generally utilized to draw a correlation to toughness. Erin Andrews is gorgeous; John Wayne was tough. See the difference?
Honest, it was a hack job, a little disconcerting after your fine Ernie Myers column, and a seasoned college football fan such as you should have done much better. For instance:
Lane stadium is tough because it â€œsells out?â€ Câ€™mon, now. How about this instead: Blacksburg is like Virginiaâ€™s version of Boone, nestled atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, and on fall afternoons, orange and burgundy contrasts against the sprawling green fields enveloping Lane Stadium, making for an impressive approach among the mass of Hokies fans filing through the gates. Once inside, the stands are high, steep, and tight, especially in the end zones, and the noise punctures and resonates without end, seemingly unable to escape the semi-bowl. The main problem with Lane Stadium isnâ€™t that the walk from the concourse to your seat at the top of the stands will leave you completely winded, but that the fans are just too durned friendly. I was there when we beat them at the last second in 2004, and we were heartily welcomed by nearly everyone we passed, mingled and tailgated with new friends before the game, and were congratulated on the victory and the memorable defensive performance afterwards; by all regards, they were gracious to finally be in the ACC and wanted to be liked by the rest of us. They were loud, sure, but they were largely a class act.
Death Valley has â€œThe Rock [and] the Hill?â€ In this case, yes you do, indeed, need to say more. You could start with how the maze outside Death Valley is a giant sea of orange that dwarfs even off-campus sprawling areas like, say, the fairgrounds and lots surrounding Carter-Finley. Or how when youâ€™re maneuvering through campus from where you parked, in some farm field down in Pickens County between a graveyard and a silo, everyone you ask â€œWhich way to the stadium?â€ tells you something different, so you wander around aimlessly trying to find the increasing commotion. And then, once inside, you donâ€™t see the hill, but rather a narrow, steep strip of green parted by a sea of orange t-shirts and blue jeans. What youâ€™ve also never seen on TV is the team loading up onto buses for the short drive to the Hill so they can rub Howardâ€™s Rock and then run down the Hill while 80,000 fans rejoice with pompoms; see, the old field house was under the opposite end zone stands, not on top of that Hill. You also could have added, to your sterling analysis, how the band plays between every play, constantly building up to the annoying but catchy Tiger Rag, which ends with the deafening C-L-E-M-S-OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-N being belted out by floppy-haired kids in tiger paw ties and roughnecks in purple overalls alike. Clemson fans â€“ much like their far superior cousins in Raleigh â€“ like to be interactive and let visiting fans know of their presence, liquor-breath and all. The best way to silence the Death Valley crowd is a 38-6 shellacking on the Thursday night ESPN game. Just donâ€™t ask for directions back to the graveyard afterwards.
Bobby Dodd is old and itâ€™s â€œuniqueâ€ because itâ€™s â€œin the heart of Atlanta?â€ I almost fell asleep at Bobby Dodd in 2003. Iâ€™m dead serious. My neighbors have complained to me during State basketball games for making more noise than the Bobby Dodd crowd. What exactly about the fans makes it unique? Georgia Tech fans epitomize the typical Atlanta fan: quietly disengaged. I remember a 60-degree, sunny noon game at about 75% capacity and the only time that stadium got loud was between the third and fourth quarters when the band played the Budweiser Song and finally the students made a pseudo-attempt at unified noise with â€œWhen you say Budweiser, youâ€™ve said it all!â€ Then promptly left. You could have mentioned that, at least, speaking to its uniqueness.
Groves is also â€œuniqueâ€ and obviously small, and its fans are â€œfaithful and appreciative?â€ Here in the South, we call that â€œcharming,â€ and itâ€™s often used when you canâ€™t find anything good to say otherwise. Iâ€™ve been to Groves many times, actually (although Iâ€™ve sworn, after two different debacles in 1999 and 2003, to never go back). In fact, Iâ€™ve seen as many Appalachian State games there as State games, and the only distinct characteristic I can draw to memory, other than a lot of empty seats and a lot of visiting fans, is that before our game there in 2001, the P.A. announcer reached out, longingly, for all â€œDeac Freaksâ€ still in the parking lot to come in and support their Demon Deacons â€“ right before the first quarter ended.
Ah, Kenan; â€œjust the right sizeâ€ and has â€œpicturesque pine trees?â€ Contrary to popular myth, pine trees arenâ€™t exclusive to Chapel Hill; in fact, North Carolina is often referred to as the Pine State (which I much prefer, and if ever elected governor, will pass an executive directive to replace â€œTar Heel Stateâ€ with â€œPine Stateâ€). Iâ€™ve been to Kenan twice, and on both occasions I spent most of my time trying to explain to the fine folks around me why I stand up during an exciting play, particularly on a third-and-long or a touchdown; also, that Iâ€™m not a farmer. The verbal abuse was just horrible, and if those mean folks had returned to their seats after halftime I donâ€™t know what would have happened. I can only imagine how anyone can go into such a beautiful place and win, especially with Butch Davisâ€™ office looming forlornly over them as they break the huddle. Kenan at #4 is ridiculous on all accounts; youâ€™ll be hard-pressed to find even a handful of Carolina fans that would consider Kenan a tough atmosphere.
You actually summarized Wallace Wade quite succinctly, although I like to denigrate it further by calling it Cameron Outdoor Stadium.
Carter-Finleyâ€™s â€œfacilities are impressive but it lacks tradition?â€ What does that even mean? Since my freshman year in 1997, Iâ€™ve missed a mere handful of games at Carter-Finley, so Iâ€™m what you call an expert. I donâ€™t labor under the impression that it is the ACCâ€™s toughest and I certainly wonâ€™t argue itâ€™s one of the nationâ€™s toughest by any stretch; itâ€™s smaller than Doak Campbell, Death Valley, Lane, Scott, and even Kenan, but to chalk up Carter-Finley to simply having â€œimpressiveâ€ facilities is flat irresponsible.
Ask Tom Oâ€™Brien, who spoke to just how impressed he was by the atmosphere after a Saturday night loss here with Boston College in 2006, or Jerry Moore, who publicly stated that Carter-Finley was a tougher place to play than Michigan Stadium.
You could have touched on the intensity of the State fan base, how itâ€™s unquestionably passionate and intimidating in its own right, with its well-known tendency for abrasive behavior towards certain opposing fans. Or how the design of the stadium coupled with the recent renovations enclosing both end zones has created a sense of claustrophobia for opposing teams, which literally have fans just a few feet behind them â€“ actively engaged in friendly banter. Or how no State fan wants to get caught sitting on any third down and feels a certain shame for not being hoarse on the walk out.
But you seem to be focused on aesthetics and atmosphere, so letâ€™s touch on one of those perfect late October or early November afternoon games, where that autumn sun traces low across the Southern sky, quickly burning off the morning chill as the tailgating lots fill up and parking becomes more difficult as drivers have to maneuver between pig cookers, grills, canopies, corn hole boards, flying footballs and kids chasing after each other. You could have talked about how by mid-afternoon, the aroma of pork and vinegar saturates the air as old friends catch up and complain about how theyâ€™ve eaten â€“ and drunken â€“ far too much. As the sun starts to slip behind the tall â€œpicturesqueâ€ pines â€“ apparently on loan from the altruistic town of Chapel Hill â€“ surrounding arguably the nationâ€™s most impressive college football facility (according to Bill Cowher), and that crisp autumn air sets in, a Sea of Red, nearly 60,000 strong, merges en masse through too few entry gates, awaiting eagerly for the team to charge onto the field and that first opportunity to explode in unison and declare proudly, exactly where Carolina can go.
Look, all Iâ€™m saying here, Heather, is the evidence suggests you might be misguided on what most knowledgeable college football fans consider â€œtough.â€
But more importantly, since you work for ESPN, I was hoping youâ€™d put me in touch with Erin Andrews. She might remember me; I had my picture taken with her when Gameday was at Carter-Finley in 2004. Tell her I have an extra season ticket if she wants it.