Thursday-night lights

Sep. 21, 2013 @ 08:34 AM

It is a ritual that stretches back decades, a tableau that has shaped the memories of hundreds of thousands of friends and alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It is football Saturday, a fixture of life in any college town so deeply embedded that it probably ought to be a proper noun. And while it has long played out on any college campus able to field a football team, it is especially vibrant at major universities with avid fan bases and large student bodies.

Like UNC-CH, for instance.

So it’s no surprise downtown Chapel Hill is ready to go all-out for a chance to put its iconic image and fervent support for the home team on display Oct. 17  -- even if, in

a reflection of how college football has changed, it’s most certainly not a Saturday.

Two things come to town that day.

One, of course is the University of Miami.  It’s an ACC foe with a long national football reputation, so it will be one of the biggest games on the Tar Heel schedule.

Coming along will be ESPN, that behemoth of sports broadcasting whose money and mania have taken the outsized footprint of major-college football and made it even larger.

ESPN will bring its Game Day show to town for that Miami game – a game which, with a made-for-prime-time kickoff, will be preceded by hours of tailgating and shopping.

The convergence is “kind of like a perfect storm,” Meg McGurk, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, said in announcing town and university plans for the day.

“It’s a great opportunity to have everything downtown,” she added. Indeed, the popular Tar Heel Town that normally crops up on game day near Kenan Stadium will be moved downtown to West Franklin Street, which will be closed from Columbia to Mallette streets.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt called Tar Heel Downtown “yet another great event happening in Chapel Hill.”

Skeptics, it’s true, reflecting on downtown’s long struggle to define itself for the town-gown interface of the 21st century, may wonder if there’s an air of an aging baby boomer putting on old bell bottoms and a tie-dyed shirt for a Stones concert. 

Football Saturdays, to be sure, aren’t like they used to be – perhaps they never were. There’s the ESPN thing again – the network’s voracious appetite for prime-time games is the reason this once-sacred Saturday afternoon ritual is often enacted, as it will be Oct. 17, on a Thursday night. (Yes, you can reasonably harrumph, is not this what used to be quaintly called a “school night?”)

 High-definition televisions, sports bars awash in them, and social media give fans a multitude of ways to experience the tribal nature.

Still, Oct. 17 promises to be a wild and crazy day and evening in downtown Chapel Hill. We can’t wait -- bring it on.