The Worst Road Trip Ever
Ah, those sweet memories of the snow game against Maryland in 2000. Those wacky students ringing the court…the sense of anticipation created by a 24-hour delay for the game…the big Tar Heel win for an exciting Carolina team.
And then there was the other Carolina snow game against Maryland—the one that had exactly none of the above characteristics.
If the 2000 game marks the greatest bad-weather game in Tar Heel history, the 2010 return match was, quite simply, the worst bad-weather game in UNC history, and perhaps one of the worst overall game experiences in the Roy Williams era.
It started on February 4, when Carolina dropped a 74-70 decision at Virginia Tech. It was the second straight of what would eventually be four consecutive losses in a disappointing season.
Bad weather—really bad weather—was in the forecast, so the Tar Heel Sports Network crew chose to go straight from Blacksburg to Washington, D.C. It was perhaps an unnecessary precaution, but Woody Durham built his career on being prepared, and the thought of not being able to get to College Park to broadcast the game was a chilling one for him. The snow was supposed to begin late on February 5, and no one seemed to know when it might stop.
We checked in at the team hotel a full 48 hours before the rest of the Tar Heels were supposed to arrive. Past Tar Heel trips to Maryland usually included a stay at the Greenbelt Marriott, a hotel that Jones Angell claims has the best breakfast in the ACC. But Carolina had lost the last time the team stayed there, so the team tried a different location for this trip. Let me just say--especially with the benefit of hindsight--that one measly defeat is no reason to spit in the eye of great waffles.
This particular hotel, it turned out, did not have the best breakfast in the ACC. On Feb. 5, as the snow was just beginning, we appointed Eric Montross—an Indianapolis native—to be our driver for what would turn out to be the last time we would leave the hotel for 48 hours. We ate pizza at a strip mall. I can tell you without hesitation that it was the runaway highlight of the trip.
The team arrived that evening, earlier than originally planned, because they were afraid they wouldn't be able to get into town once the storm began. If you live in North Carolina, you probably think of snowfall as a gentle and beautiful whisper of winter weather.
That’s not what this was. This snow was a ticked-off whiteout, whipping around our hotel and piling up in the parking lot. When I went to sleep on Feb. 5, it was a significant snowfall. When I woke up on Feb. 6, this had happened:
There was that initial moment of, "That's cool, that's a lot of snow," when you woke up and looked out the window. That moment was immediately followed by an icy cold realization that you were now trapped in College Park, Maryland.
The good news is what we never lost power. The bad news is that the hotel was apparently the only place on the East Coast that was unaware of the bad weather potential, and a rumor quickly swept through the hotel on Feb. 6 that they were about to run out of food. As it turned out, they never completely ran out, but only because they used some of the food from a canceled wedding reception to feed the team. Carolina's pregame meal consisted mostly of wedding food.
After over a full day inside the hotel, some of us--remember, we'd come straight from watching a tough loss in Blacksburg, and had absolutely nowhere to be until two days later, when there was a very good possibility that we were going to watch the Tar Heels get bludgeoned by a better team in front of a crowd of college students that had been cooped up in their dorms for 48 hours doing...uh, whatever college students do--were beginning to get a little cabin fever. Big Eric decided he really wanted to see the movie Avatar. He had spotted a movie theater within walking distance, and took the initiative to call them and see if they might still be open on the afternoon of Feb. 6. They assured him that they were.
Five of us bundled up and set out through the snow to try and see the movie. It was still snowing a little, but the major obstacle was the snow that in some drifts was as high as my waist (or, Eric’s knees). There were points of the walk when I really expected that the only way I’d make it back to the hotel was when a St. Bernard rescued me and pulled me to safety.
Upon our arrival at the theater, we were greeted with a sign that read, “Closing at 5 p.m. today due to weather.”
This seemed like a fairly sensible decision, in all honesty, except for the fact that they’d told Eric 30 minutes earlier that they would be open. They had also underestimated just how much Eric wanted to see Avatar.
He rapped on the ticket window, and after what I imagine was an intense game of rock-paper-scissors to decide which employee had to talk to the angry seven-foot-tall man in the woolen hat, someone approached the window.
“Yes?” he said.
“Are you closed?” Eric asked.
“That’s what the sign says,” said the employee from behind the safety of what I have to assume was bullet-proof glass, given that we were in the College Park area (motto: “And you thought Syracuse was bad”).
This was the wrong thing to say to Eric, who proceeded to explain in easy-to-understand terms that he had just called on the phone and been told the theater would be showing Avatar. Unfortunately, there had been a change in plans. And that’s how five members of the Carolina traveling party came to stand outside a Maryland movie theater, trying to decide if their will to live was strong enough to walk back through the blizzard of the century to get to a hotel that might or might not have food.
To tell you how dismal the season was at that point, despite the horrendous weather and iffy accommodations, I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t play the game, or at least would push it back 24 hours, delaying the inevitable. But of course, given the theme of the trip, they played it as scheduled, which forced Tar Heel Sports Network engineer Ben Alexander and the late, great bus driver Super Dave Harder to spend hours in the parking lot digging the team bus out from a snow drift. Their eventual success allowed the Tar Heels the privilege of skidding driving to the Comcast Center on Feb. 7, where Gary Williams had spent the night the evening before because he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to make it to the arena on gameday.
The drive to the arena featured one member of the traveling party who kept encouraging the driver to go faster, and one member of the traveling party (me) who was convinced we were going to plow into a snow drift, where we would have had to depend on Larry Drew II to keep us safe from oncoming motorists. You can see why I was concerned.
As you probably guessed, knowing the history of the 2009-10 team, Carolina lost the game in spectacular fashion, falling 92-71 and giving up sixteen fast-break points in the second half alone. Let's don't talk about the postgame ride to the airport, when I believe my words on the phone to my wife may have been, "Can you google 'how to stay warm when sleeping on the side of the road in a snow drift'?"
Maryland comes back to Chapel Hill tomorrow for what might be their last game in the Smith Center as a member of the ACC. I will miss the memories of Lefty Driesell, the battles with Joe Smith, and the sad looks on the faces of Cole Field House and Comcast Center fans (including Len Elmore) after a Tar Heel win.
As for College Park and its weather, I hope everyone in the Big Ten enjoys their annual visits there. My advice: bring your own movies. And a St. Bernard in the traveling party wouldn’t hurt.