The NFL is the most popular sport in Charlotte. Despite our college traditions and basketball roots, nothing else is close.
Yet no matter whom the Carolina Panthers play in 2015, the biggest game at Bank of America Stadium might be the season opener between North Carolina and South Carolina.
The contempt the schools have for each other is merely one of the qualities that make this rivalry great. You want a rivalry? Make sure that South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier is part of it.
Spurrier will be 70 on Sept. 5, 2015, when the Gamecocks and Tar Heels play. I hope he’s still head coach for our sake and for his.
When Spurrier retires he’ll be one of those put-upon old guys that lack a forum for grievances real and imagined. As the leader of Gamecock Nation, an audience is assured.
Also, he’s good. Football success was nothing more than a dream when South Carolina hired Spurrier before the 2005 season. The Gamecocks had thousands of fans with little to cheer.
But Spurrier moved South Carolina from the bottom of the SEC, the toughest conference in college football as well as the most interesting, into position to contend. He created this.
Why walk away, especially with a chance to pound the Tar Heels, a team he hasn’t had a regular opportunity to pound since the late 1980s when he coached at Duke? Winning games at Duke is like winning a national championship anywhere else. Spurrier won at Duke.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are coming off a major scandal that the naïve among us would have expected at Miami, Southern Methodist or the other USC.
They dumped head coach Butch Davis and hired Larry Fedora, who last season, his first season, led them to a record of 8-4. Spurrier was at one time known for his innovative offense. Now Fedora is.
If the Tar Heels and Gamecocks are still good, or threatening to get better, in 2015 they’ll enhance the rivalry. But the rivalry will be great if they’re mediocre.
If you live in or near Charlotte you know fans of both schools. They walk among us and, even if you don’t see them, you hear them. The game will give them a reason to come out.
Think about the evening of Sept. 4, 2015. Think about downtown Charlotte, sidewalks and streets, restaurants and bars, students and alumni of both schools trying to make the town theirs.
I remember driving to Bank of America Stadium in 2008 to watch East Carolina open the season against Virginia Tech. Kickoff was at noon. I left my house at 9 a.m. On my way I passed tailgaters, some who woke up early and some undoubtedly still there from the night before.
“This was like a bowl game atmosphere for us,” East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said after his Pirates upset the Hokies 27-22. “To have the opportunity to come over here and play in a 70,000-seat NFL stadium, great city, where the fan base was pretty much even … . What a great way to open the season.”
South Carolina’s football fan base is great, and in September, 2015, North Carolina’s will be. Fans will talk about the game all summer, and then they’ll show us what the talk is about.
The NFL is the national pastime in Charlotte and almost every other market with a team.
But for at least a night and a day we become a college town.
We get to.
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