CLEMSON — There’s a reason Clemson has not played at home for a Thursday night football game in 11 years, and it’s not the 0-2 win-loss record.
When Georgia Tech comes to town Thursday, it will be just the third time Clemson has hosted since ESPN started its College Football Thursday Primetime package 17 years ago.
WHO: Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2 ACC) at No. 9 Clemson (8-1, 6-1)
WHEN: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
Line: Clemson by 101/2
Based on comments made by various school officials, it’s not hard to read between the lines: Clemson is tolerating, not embracing, this Thursday night spotlight.
“It is what it is. You don’t really spend a lot of time worrying about it because they’re not going to reprint (the schedule),” coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. “I always love playing on Saturdays, I think that’s great. But I just say, OK, let’s go play. It shouldn’t matter.”
Clemson President Jim Barker wrote an email to Clemson students, faculty and staff on May 9, indicating that Clemson’s game Thursday night against Georgia Tech was scheduled in cooperation with the Atlantic Coast Conference’s partnership with ESPN.
“For many years we avoided Thursday night home games because of the challenges it presents to academic and university operations,” Barker said. “However, we do have an obligation to support the ACC’s television contract, from which we benefit.”
So the task was left to Clemson director of event management Van Hilderbrand, who has served in the athletic department for 37 years and graduated from Clemson in 1974.
Hilderbrand is now an associate athletic director, overseeing everything that goes into the fan experience on game days. From traffic patterns to tailgating regulations, from pedestrian safety to late-night janitorial cleanup, it all falls on Hilderbrand’s desk in his office overlooking the Tigers’ baseball stadium.
“When you play Saturday games for years and years, you’ve kind of got it down real easy,” Hilderbrand said. “Especially when the students, the faculty and staff are all gone. You don’t ever see them on a Saturday, right? But here we are in the middle of a school week.”
Clemson spread the word constantly, making sure even the folks who don’t follow football understand that this Thursday is going to work a little differently.
All classes normally starting after 12:15 p.m. on the main campus have been canceled. At the teacher’s discretion, they may be rescheduled for Saturday, when the football stadium will be empty.
Administrative offices close at noon, and university employees who aren’t working related to the football game must take 3.5 hours of accrued annual leave or use one of their optional holidays.
Vehicles must be moved to designated spaces by 1 p.m. One hour later, Hilderbrand and his army will take over getting the campus ready for the tens of thousands of fans arriving to root for the eighth-ranked Tigers against the visiting Yellow Jackets.
“The thing we’ve asked our donors to do is be respectful and just stay away from campus while these kids are going to school and the faculty and staff are working,” Hilderbrand said. “We’re not going to allow anybody into the parking lots to tailgate until 2 p.m. They don’t need to be in here tailgating at 8 a.m. while the kids are walking past them to go to class.”
Hilderbrand relates this challenge to a Saturday noon kickoff, when parking lots open at 6 a.m. On those days, he has six hours to work. Thursday’s plan gives him 51/2 hours.
He predicts that traffic coming into Clemson — often a slow-moving operation — to crawl between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.
“Success to me is to get everybody parked in their parking lots and into the game, and they’re not having to wait at either place,” Hilderbrand said. “We’d like to say, hey, everybody’s parked and had a chance to be in by kickoff at 7:30.”
Schools in Pickens and Anderson counties will close early on Thursday so school buses can deliver children home before traffic bears down on the area.
City of Clemson government offices will remain open as usual, though Clemson Area Transit will employ alternative routes to accommodate students and the general public.
“Some campuses are a little more challenged because it would affect their day-to-day campus environment,” Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich said. “Our game operations people, our police, all the folks that make up our gameday working environment, have talked about it. We’re as prepared as we could be.”
It wouldn’t be a shock to see Memorial Stadium not be at capacity (81,500) at kickoff Thursday night, while fans are still traveling from work or enjoying their tailgates in what is expected to be cold weather.
“I don’t know if that will bear any future decisions about Thursday night games here. It’s kind of tricky,” Hilderbrand said. “I think we would rather play on Saturday obviously, but our commitment to the conference is important to play on Thursday every now and then.
“But nothing’s really jumped out at me that makes me worried about how this is all going to work. I think we can do it very successfully.”