By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – At the end of a brief practice Friday afternoon, Olamide Zaccheaus stood under a broiling sun and looked around at the stadium the University of Virginia football team will call home Saturday.
“It’s nice that it has the V right in the middle of the field,” said Zaccheaus, a senior wide receiver. “V for Virginia.”
In reality, of course, the V stands for Vanderbilt. But the Cavaliers (1-1) will be the hosts Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern when they take on Ohio (1-0) at 40,550-seat Vanderbilt Stadium.
“It’s a nice stadium,” Zaccheaus said. “We’re just excited to play.”
ESPN2 will televise this non-conference game, which originally was scheduled to be played at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville. Concerns about the impact of Hurricane Florence on Central Virginia prompted UVA officials to start looking into alternate sites.
As more information became available about Hurricane Florence’s projected path, UVA officials realized Sunday, athletics director Carla Williams said, that playing the game in Charlottesville might be an issue. They met with head coach Bronco Mendenhall “and started thinking about our options, and we made the final decision on Tuesday,” Williams said.
Virginia wanted a site far enough away from the coast that the game would not “disrupt any of the first responders or law enforcement that would be needed for the storm,” Williams said.
A school with a natural-grass field might not want it torn up by other teams, so “an artificial surface was something we knew we’d probably have to have,” Williams said. “And then a place that we could get to fairly easily, a large enough city that could accommodate two teams.”
All of which made Vanderbilt an attractive choice. So did Williams’ history with this Southeastern Conference school. She worked in athletics administration at Vanderbilt from 2000 to 2004. UVA’s deputy AD, Jim Booz, has worked at Vandy, too.
Williams said she’s grateful for the assistance the Commodores’ AD, David Williams, and deputy AD, Candice Storey Lee, offered UVA.
“They’ve always been very collegial, always been willing to help, regardless of the situation,” Williams said. “We have a great relationship with those two. It was completely comfortable to call and talk to David about helping us.”
Williams also praised Gerry Capone, UVA’s associate AD for football administration. Capone and his staff lined up charter flights, arranged for meals, and somehow found enough hotel rooms in the Nashville area for a traveling party of about 160 people.
“They essentially pulled it off in two-and-a-half days,” Williams said. “It’s just remarkable.”
As the week went on, it became apparent that Central Virginia was unlikely to be hit as hard as originally feared.
“On Wednesday, there was a 12-hour period when the storm just shifted south, and we talked about whether or not we could play it in Charlottesville,” Williams said.
Because of a number of factors, including the state of emergency that was still in effect in Virginia, UVA officials ultimately decided to play the game in Nashville.
“We really wanted to be especially sensitive to the fact that just because Charlottesville was going to escape the brunt of the storm, we didn’t want to play a game that would disrupt first responders and law enforcement from the region,” Williams said. “We knew this game was important to play for our football program, but given the set of circumstances in North Carolina and South Carolina and on the coast of Virginia, respecting that and being sensitive to that was more important than playing the game in Charlottesville.
“And so we get to play the game, which we needed to do, and we’re very respectful of the fact that people are losing their lives on the coast, and first responders are doing the best they can.”
The Cavaliers stayed in Murfreesboro, about 35 miles southeast of Nashville, on Thursday night. The traveling party moved to Nashville on Friday afternoon.
“All of us thrive on routine, and that’s where habits are built, and habits drive performance,” Mendenhall said Friday. “Part of coaching, though, and part of leadership, is adaptability.
“You match up and adjust, and you match up and adjust for the benefit of others. Then hopefully partnerships can be formed. So we’re really thankful that Vanderbilt is allowing us to use their facility and address the hardship we’re having, so young people can develop and play a game.”
His program, Mendenhall said, has a “guiding principle that helps us in situations like this. All of our guiding principles address life. It’s just called: less drama, more work.
“So when hardships come, any flailing and all the other things that come with it, it doesn’t help much. It’s now: What do you do about it? I think they’ve embraced that.”
Zaccheaus echoed those comments.
“Nobody’s really complaining,” he said. “We have a game to play. We wanted to play the game, and our objective is to come out here and win, just like any other game.”
The Cavaliers are coming off a 20-16 road loss to Indiana. Numerous UVA players had subpar performances against the Hoosiers, including Zaccheaus, who said that’s given him additional motivation for Saturday’s Ohio game.
“But at the same time,” Zaccheaus said, “you also have to realize that the reason why we didn’t play as well as usual is because we weren’t making those routine plays that we usually make. It’s not like we have to do anything that’s out of our range or element. We just have to make those plays that we usually make, and everything else will handle itself.”
The Commodores have been playing their home games at the site of Vanderbilt Stadium since 1922. When it opened, the stadium was called Dudley Field and seated 20,000. The modern-day Vanderbilt Stadium was dedicated in 1981, after a $10.1 million construction project, and has hosted, in addition to football games, such musical acts as U2, the Rolling Stones and the Dave Matthews Band.
The Wahoos haven’t played at Vanderbilt Stadium since Nov. 1, 1975, when they lost 17-14 to the Commodores. That game drew a crowd of 21,680.
Saturday’s turnout is difficult to predict. Admission is free at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“I have no idea what to expect,” Mendenhall said. “We have prepared without crowd noise, without music, as it might be similar to a practice. So I’m not sure how many folks will come, which will be another significant test and possibly another first.”
When he was an assistant coach at New Mexico, Mendenhall recalled, lightning halted a game between the Lobos and BYU.
“The stadium was cleared, and really no one came back,” Mendenhall said. “We still had a lot of the game left to play. And we could hear the opponent’s coaches coaching their guys, and they could hear us coaching our guys, and it was really unique.”
There’s nothing normal about this situation, either. “It’s kind of combination of a road game, a bowl game, and a hurricane, all at the same time,” Mendenhall said.
A week ago, the ‘Hoos played in wretched conditions at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium, where sheets of rain pelted the teams for most of the game. The forecast for Saturday in Nashville: sunny, with a high of 91.
“I’m trying to get my tan on a little bit out in the sun, instead of the rain,” Zaccheaus said, smiling.
On being back in one of her favorite cities, Williams said, “Everyone has been great. I can’t say enough about the people here at Vanderbilt. They have been outstanding, and the weather is really good, and the people in town have been very accommodating.”