EN ROUTE FROM CHAPEL HILL TO ATLANTA — At a little after 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, the bell tower on the UNC-CH campus began playing the theme from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” That’s when I started to feel like it might be a strange Wednesday.
Maybe they just wanted to play something wintery. Maybe “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t translate to clock tower chimes. By then, a fluffy layer of snow already blanketed campus.
College kids went out and danced around the Old Well, and the sorority girls who live across the street from me – yes, I practically live on campus, even in my early 30s and long out of college – giggled and sang while their yard turned whiter.
Me, I just lay in bed wondering whether I’d be able to get to Atlanta to cover UNC’s basketball game at Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels were already there, as it turned out.
Their flight took off from RDU at 9:48 p.m. Tuesday, and Roy Williams, his players and UNC’s traveling contingent – student managers, trainers, support staff – landed in Atlanta at 11:01. It was late already, but their night was just getting started.
As they usually do when they fly anywhere, the Tar Heels chartered a plane to Atlanta. Under normal circumstances, they would have walked off their plane and onto a bus, and then would have gone to their hotel. These weren’t exactly normal times in Atlanta, though.
The city, overwhelmed by a blast of winter weather, was at a standstill. Highways clogged. Roads blocked with wrecks. No way in. No way out.
When UNC landed, the bus driver who was supposed to pick up the Tar Heels had been on his way for four hours. He was still 10 miles away.
About 25 minutes later, UNC basketball team spokesman Steve Kirschner said, the team checked in again with the bus driver. He’d made some progress: About a mile in 25 minutes.
While they sat on the plane, Brad Frederick, the team’s director of basketball operations, and Eric Hoots, a jack of all trades who handles everything from the UNC basketball team’s video needs to its equipment contract with Nike, came up with alternate travel plans.
They learned that MARTA – Atlanta’s subway – ran until 1:18 a.m. That was good news. It was the only way the Tar Heels could have made it from the tarmac at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to their hotel near midtown Atlanta.
The airport sent a couple of buses UNC’s way. The Tar Heels rode back to the terminal and boarded MARTA in two groups – the players in the first one and Williams, his wife, Wanda, and the rest of the traveling party in the second group.
The first group made it to the hotel at 1:05 a.m., Kirschner said, after about a five-block walk through the icy and snowy streets. The second group checked in at 1:45 a.m.
It had been a long night, a tiring night. But, Kirschner said Wednesday, what the Tar Heels went through “was nothing” compared to what tens of thousands of others in Atlanta did.
According to news reports, some motorists were stuck in their cars, stranded on gridlocked Atlanta roads, for nearly 20 hours. Dean Buchan, the Georgia Tech football sports information director, needed almost 20 hours to go 12 miles.
The stories were nightmarish. A new day had brought little relief, and the city – and its thoroughfares – remained clogged well into Wednesday.
All of this concerned me, The News & Observer’s UNC athletics beat reporter. Having spent a brief stint covering the NFL and flying into cold-weather cities, rough flying conditions were nothing new. I spent eight hours on a plane once in late October 2011, sitting on a tarmac in Hartford, Conn., while a blizzard raged on. They put me on “Good Morning America” to talk about it.
I was off to a good start
The drive to RDU wasn’t bad on Wednesday morning. Better than I expected, even. And everything was fine – too fine, in hindsight – when I boarded the plane a little before 11 a.m. I even had some familiar company: Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, happened to be sitting in the seat next to mine.
Turned out, though, that the whole thing was a tease. Too easy.
The pilot said we couldn’t land in Atlanta for a while, that we were looking at a two-hour delay. Cunningham, on his way to ACC winter meetings in Fort Lauderdale, made other arrangements and de-boarded.
The rest of us, we continued to sit there. And sit there.
Sitting around at RDU
The plane needed to be de-iced. That took an hour. Then more sitting. And another announcement. Good news and bad news, the pilot said. The good: snow and ice no longer covered the wings like a blanket. The bad: Atlanta couldn’t handle any incoming flights.
They pulled back into the gate and let us off at around 1 p.m. Around then, ESPN announced that it wouldn’t broadcast the game, which was scheduled to air on ESPN2.
There was more waiting. And standing in line. And more waiting.
I was still in the terminal at RDU when Cunningham sent a “just landed” text message from sunny South Florida. I still hadn’t reclaimed my familiar seat on a row that he’d left nearly five hours earlier.
Finally they let us back on the plane. We sat there for a little while again, and took off at 3:45. The people in front of me ordered drinks – some sort of liquor concoction for the lady with the red hair on the right, and a Miller Lite for the white-haired gentlemen in the middle.
I was tempted. And probably deserving.
I had a game to cover, though, and, presumably a train to catch.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter