Workers flip Kenan from game day to graduation

Overnight, hard-working crews from across campus combined to turn a stadium filled with football fans into a festive setting for a special Commencement.

Press the play button above to see Kenan Stadium transition from football game to Commencement.

How do you clear a stadium filled with 51,000 football fans, clean it out and then set up the field with a stage and 3,000 folding chairs in less than 15 hours, before your special guests arrive?

“I do love this kind of stuff,” said Olivia Gambocarto, waste diversion coordinator in the Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling. “People will go to bed, and it will be a mess. And then they’ll wake up, and it will be like nothing happened. We’re like house elves.”

The event requiring this practical magic was this past weekend’s once-in-a-lifetime combination of a Saturday afternoon football game and special fall Commencement on Sunday for the Class of 2020, whose spring graduation ceremony was canceled because of the pandemic.

Hundreds of people, University staff as well as outside employees, worked around the clock to make Commencement for the Class of 2020 extra special. “Facilities, grounds, housekeeping, parking and transportation — you name a unit on campus and they were probably contributing,” said Stacey Warner, senior associate director for University events.

Planning for the special weekend began as soon as the date was set for the fall Commencement, but the schedule couldn’t be finalized until the time of the football game was announced by the Atlantic Coast Conference two weeks ago. A midday kickoff would have been best, logistically speaking, but the 3:30 p.m. start time was at least better than an evening game.

As soon as the game clock expired, Richie Grimsley’s team sprang into action. Grimsley, assistant athletic director for facilities and capital projects, and 15 others from Athletics removed the benches, tables and equipment from the sidelines. They also helped direct traffic so that the TV crews, trucks and equipment could leave the stadium and the end zone staging area.

Meanwhile, housekeeping and grounds crews made their usual post-game rounds, picking up trash and recycling in and around the stadium and cleaning restrooms and other areas.

As soon as the area behind the Loudermilk Center at the east end zone of the stadium was clear, events vendors began to move from where they had parked along Skipper Bowles Drive into the stadium area. They drove the mobile stage down the sideline and parked it on the south side of the stadium and brought in the audio equipment as well as flooring and chairs for the graduates.

For the next six hours, well past midnight, a six-person grounds crew unfolded and set up 3,000 chairs, 4 feet apart, in rows facing the stage.

When the events vendors and their equipment were inside the stadium, contractors for trash and recycling moved into place in the area behind the east end zone. The University used five 30-yard-long roll-off dumpsters, three to collect trash and two for recycling, in addition to two rear-loading trucks. The collection was done overnight and the trucks and dumpsters moved out of the way because the graduates would be gathering behind Loudermilk to walk into the stadium on Sunday.

At about 6 a.m. Sunday, vendors arrived to place flowers on the stage and around the field and make other finishing touches for the ceremony. A second 10-person grounds crew also came in to do a final sweep of the stadium area for trash and recycling, radiating out from there to pick up loose trash and empty trash cans across the entire campus. A third two-person grounds crew constantly monitored the Pit and McCorkle Place to keep them clean Saturday and Sunday.

By the time the graduates arrived at the Bell Tower for the 9 a.m. champagne toast on Sunday, the campus was clean and tidy for their celebration, thanks to the hard work of the University’s all-but-invisible “house elves.”

Members of the Class of 2020 toss their caps at the end of their belated Commencement ceremony on Oct. 10.

Members of the Class of 2020 toss their caps at the end of their belated Commencement ceremony on Oct. 10. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)