The North Carolina Tar Heels are basketball royalty and their castle is the Dean E. Smith Center, named for their legendary king. This may be a bit of hyperbole, but if so, it is only by a little bit. The Tar Heels have been one of the most continuously successful programs since Smith took over in 1961 with his protégé, Roy Williams, now following in his footsteps.
One of the reasons behind this success is their home court, at which they have put together an astounding 403-69 record as of late February 2017. Opened in 1986 and dubbed the Dean Dome for its unique roof, the Smith Center is known as one of the must-see venues in college basketball.
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Concessions at the Smith Center are basic, with most permanent stands, called the Courtside Café, offering much the same thing at reasonable prices. A chicken sandwich (either Bojangles or Chick-fil-A) with chips is $7, as is an Angus cheeseburger, also with chips. A hot dog is only $5 while a Papa John's pizza is $8, both without chips. A variety of $5 snacks includes a popcorn bucket (double that for the souvenir version), nachos, pretzels, cotton candy, and a cup of Munchkins, Dunkin' Donuts' donut holes.
There are a few portable stands including one selling Mexican food such as tacos and burritos, while another offers "World Famous" pork tots for $8, again including chips.
Beer is not sold in the stands here, so you will have to make do with Coca-Cola products. A souvenir cup is $7, a regular fountain pour is $5, and a 500ml bottle is $4, as is a bottle of water.
One thing to note is that concession lines do get long as the crowd files in, so get your food early to maximize your time wandering the concourse.
The experience of attending a Tar Heels game begins as soon as you arrive on campus. After exiting your vehicle, you will join dozens of fans, each clad in Carolina Blue, making their way towards the Smith Center. As you near the venue, more and more fans will fall in line and as one, you will converge on the main entrance. It is like a religious ceremony where everyone comes from a different direction to be baptized.
Inside, the Carolina Blue motif continues unabated. Concession signs, posters, placards, railings, nearly everything is painted this color. Of course, every seat in the place is also Carolina Blue, creating quite a nice sight. Since nearly every fan is similarly attired, the effect is not lost even when seats are half filled prior to the game.
Look up to the rafters and be amazed at the number of banners on display. There are 51 honored jerseys and several retired numbers in one section, ACC championships in another, and national titles in another. Try not to hurt your neck, as it will take a couple of minutes to really appreciate all that is being celebrated here.
There are two levels of seating at the Smith Center, both accessed by a single concourse. There are no suites, so even upper deck seats in the first few rows are close to the action.
There is no center scoreboard, which adds to the acoustic capabilities. Above each corner of the upper bowl is a video board; two of them show game statistics while the other two show replays. A ribbon board along the façade that separates the two levels includes the score, game clock, and more game stats.
Students can now stand courtside, and this improves the overall atmosphere. The band is in one corner section of the court and they also play throughout the game to keep things hopping, as does Rameses the Ram, the mascot who can be seen on the floor urging the team on to victory.
Before the game, one side of the court yells "TAR!" and the other replies "HEELS!" If that doesn't get you in the mood for some basketball, nothing will.
The Smith Center is located on the south side of the UNC campus and there is not much in the immediate vicinity. Still, the campus itself is quite nice and worth a stroll if you arrive early. In terms of pregame hangouts, the best area is Franklin Street, about a mile north of the arena. Here you will find Top of the Hill, a large bar/restaurant that can be very crowded on game days. Across the street you can find at least three more sports bars: Spanky's, which had a large lineup, the R&R Grill, and the Four Corners Grille.
As you move west along Franklin, you can enjoy fast food staples such as McDonalds, Jimmy John's, Chipotle, and Panera interspersed with local eateries such as Crook's Corner (for Southern eats). Ethnic options include Lantern (Asian), Kipos Greek Taverna, and Cholaland (South Indian) among many others.
So although you might have to walk a bit to and from the stadium, Chapel Hill offers something for everyone.
Capacity here is 21,750 and nearly every ACC game is sold out. Those in attendance are loud, well behaved, and in love with their team. When the Tar Heels are introduced and the C-A-R-O-L-I-N-A flags are brought onto the floor, everyone stands. Once the game begins, people watch astutely. They know their hoops here and few get up during the action in case they might miss yet another highlight reel dunk.
In the past, the Dean Smith Center had a reputation of being an easy place to play with quiet, detached fans, but that is no longer true. With sound measurements in excess of 100dB, fans bring the noise here.
If there is one flaw here, it is the access, both inside and out. Parking is relatively easy, with signs guiding you to the lots, though expect traffic if you arrive closer to game time. The Bell Tower lot, so named for its proximity to the Bell Tower, is $5 and the cheapest option on game day. From there, take the pedestrian bridge on the 4F to reach Franklin Street, or exit at ground level to walk down to the Smith Center.
When you reach the main entrance of the venue, expect long lines. With over 20,000 fans trying to enter, it can take a while but there is a separate line for those without bags, which moves a lot quicker, so keep that knapsack at home to speed up your entry.
Inside, the single concourse is very crowded as you might expect. Concession stand lineups take up some of the space and it can take a while to walk around. Similarly, restrooms can get very busy, even before the game, so factor that into your planning. Inside the seating bowl, legroom is adequate and there are no cupholders.
After the game, expect a long walk back to your car as fans crowd sidewalks and staircases for the first quarter mile, at least as you walk north. Once out on the street, a traffic jam will slow you in town, and then again along Route 54 until you reach I-40, should you be driving that way.
Face value for tickets here is hard to determine for conference contests. Lower bowl seats are held by season ticket holders and difficult to acquire unless they are sold on the secondary market for a substantial markup. I did see an upper level ticket priced at $55, but this was in a scalper's hand and he was not charging such a reasonable price. The team does release tickets that have been returned by the visiting team at 5pm the day before the game, and this is probably the only way you will find something at face value. For non-conference play, you can get in for a lot less.
With parking and food affordable, tickets are going to be your main expense, but as a stadium traveler, one you should be willing to pay. The school has an arrangement with StubHub, so plan in advance and if you see a deal online take it as demand certainly exceeds supply outside the stadium on game day.
The Carolina Basketball Museum is located on the first floor of the Ernie Williamson Athletics Center and is a must-visit before the game. Check for their business hours (they remain open late for night games) and make sure to arrive early enough to allow at least 30 minutes to see everything, including displays honoring Michael Jordan, Dean Smith, and many other past legends.
Atop the concourse walls are photos of past teams that you can enjoy as you inch your way around.
The hundred or more banners in the rafters are worth a point here, as is the fact that the loudspeakers and rafters are also painted Carolina Blue, which completes the monochromatic effect perfectly.
As the players leave the court, they perform a floor dive in unison, something that I have never seen elsewhere and is quite entertaining.
From a FANFARE point of view, the Smith Center has a couple of weaknesses, but this should not dissuade you from attending. Plan in advance, get your tickets early, and don't bring a bag, and you should avoid the problems of getting in and around. Tour the museum to get indoctrinated in the religion of Carolina basketball and then worship at one of the best college hoops experiences around.
For the uninitiated guest, the walk up Skipper Bowles Drive and into the Dean Smith Center "" UNC's beloved "Dean Dome," home for the school's basketball teams and commencement ceremonies "" is a bit underwhelming. From the outside, it's another blocky brick relic of 80s-era architectural efficiency. Once inside, the worn, brownish concrete and fading Carolina blue paint complete the visual buzzkill...
And then you catch sight of that court.
It's only polished hardwood and Carolina blue, the same as the hallways that were putting your gameday high to sleep a second ago "" only now you couldn't possibly imagine college basketball in any other color. You've seen the stills and the videos, decades of archived footage punctuated by legendary names from Phil Ford, James Worthy, and Michael Jordan to Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, and Tyler Hansbrough.
Those first three played in the Carmichael Auditorium, of course, but it looks exactly the same.
From the museum next door to the promotional movies shown during TV timeouts and down to that Carolina blue, the Dean Dome experience is a baptism in the Tar Heels' rich basketball tradition.
Bland arena, annoying fans who think they're better than everyone because they couldn't get in to Duke. The student section sits in the second level. This is a venue for old people who don't really care. Very expensive tickets for an arena that seats 18,000.
There are plenty of stadiums and arenas that are overrated because the home team is good. This is one of them.
The food and beverage inside the Dean E. Smith Center, aka, Dean Dome is typical food fare. However, with the restaurants around the campus there is really no need to focus on the concessions once inside the Smith Center.
The Dean Dome has the potential to have a great atmosphere with the 22,000 Carolina Blue seats, the championship banners, the history of the Carolina greats banners hanging from the rafters.A great college basketball atmosphere begins with the student body which UNC has a great one as they are definitely the loudest section, however, the crazy seating set up, of donors over students, keeps the UNC students from being on the same level as their rival over in Durham. For my first trip, I was pleasantly surprise at the easy access to the Dean Dome even though I parked at the baseball stadium, a short walk from the Dome. The history of Carolina basketball makes attending a Carolina basketball game in the Dean Dome a bucket list item for the college basketball fan.
The Dean Smith Center, or Dean Dome as it is colloquially known, is named after UNC’s legendary coach Dean Smith, who led the Tar Heels to two national championships, and coached the U.S. men's basketball team to a gold medal in 1976. Smith won the national Coach of the Year award four times, and is the fourth-winningest coach all time for men's Division I college basketball.
Prior to Dean Smith's arrival at UNC, the Tar Heels had a mediocre basketball program at best, so it was really his unprecedented success that created the need for the new arena. Smith coached at the Dean Dome for 11 years, making him one of a handful of coaches to coach at a venue named in his or her honor (similar to Bill Snyder at Kansas State, for example).
In full disclosure, I'm not a fan of anything Carolina, so take that into consideration with my review. Carolina always has talent on the floor, but lacks enthusiasm in the stands and often lacks attendance. Sure they get up for a great rivalry game, but their fans often don't show up otherwise. The facility itself is nice, albeit average, and appropriately named for a great coach and gentleman. Nothing special about the arena beyond the name.
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