Inside Hard Rock Stadium’s flip from Orange Bowl to Dolphins-Bills

Hard Rock Stadium has its hands full this weekend. (Getty Images)

MIAMI GARDENS—When fans get into Hard Rock Stadium for the Dolphins’ season finale Sunday afternoon, they’ll hardly be able to tell that 65,000 rabid college football fans partied there late into the previous night for the Orange Bowl.

“You hope they don’t,” said Todd Boyan, the man overseeing what will be a massive changeover. “You hope when people come in it’s clean… The mission is not to see any of that.”

The “mission” for Boyan, the vice president of stadium operations, is to navigate hosting the University of Miami and Wisconsin for Saturday night’s Orange Bowl, then have the facility ready for Dolphins-Bills the following afternoon. Other than the faint “greened out” hash marks from the college field, it should look like any other Dolphins game.

The stadium likely won’t clear out from the bowl game, replete with a halftime show and post-game ceremony, until after midnight. Dolphins players and staff likely will begin arriving around noon Sunday, leaving a window of about 12 hours for a crew of approximately 400 people to get every aspect of the building flipped—switching out signage, clearing the parking lots, converting merchandise stores, redressing locker rooms, hauling however much trash 65,000 people produce and prepping the playing field itself.

Hard Rock Stadium isn’t usually in this severe of a time crunch, which became slightly less stressful when the NFL bumped Dolphins-Bills from 1 p.m. to 4:25 p.m. Last year the building had two days in between these games, and it’s a non-issue any year in which the Dolphins end their season on the road. The Orange Bowl used to be played Jan. 1 or later, so this wasn’t a problem then.

The most difficult and most scrutinized element of this operation will be the field, which typically has a large Orange Bowl emblem in the center and Capital One logos on each 25-yard line. They also fully paint an end zone for each school and stage the post-game presentation on the field, but that will be slightly different this year because of the Dolphins playing the next day.

The most noticeable modification related to the tight turnaround will be the change to the end zones. Because each one is 4,800 square feet, the staff would not be able to replace it between games, so the mutually agreed upon solution was to paint them in a way that works for both games: a white argyle pattern similar to the one the Dolphins used for their Monday Night Football game against New England this month.

“It’s the Orange Bowl’s preference to always make the pageantry the best it can be, but we just said we can’t do it,” Dolphins president Tom Garfinkel said. “We just can’t. If the situation was reversed and the NFL game was the night before, we would do the same thing.”

That’s essentially what the grounds crew does when the Hurricanes and Dolphins play back-to-back as well, going with simply MIAMI in the end zones for both games.

For a reference point on how difficult it would be to redo a full end zone, the logo in the center of the field, which is substantially smaller, takes 4-5 hours to pull up, re-sod and repaint. If there’s rain, by the way, Boyan’s crew uses a tent to shelter that part of the field.

While this surely wasn’t great news to the Orange Bowl organizers, they agreed it was the most logical compromise.

“We knew it was important to have a safe field for Dolphins-Bills, so we got together with them and came up with a solution that works for everybody,” spokesman Larry Wahl said. “We’ll do a lot of the team branding on the sidelines and bench areas.”

Dealing with some occasional snags like this is more than worth it for the Orange Bowl considering how much the Dolphins have improved the stadium over the past few years. Those renovations are part of what has kept this game as one of the crown jewels of the college bowl season.

“It’s a big upgrade,” Wahl said. “It’s been well-received by the schools and our key stakeholders. It gives us the wow factor like the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and the game in Atlanta.”

The Orange Bowl will also contain Andy Grammer’s halftime performance and the post-game trophy presentation to the sideline, reducing the amount of foot traffic on the field.

Playing conditions were an issue for Hard Rock Stadium earlier this season when it hosted games on consecutive days, but that problem appears to be solved since switching to a new sod vendor in early November. The Dolphins’ home games after that point have been fine, including the Nov. 19 game against Tampa Bay when the Hurricanes had played the day before.

“It’s not gonna be 500 people dancing on the field because we have to preserve the integrity of the field for Sunday,” Garfinkel said. “We don’t anticipate a problem with the field based on the playing of the game. Obviously if we get torrential downpours during the game, that’s going to affect it to some degree, but we don’t anticipate the game itself causing a problem for the field.”

Another big project is the Orange Bowl’s fan fest, which takes over a section of the parking lot used for Dolphins games. Dismantling that facility begins right around kickoff and it should be cleared out by midnight.

Banners and sideline signage is fairly routine at Hard Rock Stadium because everything the Dolphins use is permanent, and everything the Hurricanes and Orange Bowl utilize are banners that drape over top of that.

“A lot of the stuff that goes up is easily removable,” Boyan said. “There’s a lot of good planning.”

The stadium has three locker rooms: two for NFL teams and an auxiliary one. The Hurricanes usually use the visiting NFL locker room, but for the Orange Bowl the ACC team always goes in the Dolphins’ and the opponent is housed in the other NFL room. Those will be decorated for the Orange Bowl and need to be fully redone for Dolphins-Bills.

One way the Dolphins could attempt to avoid having to rush through this transition would be requesting to play away the final week of the season—there’s no guarantee the NFL would be able to honor that anyway—but that could create a competitive disadvantage for the team. Week 17 is always a divisional matchup, and the Dolphins would rather not play a meaningful game on the road, especially in the northeast at this time of year.

“We prefer not to be playing back-to-back with the Orange Bowl, but obviously the TV contracts dictate the schedules for both sides a lot,” Garfinkel said. “The NFL sets the schedule, not us… We’re not gonna be home every year, so if the NFL is going to schedule us away, we’d rather them do it the years when we have an Orange Bowl close by, and we let them know that.”

As tough as the transition will be this weekend, Boyan and the stadium have tackled bigger challenges. Back when the Marlins played here, they had to convert it from baseball to football and back every August and September.

In September 2014, the venue hosted a Brazil-Colombia soccer match on a Friday night, the Hurricanes’ game the next day and the Dolphins had their opener against New England on Sunday. An estimated total of 200,000 people filed in and out of Hard Rock Stadium.

This one won’t be easy, but it won’t be nearly as strenuous as that weekend. The stadium crew expects everything to go smoothly, and as Boyan said, hopefully no one will be able to tell any of this took place.

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