It will all be over in 90 minutes.
“You stand out here in the midst of all this,” said Clarence Wyatt, Centre College history professor and vice-presidential debate steering committee chairman, pausing as he surveyed a landscape outside the Norton Center of the Arts lined with television lights.
“Pick a metaphor. It’s like you are about to deliver a child you have been preparing nine months to welcome or Christmas morning when you get to finally open the presents.”
Almost a year to the day since the college announced the debate was “in the bag” on Halloween, months of unseen work will culminate Thursday with the world watching. There is nervous anticipation mixed with satisfaction for those who orchestrated the event — a team mostly intact since Centre hosted the vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman 12 years ago. It was a long road from what was considered a successful debate in 2000.
Apart from the immediate rewards of the debate, whether meted out in headlines or one-of-a-kind chances to host a bit of history, the school believes it made big gains.
School officials give the event part of the credit for a surge in student applications, particularly from out of state, that has allowed the school to increase enrollment and fund $100 million in projects to accommodate the growth.
The cost of hosting the debate, this time reported to be about $3.3 million, was seen as another investment in the future of the school and opportunity to host a piece of history.
The school first made landing a debate a priority when Centre President John Roush arrived in 1998 from the University of Richmond in Virginia. As a vice president there, he had helped lure and put on one of the 1992 presidential debates among Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.
In an interview last year shortly after Centre won this year’s debate, Wyatt recalled the compelling case Roush made for having debates on the Centre campus.
Since 2000, Centre had tried hard to land another debate, including being named an alternate site in 2008.
With the 9 p.m. start of today’s debate nearing, Roush, a former football player and coach, said, “It’s kind of like game day, only it’s a game day that takes place over 48-72 hours,” Roush said. “You’ve done a lot of planning, and now it’s simply about reacting to anything that might arise.”
Centre Student Life Director Ann Young, another veteran of the last debate, was charged with finding a slightly smaller number of volunteers — about 400 total, including 250 students. Members of the six-person information technology services team at the school were all back to help set up two one-gigabit systems completely independent of Centre’s own Internet capabilities.
Art Moore, Centre’s information technology director, said it has been busy but not hectic as the massive infrastructure has been put in place. While he and others on the IT staff are happy with the way things have gone, he also is mindful that things must be largely returned to normal for academic and athletic use by early next week.
Richard Trollinger co-chaired the debate committee with Wyatt in 2000 and has again been in on much of the planning from the time the school decided to apply for another debate. He said the magnitude of the collaborative effort during the last 12 months has begun to sink in.
“You reach a certain point where everything comes together and you feel very good about it, the hard work of so many people,” Trollinger said. “It’s hard to find those moments to enjoy it, but you try to take a moment every day to say, ‘Wow, this is really happening. Everybody did what they were supposed to, and this has really come together.’”
It is evident from the tone of anyone involved with the event they won’t relax until late tonight. Avoiding the small mistake that could look large under the national spotlight is still a concern.
Wayne King, Centre’s facilities director, is another name from the 2000 debate team who is reprising his role as the conductor of some of the more daunting under-the-radar tasks. He helped oversee the installation and control of a seven-generator system that serves as a duplicate of the debate hall’s internal grid, which was tested on Wednesday without incident.
Although King said there have been few problems considering the many new challenges the event has presented this time, he wasn’t taking a smooth debate-eve for granted.
“It’s not over until they say it’s over and we flip off the last light,” King said.