Why Duke-North Carolina Isn't Necessarily the Best College Hoops Rivalry

Craig MeyerCorrespondent IAugust 10, 2009

As sports fans, we are presented with certain things that are inalienable and sacred truths, especially in the modern age of media where every facet of any sport is manifested into some sort of ranking or list.

A lot of us have been told since we can remember following baseball that the 1927 Yankees boasted the best lineup of all-time, appropriately dubbed "Murderer's Row."

Commemorative specials and documentaries have served as a sort of confirmation to the fact that the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and Giants was the greatest game ever played in the history of football. 

And as far as upsets are concerned, nothing can top the U.S Olympic Hockey Team's paramount win over the U.S.S.R in the 1980 Winter Olympics, the so-called "Miracle on Ice."

Whether through basic repetition or prolonged exposure to these widespread opinions that have subsequently been deemed as undeniable fact, these talking points become something that we resign ourselves to as being matters that are beyond debate.

One of these assertions is that the rivalry between Duke and North Carolina is the best in all of college basketball, and that to believe otherwise is nothing more than unjustified babble.

Any sort of discussion that revolves around the best rivalries in college hoops are usually pretty brief ones, beginning and ending with Duke and Carolina.  It's something that negates many other great adversaries, but for the sake of emphasis and brevity, who can really complain?

After all, no other contests in college sports receive the same level of coverage and media attention that Duke and UNC do, with talking heads rambling on and on about the merits and intensity of this rivalry, coming off with a teary-eyed sense of nostalgia that you would think would warrant the music of a Disney orchestra playing in the background.

We all hear about how these two schools have been battling since 1920, making it one of the oldest in the country.  Everyone finds a way to bring up the fact that the schools are separated by a mere eight miles. 

The images of Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Roy Williams, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, and Tyler Hansbrough are molded into montages harkening back to past glory and triumph that seeps through the minds of every college basketball fan.

The rivalry even has none other than "The Worldwide Leader In Sports" in its proverbial corner, with the tremendous influence of ESPN taking this rivalry to even greater heights.  You'll see ESPN crews and cameras at every matchup between the two schools, flocking to the campuses as if they'd just been told that there were new developments in the Brett Favre saga.

On live TV, you can see Dick Vitale, red-faced and screaming with prepubescent giddiness, pimping clashes between Duke and Carolina as the greatest thing since the invention of electricity, and flatly stating that it is the best rivalry in all of sport.

With all of this seemingly overwhelming evidence supporting the Duke-UNC rivalry as the best in college basketball, one would be led to believe that disagreeing with this notion could only come from someone who is mentally ill. 

Well then check count me among those who don't think of the rivalry that way, and proudly so, because I respectfully disagree.

This opinion of mine doesn't mean that I regard the Duke-North Carolina rivalry as nothing more than an over-hyped, over-analyzed match between two schools that I could honestly care less about.  But it also doesn't mean that my belief should be rendered useless and treated as some sort of cardinal sin because I don't happen to agree with a majority of the punditry.

The fact remains that amidst this love affair between college basketball fans and media with this rivalry, there are some striking realities that work against the thought of Duke and Carolina being the unquestionable best.

For starters, the two schools play in the same conference, something many people see as a strength of the rivalry, but I see as a weakness.

While being in the ACC means that the schools have a commonality with regards to opponents played and geographic proximity, it also means that the two schools have to play each other twice a year. 

Gone with that additional matchup are the notions of "one game deciding it all", and in some years, the presence of bragging rights.  After all, what happens if the two schools split the season series?  Who gets to be deemed as the superior squad?

Some will point to the ACC Tournament Championship Game as a way to break the deadlock, but Duke and UNC have only met in that game once this decade, and only three times in the past 15 years, leaving a lot of people scratching their heads as to who has the upper hand, year after year.

Another reason that this rivalry is as vaunted as it is, is because of what people perceive as gaping fundamental and institutional differences between the two schools.  In short, Duke is seen as the snooty private school with the overflowing endowment, while North Carolina is the state school, the champion of the common people. 

These alleged vast contrasts between the two schools are a major reason why the rivalry is viewed as the epic showdown that it is today.

But in all honesty, looking past all these labels and preconceived notions, how different are Duke and North Carolina?  From this question comes a resounding answer: not that much.

The public versus private debate brings up a wide variety of topics that deserve credence and consideration, many of which deal with the discrepancies between publicly and privately funded entities.

A crucial barometer with regards to this rivalry has to be the athletic budgets of these two athletic departments.  According to the US Department of Education, Duke has an athletic budget of $67.8 million, while North Carolina (a state school, mind you) has a similar budget of $61.2 million. 

Considering all of the chatter and focus given to the supposed differences between Duke and Carolina with the schools' funding, it is all rendered relatively moot after the examination of strikingly similar athletic budgets.

From a more petty standpoint, the idea of Duke being the stuck-up private school is a commonly presented one, with UNC being routinely presented as its foil, a perfect match for a premier rivalry. 

We always hear of the insufferable arrogance of Blue Devil fans, pointing out the fact that their school is the more prestigious academic institution, and that regardless of how their basketball team may perform against the Tar Heels, they have the superior education and intellect.

However, North Carolina prides itself on the fact that it not only is a top-tier university, but it gives itself the title of a "Public Ivy", giving off the impression that it sees itself as much better than "run-of-the-mill" state schools, essentially doing the same thing to other public schools that Duke supposedly does to it.

It begs to ask the question of not who is the snobby private school and who is the disrespected, down-trodden state school, but which school and fan base has its nose hoisted higher in the air?

I don't bring up these things that I see as flaws of a storied rivalry merely for the sake of being a ruthless skeptic with no convictions of his own, but rather because I happen to believe that draped behind this lore of Duke and North Carolina is a rivalry that I view as the best in college basketball.

The rivalry that I'm speaking of is between Louisville and Kentucky.

Granted, I've lived a good majority of my life in Louisville, which is something some people may perceive as inherent bias, but it's given me a glimpse at the inner workings of this intense rivalry and what truly makes these two schools and basketball teams hate each other the way that they do.

For starters, like Duke and North Carolina, the rivalry pits two of college basketball's most storied programs.  Between the two schools, there are a combined nine national championships, one more than Duke and UNC have between the two of them.

The Cardinals and Wildcats possess a similarly impressive cast of legendary characters as the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, featuring Adolph Rupp, Pat Riley, Louie Dampier, Dan Issel, Antoine Walker, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tayshaun Prince for Kentucky, as well as Denny Crum, Darrell Griffith, Pervis Ellison, Wes Unseld, Derek Smith, Terrence Williams, and Pitino (more on that later) for Louisville.

The Battle for the Bluegrass does not have the tradition and long history of games that Duke and UNC do, with a big reason for that being that the rivalry was dormant before 1983 due to Rupp's refusal to play Louisville for reasons that have been widely speculated, but remain largely unknown. 

Decades and decades of not playing one another do hurt the overall scope of the rivalry in a sense, but it does serve as some sort of anecdotal evidence to the depth of the hatred between these two schools.

Unlike Duke and North Carolina, Louisville and Kentucky only play each other once a year, something that not only makes the game that much more intense, but also gives undeniable bragging rights to the winning team for the whole year, even in a season like 1997 when the Wildcats won the National Championship, but lost to the Cardinals 79-76 in the regular season (if you want to take it that far).

Each fan base represents entirely different demographic groups, with Louisville fans chastising Kentucky fans for what they pride themselves for and stand by, with Kentucky fans doing likewise to Louisville fans. 

These issues and debates extend far beyond the basketball court, with the two fan bases arguing on social and political matters revolving around the rivalry, with race being at the forefront.

Many Louisville fans point to the fact that not only was Rupp a well-documented racist, but that his prejudice fueled him in his recruiting efforts as well as his refusal to schedule games against Louisville.  Kentucky fans and backers refute these claims, and are steadfast in their belief that Rupp was not a racist, just a college basketball coaching legend.

Both Louisville and Kentucky are public schools, but there exists a considerable gap in their athletic budgets, with Kentucky's at $71.2 million and Louisville's at $50.8 million, one difference of many between these two schools and programs.

The already heated rivalry spiked even greater when, in what many Wildcats fans see as a Benedict Arnold sort of act of betrayal, Rick Pitino, who had coached Kentucky for eight successful seasons, accepted the job at Louisville in 2001, after stepping down as the head coach of the Boston Celtics. 

Pitino's decision to take the Cardinals job still looms large as a point of contention and has managed to find a way to increase the animosity between these two passionate fan bases and programs.

If the point that I'm trying to make with Louisville and Kentucky's rivalry doesn't come through clearly enough, what I want readers to understand is that the talk of top rivals in any sport shouldn't be so limited. 

The conversation doesn't even end with Louisville and Kentucky when talking about other great rivalries that don't get the publicity of Duke and North Carolina; Xavier and Cincinnati share a heated in-city rivalry; Indiana and Purdue have been going at it for years, as well as the rivalries of Syracuse and Georgetown, Kansas and Missouri, and Philadelphia's famed Big Five.

This assertion of mine may stem from the fact that it is so hard to try to rank and place entities that are as abstract and unquantifiable as the passion and intensity that you find in rivalries.

If anything, I hope that this article can lead people to think and question.  Sports may seem like a trivial matter to some, but the basic principles that revolve around the debate and conversation in sports are the same that you'll find anywhere. 

No matter what aspect of life is being discussed, it is dangerous to just presume that an opinion should exist as a basic truth that is beyond any sort of questioning.

Dissension and critical questioning were key foundations of the founding of this nation, and are necessary elements to a successful government, society, group, or individual mind.

Is Duke-North Carolina rivalry one of the best in college basketball?  Absolutely.  But the best?  Maybe for one person it is, but for the next person, it isn't. Just because figures like Vitale and Billy Packer think something to be so, it doesn't mean that it is. 

When enough people believe in an opinion it gains merit, but in the case of something like the Duke-UNC rivalry, it should never be solidified as undeniable fact, especially in an age of college basketball when so many other great rivalries thrill and electrify fans, even for those who are miles and miles away from Tobacco Road.


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