Duke-North Carolina Rivalry: Sociology of the Triangle's War
The following was written in December 2008 for a class I took at Duke during my senior year called "Anthropology of Sports."
Thousands of miles away from Corvallis, Oregon, where the latest edition of the Civil War football game between Oregon and Oregon State was taking place, I sat in front of my TV pondering why that rivalry had been dubbed the “Civil War.” As I laughed to myself over how the phrase “civil war” was an oxymoron, I wondered why the term had been applied to the game between the Ducks and Beavers, and not another rivalry. Of course, I immediately started thinking of my own rivalry: Duke vs. North Carolina.
The Tar Heels had defeated my Blue Devils earlier that day in the Victory Bell game, our final game of the season. There was no love lost between any of us in the stands, and I felt nothing but a corrosive hatred towards the thousands of Carolina fans who had come to Duke’s campus to see the game that day as I walked out.
Of course, I knew the reasons why. As I sat there watching Oregon dismantle Oregon State’s hopes at a Rose Bowl bid, I knew why the term “civil war” could not possibly apply to the Tobacco Road rivalry.
This was not a battle between brothers, between equals, between partners in life. The people on the other side of the field wearing light blue seemed a world away from those of us in Duke’s student section. There was very little commonality between us, and that fact reaches to the core of this rivalry. The Duke/North Carolina rivalry was born not only from success and geographical proximity, but also along lines of social class, economics, culture, and sectionalism.
Most rivalries have their origins in success; this one is no different. Duke and North Carolina both rank in the top five in terms of all-time wins by an NCAA men’s basketball team through 2008.
Obviously, with this level of success and the fact the teams are so close to each other geographically (separated, as ESPN ’s opening segment for the games often puts it, “by eight miles and a shade of blue”), the sustaining of a rivalry seems natural.
However, this alone does not account for how the rivalry was transformed from a regional squabble to the most followed college basketball series in the nation. Simply looking at the characteristics of each school provides insight. North Carolina is a public, state-supported school; over 80 percent of its undergraduate student body is comprised of North Carolina residents.
Because of this, UNC has created deep connections with many North Carolina residents; one would be hard-pressed to find anyone originally from the state that does not at least know someone with a UNC connection.
Duke, on the other hand, is a private institution that relies heavily on its endowment, which draws funds from individual donors. Only about 15% of its undergraduates are from North Carolina.
When I attended high school in Mt. Ulla, North Carolina (an unincorporated rural community outside of Salisbury), the Carolina connections seemed to be everywhere. The majority of those students who finished in the top twelve of my graduating class ultimately attended UNC, and many of those either had a family member who was an alumnus or knew someone that did.
I chose Duke solely because of my own ambition, not due to anything I had heard from those I knew. The only person I knew with any Duke connections was my pediatrician, who was a DukeMed graduate. To me, Duke was a total unknown, and it remained that until my first day as a freshman.
My experience, then, seemed to be typical of many North Carolina teenagers—except, of course, for the fact I chose Duke over UNC.
This “natives vs. outsiders” dynamic has seemed to be a major driving force in the rivalry, as no one around me growing up had a clue what Duke was about, save for its basketball program. To many North Carolina residents, the Tar Heels represent the state, but the Blue Devils just happen to be in the state.
As author Will Blythe puts it, “To legions of otherwise reasonable adults, it is a conflict that surpasses sports; it is locals against outsiders, elitists against populists, even good against evil.” His quote brings up another key element to the rivalry: social class.
“Us Against Them”
As I walked up the stairs of Wallace Wade Stadium, leaving my final Duke football game as an undergraduate, I heard the North Carolina band striking up the familiar strains of their fight song as the Victory Bell rang. As a North Carolina native, I couldn’t help but to follow along with the words in my head: “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die I’ll be a Tar Heel dead!” Indeed, the “Tar Heel born” mentality seems to be very pervasive among the legions of Carolina fans.
Mike Corey, a columnist for GoDuke.com , discussed this phenomenon of how these feelings manifest themselves: “If you’re born in Chapel Hill, for example, you’re ‘Tar Heel born and Tar Heel dead.’ Irish? Italian? Indian? Irrelevant. Your parents were UNC grads, you grew up cheering for Michael Jordan, and you ended up graduating from UNC, as well. You had no choice but to be a Tar Heel. It was in your blood.”
This seems to be something many Tar Heel fans have in common: “I’m a North Carolina native, therefore North Carolina is my team.”
But, why not Duke? Other than the name, why can’t Duke represent the people of the state just as much as UNC?
Other than geography, the major issue is social class. Again, looking at the demographics of the two schools is a good starting point. More than half of Duke undergraduates pay the entire near-$50,000/year cost of attendance without any kind of financial aid. Total costs at UNC for a North Carolina resident are under $17,000/year.
Because of this, North Carolina is seen as an accessible school for those in the state who do well in high school. Although Duke offers extensive financial aid, it is still seen by Carolina fans as a school largely meant for wealthy families, usually from out-of-state. I once had an angry Heels fan call me and other Duke students something along the lines of “rich Manhattan daddy’s boys.” (Likewise, Duke fans often see UNC supporters as something akin to backwards country bumpkins.) Duke is seen as a school surrounded by money, privilege, and prestige.
Blue Devils simply weren’t “born” as Tar Heels were – they were “made.” The average person growing up in North Carolina would grow up having a multitude of people around him or her with UNC connections, or being taught that UNC reflected the state as a whole; famed journalist Charles Kuralt, a North Carolina native, called UNC “the university of the people.”
With the completely different sense of socioeconomics that surrounded the two schools, the attitude of UNC as the “people’s school” has become so pervasive that it is reasonably difficult to grow up in North Carolina and not be a “Tar Heel bred.”
Mike Corey also describes this idea of Blue Devils being “made”: “Maybe you fell in love with Grant Hill or Shane Battier, thanks to the power of ESPN. Or perhaps Duke was the best school to which you were admitted as a high school senior. But being a small private school without broad market appeal, few other than the children of alums or professors are ‘born’ as Blue Devils.”
Corey seemed to hit the nail on the head, at least as far as I went; I became a Duke fan solely because I was admitted and ultimately attended. By contrast, many of those I knew who attended UNC had deep Carolina roots in their families.
Duke did not appeal to one region or one culture, as UNC did. Looking at Duke’s demographics, the distribution of undergraduates’ homes is fairly evenly spread throughout the nation. Duke fans do not have a regional culture or identity to cling to; UNC fans, on the other hand, pride supporting the Tar Heels as a component of Southern identity.
Let The Games Begin
These attitudes among the fans have manifested themselves in many ways when the actual games take place. During the last Victory Bell game at Wallace Wade Stadium, approximately half the crowd was made up of Tar Heel supporters—at a home game for Duke! However, at the 2007 game at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill (which I attended), Duke fans were much more scarce.
In theory, two major universities that are only eight miles apart should have many fans from both sides present at sporting contests between the schools; in practice, this is not the case.
This is a reflection of the pervasiveness of the “Tar Heel born” idea in North Carolina, as well as Corey’s point that Duke is “a small private school without broad market appeal.” In-state, few people seem to become Duke fans without some sort of connection to the school—which few North Carolinians seem to have.
I was unfortunate enough to become a Duke student just as the balance of power seemed to be shifting on Tobacco Road. Directly prior to my acceptance at Duke, the Blue Devils had won 14 of the past 16 basketball games against the Tar Heels. Since then, North Carolina has won five out of eight. I discussed the subject with a Carolina student I met at a College Republicans convention: “You had your decade of dominance. It’s our turn now,” he said.
Duke had an incredible string of success from 1985 to 2004; this included 10 Final Four appearances, seven national title game appearances, and three national championships. This success led many North Carolina fans to see Duke fans as having a sense of entitlement; the idea was that Duke supporters were absolutely convinced they were the true royalty of college basketball.
When this idea was combined with the perception of Duke as a school known for elitist “outsiders” and intellectualism (perhaps to the point of snobbery), Duke became seen as a school (and basketball program) so far above the pack that many were eagerly awaiting its downfall—especially North Carolina fans.
Although North Carolina has made the rivalry much more competitive in recent years, both UNC and all other schools that play Duke set off wild celebrations if they come out of the game with a victory against the Blue Devils. Perhaps Duke fans were right in their perceptions; even if Duke is having a subpar season, teams facing Duke seem not to see that when they take the court – they see the history and the legend of Duke basketball.
The concept of wanting to see those at the top fall is a very common idea in human psychology, and has shown itself in many areas in the rivalry. CBS sponsored a “March Madness” application on the social networking site Facebook during the 2008 NCAA Tournament; Duke and UNC ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on this list of teams people hated the most. The fact that the two schools are the objects of hatred not only from each other, but from the whole nation, makes the rivalry that much more important.
When Duke and UNC play, supporters are very polarized, not only due to their hatred, but also due to their team loyalties; Duke and North Carolina were recently ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in a recent Harris Poll of college basketball fans’ favorite teams. These sorts of numbers confirm that Duke and North Carolina are indeed basketball royalty, even though Duke does not get as much local support as UNC.
Many followers of the rivalry see a victory over the other side as a victory over not only a rival, but a victory over the best. Being the team to knock off such a powerhouse program, and being its rival to boot, is a feeling Duke and UNC supporters seek every time the teams face each other.
This extends to life outside of sports; the quest for dominance over a worthy rival has been evident in everything from “We’ll employ you” chants of Cameron Crazies directed at UNC students to speculation that disgraced attorney Mike Nifong’s handling of the infamous Duke lacrosse case had to do with his status as a UNC alum (and, as such, possibly wishing to bring down Duke). This spillover is what Will Blythe calls “choosing teams in life.”
How North Carolinians choose their teams in life, as well as on the basketball court, will continue to be shaped by culture, as so many phenomena in sports are.
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