Why Duke-UNC Basketball Is the Greatest Rivalry in All of Sports

Mike CarleyCorrespondent IMarch 4, 2009

Allow me to channel my inner 10th grader and begin this article as such: Webster’s Dictionary defines a rivalry as a “competitive or antagonistic state or condition.”  Doesn’t sound like exactly the most appealing “state or condition” to find oneself in does it?

An “antagonistic state” in a relationship would illustrate a situation where your significant other hurls projectiles at your head every time you gingerly cross the threshold.

Such a state in international politics would illustrate a condition of either constant or constantly impending warfare.

Such a state in Xbox Live would be the Madden player with vast amounts football knowledge and skill being beaten by a mongoloid who plays with the best team in the game and finds one unstoppable play out of 5 WRs set and runs on-the-ball offense all game and invariable ends up in 4th and inches every series and gets it every time and makes me want to run towards the nearest living thing and extinguish its life force.

Regardless, if we are to accept the above definition, a “rivalry” seems like a rather unpleasant and avoidable endeavor whose very existence should invoke misery and lamentation.

However, like with so many other things, sports has become the filter that makes the ordinarily unacceptable acceptable, allowing us to indulge in the raw and unbridled human emotions that would usually be repugnant or even socially prohibited in every day life.

Sports allow us to “hate” without truly hating.

Let’s take a step back and examine just how significant that accomplishment truly is.  Cowboys fans say the “hate” Redskins fans.  Yankees fans say they “hate” Red Sox fans.  But is this truly hate?

Agamemnon hated Paris and the Trojans.  Jewish people hated Hitler and the Nazis.  Michael Scott hated Toby Flenderson.  THAT is true hate.

We call the feelings between rival sports teams and fans “hate,” but in reality it is at most a brittle façade of that powerful emotion. 

As a Dodger fan, do I “hate” seeing Giants fans in Chavez Ravine?  Do I “hate” the drunk dude in front of me who turns around and screams GO GIANTS in my face every time they do something good?  Absolutely.

Would I knowingly choose to not save the life of a Giants fan in a fire if I had the chance?  Would I seriously take joy in seeing gruesome bodily harm come to another human being just because they cheered for a different team?  Absolutely not.

Therein lies the rub.  Rivalries in sports allow us to indulge in the guilty and primal feelings of what we could call “hate” and “rage” without truly surrendering oneself to such unpleasant and bellicose states of mind that would be ordinarily unacceptable or flat out deplorable in all other theaters of life. 

This is why rivalries are so celebrated in sports, because they lend us emotional peaks and valleys that would be unreachable watching a regular matchup.

Dodgers-Giants is more fun to watch for anybody than Dodgers-Royals.  Vikings-Bears is more fun to watch for anybody than Vikings-Jets.  Lakers-Celtics has such a broader national appeal than Lakers-Magic.

Amazingly, rivalries make people excited about teams they ordinarily wouldn’t be excited about.  Doesn’t sound very unpleasant to me.

Rivalries in any sport rise and fall according to constantly fluctuating talent levels between teams (i.e. Lakers-Kings was an AWESOME rivalry for 3-4 years at the turn of the millennia, but by no means would you consider it a “historic” rivalry).

However, there are a few select rivalries that have withstood the test of time, a few select teams that have been electrifying fan bases and polarizing cities for as long as professional sports has existed.

I would pose that there are three essential components that make any rivalry great:

1.  Historical Context: how long has this rivalry been played?  How long have these teams/fan bases “hated” each other?

2.  Competitive Balance: the Harlem Globetrotters have been playing the Washington Generals for almost a century.  The Generals have won exactly once.  I wouldn’t call that a rivalry.

Not only is the split between teams important, but one must take into account how well they perform against the rest of the league they are in. Considering both factors would determine how “important” each rivalry game is.  Nobody cares about Bengals-Browns if they are both 1-12  every time they face each other.

3. Localized Intensity Translating to National Appeal:  I highly anticipate getting blasted on the comments board by die hard fans of one team or another due to this exact fact.  Tons of rivalries are beyond intense where the rivalry takes place, but really don’t translate to broad national appeal. 

I live in Las Vegas.  UNLV and BYU fans HATE each other.  I highly doubt anybody in New York is updating the UNLV-BYU conference championship game every two minutes on espn.com.  If non-fans of either team living 2,000 miles away will go out of their way to either turn on the game or check the score, then you truly have a great rivalry.

Judging by the above criteria, I will argue that the greatest rivalry in all of sports is unequivocally Duke-UNC men’s college basketball.  But before we examine why, let’s break down the other historically significant rivalries in professional sports to see where/why they fall short of the legend that is Duke-UNC.

LAKERS-CELTICS – Historical Context

In the 80’s, this was one of the most amazing rivalries in all of sports.  It put the NBA on the national stage in a way it had never been before.  It has the star power, the competitive balance, and had phenomenal national appeal.  But the NBA has been around a lot long than 10 years.

Aside from that period (and a yet-to-be-seen-but-very-possible resurgence in the next few years), it was basically Bill Russell rampaging through the league eating up championships like Sour Patch Kids, or Shaq and Kobe strangling the life out of the entire league while making the Eastern Conference 100% irrelevant for a 3 year period with the Celts wallowing in the draft lottery. 

I cannot deny that this is the best rivalry in the NBA between unarguably 2 of the 3 most marquee teams in the league.  However, very rarely in the history of these storied franchises have they both been championship contenders in the same year, and that is the problem.

YANKEES-RED SOX – Competitive Balance

The past 4 years aside, I think this goes without saying.  As a Dodger fan I could talk for hours on how amazing Dodgers-Giants is as a rivalry, with history dating back almost as far as Yankees Red Sox, but this northeastern throw down is unequivocally the greatest rivalry in all of baseball.  The hate is palpable between the fan bases.  They have been playing this rivalry longer than any other on this list. 

However, last few years aside, the Curse of the Bambino casts a pall over an otherwise brilliant rivalry.  The Red Sox didn’t win a title for 86 years, and were handed many a post-season defeat by none other than the hated Yankees.  Such a long-period of one-sided success really is a black eye for this storied battle.

A different point in the same vein: the very nature of baseball deadens the intensity of this rivalry.  While the season-long soap opera in the standings between the two ball clubs is compelling, the teams play against each other like 736 times a year.  How intense really is one individual Yankees-Red Sox game?  How long do fans in this rivalry have to wait to avenge a backbreaking defeat?  Usually only a single day (and if they fail then they get another shot the day after). 

Imagine watching one regular season Red Sox Yankees game, when you know they have 4-5 more series’ against each other coming up yet to be played.  Now imagine watching one regular season college football match up between Michigan and Ohio State, with a Big Ten title on the line and not another shot to avenge victory for an entire year.  The comparison is not even close.  This illustration also provides a nice segue into my next discussion.

– Local vs. National Appeal

These are the fan bases I was most terrified of when I decided to write this article. College football rivalries are UNQUESTIONABLY more intense than anything on this list.  The history of various universities provides the historical context.  The feeling of loyalty to one’s school provides the ridiculous fanaticism.  The fact that teams will typically only get to play each other ONCE in a 12 month time period lends each chapter in these rivalries a RIDICULOUS level of intensity.  A horrid loss will linger and putrefy in the hearts of a fan base for an entire agonizing year before their squad gets another shot to make things right, and that is ridiculously brutal.

However, due to the regionalized nature of football itself, I don’t think college football rivalries gain nearly the national appeal of others on this list.  Aside from the few out-of-conference games in a season, teams only play teams inside of the what-I-would-guess-to-be 500 mile radius of their conference. 
Teams from the Pac-10 don’t have to cross the Mississippi River for an overwhelming majority of their season. 

When Florida played Oklahoma for the national title this season, it is the first time those two teams have played….ever.  Two of the most historically significant programs ever, and they had never played once in the 119 years the schools have been contemporaries.

When is the last time somebody living in Utah saw Ohio State play in person?
I grew up in Los Angeles, and I saw North Carolina basketball play, in person, not once but twice (once against USC, once against UCLA).  Outside of the Rose Bowl, I really can’t imagine having a chance to see anybody but Pac-10 teams play in person.

Any average fan without satellite TV probably won’t get to see too many other great rivalries outside their conference because all college games are played on the same day.

Chances are if you are watching your team/whatever team they show in the market you live in, you aren’t getting a chance to revel in all the other amazing rivalries in the game.  Hardcore LSU fans aren’t going to go out of their way to watch Michigan-OSU if it means missing an LSU you, and because in football all games are played on the same day, unfortunately fans are forced to make choices like that.  In sports where games are spread out through the week, fans can take the time to enjoy other compelling match ups outside of their favorite squads on nights that their team isn’t playing.  Football doesn’t leave fans with that luxury sometimes.

For that reason, is Michigan-OSU really that much quantifiably better than the Red River Shootout, or Alabama-Auburn, or Florida-Florida State?  I bet you would get different answers in Texas, Ohio, and Alabama.

Because of that, I would argue that not one singular rivalry (not even Michigan-OSU) could be named the greatest in all of college football, let alone in all of sports.

and PACKERS-BEARS – Localized Intensity vs. National Appeal

After much deliberation, I have narrowed the NFL rivalries down to these two as the most significant.  However, much of the same points used against the college football rivalries can be re-applied back to the League.

The intensity of each game is unreal because division rivals only get to see each other twice a year.

However, due to the very small number of games, very few non-division rivalries exist. Also, the NFL is arguably the most inaccessible professional sport to go to for the common fan due to the small number of games and ridiculously high comparative ticket prices.

The largest blight on these rivalries, however, is that unless they are featured in Prime Time and/or a motivated individual has the NFL package on DirecTV, any fan in any other market will never get to see these epic battles realized.  All NFL games (Prime Time aside) are played on Sunday, making it almost impossible for the average fan in Kansas City to watch his Chiefs play on one day, and get to devote 100% of his attention to enjoying one of these otherwise sterling rivalries the following day.

I love watching the Dallas Cowboys more than anything on Earth.  I am a bigger NFL fan than anything.  However, the comparative inaccessibility of the NFL game to the average fan really limits the realization of the national appeal that rivalries this intense and storied truly deserve.


I am not a hockey hater.  However, I will admit I know absolutely nothing about hockey.  I can appreciate the skills it takes to play but I just can’t get into the NHL.  What I do know is this: whatever the greatest rivalry in all of hockey is, if games have to be played outside in the snow on HD to be televised on anything more prime time than OLN, than your sport can’t hold the greatest rivalry in all of sports.

There.  Successfully weaseled my way out of talking about the NHL.  Always a blessing.

Logically, after discussing why all other rivalries aren’t the greatest in all of sports, its time to examine why the throw down on Tobacco Road is worthy of such an enviable mantle.


College basketball has the perfect structure to allow the intensity in this epic engagement to reach Olympian elevations.  The games are spread throughout the week, allowing the average fan access to watch a much greater number of teams than in football, increasing the national appeal.

The teams only play 2-3 times a year, making each individual game absurdly important and intense.

However, Duke-UNC trumps all other rivalries for these reasons:

Historical Context: These two universities have been playing twice a year since January 24th, 1920.  The fact that these are two universities instead of professional teams allows this rivalry to become rich with wrinkles and sub-plots unique to the college game, such as the difference in funding (public school vs. private school), the fanatic loyalty of college fans, and the fact that these teams play a paltry 8 miles apart. 

Wikipedia starts listing their memorable games and moments in 1968, and has one for seemingly every year until 2007.  This hatred has ancient roots indeed (in basketball terms at least; ancient might be excessive with the hyperbole as I sincerely doubt Plato ever but his love for the Tar Heels in his famous epistles).

Competitive Balance:  No other rivalry in sports has a competitive balance as equal as Duke and UNC, nor does any rivalry have opponents as consistently dominant against other opponents apart from their arch nemesis.  The numbers are staggering.
North Carolina has appeared in 17 Final Fours, Duke in 14.  Those numbers are good for, say, 1st and 3rd in all of college basketball.

Carolina has 4 National Championships (4th all time), and Duke has 3 (tied for 5th all time).

In their 89 year history, Duke and Carolina have combined to win an astonishing 79% (!!!) of the regular season ACC titles, and have combined to win 59% of the ACC Tournament Titles.

The dominance these two teams have consistently shown against the rest of college basketball is unprecedented.  Take a look at those figures again.  The implications are unheard of.

For the entirety of the rivalry’s existence, the outcome of the Duke-UNC match ups have decided the ACC regular season title almost 80% of the time.

The last time these two teams played and were both unranked? 1955.

The battles between these rivals are absurdly competitive as well.  North Carolina leads the overall series 129-97.  A 30 game lead in a series where 226 games have been played and talent fluctuates as much as in college basketball is nothing.  These games include years where one team was ranked and one team wasn’t.  Yankees-Red Sox had an 86 year period of one-sided dominance.  30 games on UNC’s behalf is laughable in comparison.

However, in the 65 times the teams have met when both were ranked in the top 25, North Carolina leads the series…..33-32.

No other rivalry is as dominant against other competition, or as consistently well-balanced and competitive between the rivals, as Duke-UNC.  Period.

Local Intensity vs. National Appeal:  The duality inherent in this rivalry is beautiful when it comes to this point.  The teams are freaking 8 miles apart.  Nobody outside of that county, let alone that state would care about this rivalry if it wasn’t justifiably epic.  Every time these teams play, the games are some of the highest rated college games shown every single season.

The ridiculous amount of star power that has flown into this rivalry in the past 30 years has sent the national appeal of this event skyrocketing. 

Michael Jordan.  Grant Hill.  Sam Perkins.  James Worthy.  Elton Brand.  Vince Carter.  Trajan Langdon (trying to see if you are still paying attention…and if you weren’t I’m sure that got your attention.  My last attempt at subtle sarcasm in my last article failed miserably so FYI I’m kidding about Trajan Langdon.)

Also, these teams play coast to coast in multiple games in pre-conference play, showcasing their talents to the entire country before they finally slug it out for the first time in the ACC regular season. 

It is precisely this aspect that the college football rivalries lack, which is why Duke-UNC has such broader national appeal than any of the college football match ups.

The above reasons should clearly elucidate why the ancient combat waged between these two universities on the hardwood is unequivocally the greatest rivalry in all of sports.  No other showdown has as strong and well-balanced mix of history, competitive balance/dominance, and national sweeping appeal that Duke and UNC possess.


Thousands of words celebrating the hatred and vitriol of fan bases and cities embattled with one another for centuries.  To the ignorant such an act would be deplorable and unthinkable. 

But to the die hard sports fan, rivalries are the butter to sport’s bread, the life blood pumping through the otherwise bland schedules of countless accumulations of valiant athletes and warriors, pitting city against city, brother against brother, father against son on a daily basis with absolutely no bloodshed or other negative externalities to speak of.

Composers can have their operas and their symphonies.  Artists can have their murals and collages.  Bards, scholars and philosophers have for centuries engaged in endeavors and proclivities far less bellicose than reveling in the hate flowing off that hardwood.

Me?  I’m fine with my rivalries.