Day Five: Duke and Carolina – Then and Now

With their respective campuses separated by only eight miles on Tobacco Road, Duke and North Carolina have engaged in the most passionate rivalry in college basketball for the better part of a century. On the eve of our first head-to-head battle of the new decade in Chapel Hill, we’d like to take the opportunity to revisit the the past five decades of Blue Devil basketball, Tar Heel basketball and the always heated Duke-Carolina Rivalry.


After winning a championship over Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in 1957, North Carolina sustained its college basketball prominence under the guidance of Dean Smith, who would lead the Tar Heels for 36 years before retiring in the arena that bears his name. He guided the team to three Final Fours towards the end of the decade. Likewise, Duke’s rise in the 1960s came under the steady hand of Vic Bubas, who led the Blue Devils to three Final Fours in the decade before retiring in 1969.

Seeds of the heated rivalry were planted in 1961, when eventual national player of the year Art Heyman got into a brawl with Larry Brown (yes, that Larry Brown, the one who couldn’t win gold for USA in 2004).


In those days, you had to win your conference tournament to make it to the NCAA tournament. As a result, the ’70s were lean years for Duke basketball. Forgotten, however, was the job done by Bill Foster, who resurrected the program after tough seasons in the early part of the decade. Led by Jim Spanarkel and Mike Gmiski (both of whom are now college basketball color analysts), the Blue Devils made it to the 1978 NCAA championship game where they lost to Kentucky. The Tar Heels continued to flourish under Dean Smith and his tactical brilliance, with 7 NCAA tournament appearances, 2 Final Fours and an NIT championship to boot. (Crazie Note to the 2009-10 Tar Heels: the NIT actually meant something back then.)


This decade saw the Tobacco Road rivalry reach unprecedented heights, as the hiring of one Michael William Krzyzewski ushered in 30 years and counting of stability for Duke basketball. Furthermore, the emergence of ESPN gave national attention to every clash between these two basketball giants. Dean Smith captured his first national championship in 1982, aided by the considerable talent on his team led by perhaps the greatest of all-time, Michael Jordan (maybe you’ve heard of him), and another NBA Hall of Famer James Worthy. However, they would not advance past the Elite Eight the rest of the decade.

Duke struggled in Coach K’s first three seasons, but 1984 saw its fortunes change as the Blue Devils defeated the #1-ranked Tar Heels, with Jordan, in the semifinals of the ACC tournament 77-75. The following year, led by Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker and Mark Alarie, Duke went 37-3 and made it to the NCAA championship game before succumbing to Louisville. Duke then closed out the decade making three Final Fours in a row, culminating in a championship game appearance in 1990 against UNLV.


Duke kicked off the decade with a bang, winning back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992. Led by Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill, the Blue Devils were the class of the NCAA for two seasons. Not to be outdone, UNC won a second national championship under Smith the following year, with many thanks to Chris Webber for calling timeout in the national semifinal. Duke would return to the championship game in 1994, losing to Arkansas.

Dean Smith retired in 1997 as the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. And thank God he did, because his successor, long-time assistant Bill Guthridge, had an absolutely loaded squad in 1998 and failed to win it all. You think Dean Smith wouldn’t have won a championship with Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison? Unfortunately, here in Durham we had our own mishaps with a supremely talented squad, as a team with four NBA first-round picks could not defeat Connecticut in the 1999 NCAA championship game.

The most memorable Duke-UNC game of the decade? February 28, 1998. Duke 77, UNC 75. A heavyweight battle between the #1 and #3 teams in the country saw freshman Elton Brand lead the Blue Devil rally from a 17-point second-half deficit. Brendan Haywood and “Easy” Ed Cota both missed the first of two free throws in the waning seconds with the Tar Heels down two.


The Duke-Carolina rivalry works in cycles, and the 2000s were a perfect example of that. For the first half of the decade, Duke was nationally more successful than their UNC counterparts, winning a third national championship in 2001. The Tar Heels, on the other hand suffered a miserable season in 2002 under Matt Doherty, going 8-20 and missing postseason play completely.

However, led by Roy Williams, the Tar Heels won a championship in 2005 and 2009, and have the upper hand in the rivalry as they have won in Cameron for the past four years. Starting with a freshman Tyler Hansbrough ruining JJ Redick and Shelden Williams’ senior night, UNC has been far and away the better team for the latter half of this decade.

So, for the love of God and all that is holy, 2009-10 Blue Devils, please destroy the Tar Heels tomorrow as well as on March 6th. Harrison Barnes will be there as well; what better way to shove it in his face than to make this rivalry game a joke. Because we know the Tar Heels have been just that this season. CBI? Forget that, how about the tournament?

Records aside, Wednesday night will be an emotional night. Both sides will be ready for the good fight.

Let’s go Duke. Go to Hell, Carolina, go to Hell.