CHAPEL HILL — The Victory Bell sat on the edge of the practice fields at North Carolina throughout the past week, a reminder of what a rivalry once was, and what it has become. Every day a pair of student managers wheeled the bell out before practice, and every day they wheeled it back.
In between, UNC players ran by it, stared at it, rang it. They thought about its significance.
When the victory bell was introduced in 1948, it was something to be won. It went to the winner of the annual football game between UNC and Duke. Now, though, the bell has become something not to be lost.
Winning it, after all, has become so common for the Tar Heels that victory in this series has been nearly a given during the past two decades. Entering their game Saturday night at Dukes Wallace Wade Stadium, the Heels have defeated the Blue Devils eight consecutive times and in 21 of their past 22 games.
Oh, it means a lot to us, UNC safety Tre Boston said earlier this week of his teams rivalry with Duke. I think weve won the last what?
A reporter informed Boston that the Tar Heels had lost once to Duke since 1990.
Exactly, he said. So nobody wants to be that team that lost to Duke.
Entering the 1990 season, the Tar Heels were 37-33-4 against the Blue Devils, but Duke had won three consecutive games and five of the previous eight.
It was still a lively rivalry, with colorful moments. One came in 1989, when then-Duke coach Steve Spurrier stood in front of the scoreboard at Kenan Stadium and posed for a picture after the Blue Devils 41-0 victory.
I will never forget that, Randy Jordan said.
Jordan, now the Tar Heels running backs coach, was a freshman running back for UNC in 1989. After the game, he watched Spurrier pose for that picture, which still inspires anger to this day.
Jordan attended an annual coaches convention earlier this year, and Spurrier was there.
He had heard that I was up for the [UNC] job, Jordan said. And he reminded me. It was all, I remember you I remember you played at Carolina, you and Natrone [Means]. And do you remember that I put up 40-something points against you?
It feels like a rivalry
UNC has lost to Duke just once since the Spurrier spanking, suggesting the rivalry exists in name only.
Dukes mindset this week is on winning its sixth game and becoming bowl eligible. UNC just happens to be the next opponent.
Huge week, defensive end Kenny Anunike said. Were playing for that bell, and were also playing for our sixth win, which will make us bowl eligible. Theres a lot for the taking here.
UNC players say its a rivalry, but the desire to win has been replaced by the fear of losing.
It feels like a rivalry, UNC senior offensive guard Jonathan Cooper said. The one thing that helps that is the victory bell. Thats a sense of a pride for us. And [to] have it out here at practice, hear people ringing it because nobody wants to see you lose that game and them paint it right there out on the field.
That has become tradition recently for the winning team to paint the bell in its school colors. And so it has remained Carolina blue since 2004.
Cooper is quick to dispute the notion that UNCs dominance would make the Heels complacent.
We cant be complacent, Cooper said. Dont they have the same record that we have? Theyre 5-2 just like we are, and theyre steadily improving. So theres no way we can become complacent.
Dukes five wins are the teams most since 2009, which is the last time the Blue Devils had a winning record this late in the season. Before that, Duke hadnt had a winning record in October since 1994, which is also the last time that Duke and UNC both had winning records when they played.
Rivalry has recruiting roots
The Blue Devils have steadily improved under coach David Cutcliffe, and they have improved in part because their in-state recruiting has become stronger. When Cutcliffe arrived at Duke in 2007, the Blue Devils had eight players from North Carolina. Today, there are 28.
Those players might better understand what a victory against UNC means.
The number one item in recruiting when it comes to choice is always geography, Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe was responsible for recruiting North Carolina when has was an assistant at Tennessee in the late 1980s and 90s. He recruited quarterback Heath Shuler, a Bryson City native who was drafted by the Washington Redskins with the third overall pick in 1994.
But while UNC and Duke are close geographically, theyre sometimes far apart on the recruiting trail.
There are a lot of kids that they recruit that we cant recruit for academic reasons, Cutcliffe said. We dont go head-to-head with them as much as you might think because we cant recruit them. But when we do, weve won our share of them. Its been very competitive.
Cooper is one of a small number of UNC players also recruited heavily by Duke. Cooper attended the Blue Devils football camp, and for a while his father wanted him to choose Duke. He felt more comfortable at UNC.
Five Blue Devils chose Duke over UNC. Duke starting receivers Desmond Scott, a senior, and Jamison Crowder, a sophomore, both rank among the top 30 in the nation in receptions. Both received offers from North Carolina.
Carolina just wasnt where I wanted to go, said Scott, who attended Durhams Hillside High. Duke is in my hometown. What were doing now is what I believed we were going to do, change the program around and win some games.
Crowder, from Monroe, was recruiting by former Tar Heels defensive backs coach Troy Douglas as a cornerback. He preferred receiver and also was sold on the idea of building a program.
Redshirt freshman Kyler Brown received a scholarship offer from UNC one week before signing day. Brown chose to honor his commitment to Duke for the opportunity to play with his brother, Kelby, a junior, and turn around the team.
Last year, two more North Carolina natives Keilin Rayner and Jela Duncan held offers from UNC but chose Duke. Duncan leads Duke with 265 rushing yards.
Dukes talent level has improved since Cutcliffe arrived. Now its a matter of translating that to on-field success.
I think weve closed the gap, no question, Cutcliffe said. We have a blend of experience, of talented youth and talented older guys. We have enough speed. We have enough strength.
But does Duke have enough to make the rivalry competitive once again? Since 1990, the Heels have won their 21 games by an average of more than 15 points. Six of UNCs past nine victories, though, have come by eight points or less.
When he prepared his game plan this week, Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, saw a Duke team capable of posing a significant challenge.
You look at who Duke is now compared to before David got there, and Duke is a very fundamentally sound, good, solid football team, Fedora said. And hes got them believing hes got them truly believing that theyre as good as they are.
This rivalry is new to Fedora and its relatively new for UNC to play against a winning Duke team. That hasnt happened since 1994, and Boston, the Tar Heels safety, struggled to describe the feeling of playing this Duke team compared to lesser ones.
Boston, a junior, sat silent for several seconds, searching for an answer to describe something so new to him.
Dont tell them I did this deep pause, he said.