Football playing rules, uniform designs and strategies may change. Leagues, stadia and coaching staffs may come and go, get shuffled, expand and contract. Alarmists may associate efforts to protect players from serious injury with the downfall of the republic.
Through it all at least one element remains constant, immune to the shifting tides of fashion: Every school has a traditional rival whose defeat can provide a taste of success to sweeten even a bitter season. Regardless of whether teams are in the same conference, the thirst to win bragging rights is difficult to quench. It’s also contagious, affecting both imported players and native sons.
Rivalry games, especially among North Carolina’s ACC schools, boast an estimable patina of age; their more or less annual football clashes stretch across centuries, not decades. Inaugurated in the late 1800s, they clearly are not mere conjurings by matchmakers out to make a buck or fill a TV slot.
Take the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, started in 1888 when the private school was Trinity College. You might argue a rivalry is moot when one team inexorably beats the other. Yet, during a Tar Heel run of 21 wins in 22 seasons from 1990 through 2011, the meetings retained their cachet for an ever-dwindling core group. Since David Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to four wins in the last six encounters, the drama generated by competitive uncertainty has revived the series.
Cutcliffe, stationed at Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi before coming to Durham, has keen familiarity with fevered, big-time rivalries. Like many before him, he insists UNC-Duke is unique. “There’s nothing else like it because of eight, nine miles” separating the schools, the 11th-year Duke coach says. “It’s a rivalry that you live every single day – at the grocery store, off decals on cars. It’s constant. I mean, you’d better win that one or you’re going to be hiding in the grocery store.”
The best games
Miami senior safety Jaquan Johnson relishes the run-up to the game with Florida State, once a major national attraction. “You can feel the tension with the coaches, with the players, in the meeting rooms, even on the practice field,” says the local product. “When we approach that game, we approach it like no other – laser-like focus.”
That level of commitment makes meeting a rival “very serious,” says Duke’s Joe Giles-Harris, a junior linebacker from New Jersey. “There’s nothing to joke about. Those are the best games. Those rivalries go back to before I was born. It’s something you just get thrown into when you get to North Carolina. It’s exciting. It’s fun to see.”
Basketball rivals meet home-and-home. In football each matchup is singular to the season, an event whose effects ripple beyond the field to affiliated communities of students, alumni and fans.
“I used to go to school after the Duke-Carolina game and hear the trash talk and everything. I realize how important it is to so many people,” says third-year Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, a graduate of Charlotte Latin High. “There’s an equal passion for the game between players and the fans, for sure.”
With both teams trying to squeeze through a narrow window to success, friction is inevitable. Miss your chance at football victory and you’re stuck with the consequences for an entire year.
“On game day it’s like pure hatred toward the other team,” Georgia Tech’s Brant Mitchell, a senior linebacker, says of facing Georgia in a series that began in 1893. “When you win it’s such a sweet feeling, it’s like the best feeling in the world, especially over there (Athens). I did it my sophomore year. It’s an incredible feeling because you don’t have to listen to one thing all year long (even though) you’re surrounded by Georgia fans.”
So many rivals
Mitchell grew up in Tennessee and knows better than to downplay antagonism with assertions that extra-hard hits and relentless razzing between rivals simply reflect athletic brethren engaged in friendly competition. “I don’t like Georgia players – on the field. Make sure you put that in the article. Off the field it’s fine,” Mitchell declares. “But, on Thanksgiving week, when we play Georgia it’s not a nice event. We hate each other. That’s what they call it: it’s good old-fashioned hate.”
Then there are schools that seem to have more than one rival, or at least to stir lingering antipathy from multiple sources.
Ask UNC senior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, and he’ll tell you N.C. State fans give Tar Heels, their professed rivals, the hardest time. The two teams close out the regular season at Chapel Hill on Nov. 24. “They talk a lot during the game and we do our best to kind of tune it out,” says the Virginian. “Occasionally we’ll turn around and return the chatter before we get yelled at by our staff on the sideline. They definitely have a lot of energy.”
Crawford is noncommittal, however, about identifying UNC’s transcendent foe. “I think everybody kind of does the whole State-Duke thing, who’s the biggest rival?” he says. “Duke’s just down the road, they’re right there. That’s who our deemed rival is. State is always in the conversation.”
Crawford does find a rivalry clue in the existence of the “Victory Bell,” an historic totem on hand whenever the Tar Heels and Blue Devils clash. “We (share) the bell, and currently it’s not ours,” he says. “But we’re working to get it back.” The next chance comes at Durham on Nov. 10, when the winner seizes possession, painting the neighborhood symbol of supremacy an appropriate shade of blue. For one year, anyway.