If you could examine the evolution in slow motion, if you could rewatch all the classics and relive all the memories, if you could replay all the top-10 meetings and study when the rivalry started to become The Rivalry – the most passionate in college basketball – you might begin not on the court but at a press conference.
You might begin with these words: Double standard.
“I think that’s really when it intensified,” Rick Brewer, North Carolina’s longtime sports information director, said recently of the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry.
On Jan. 21, 1984, a UNC team ranked No. 1 traveled to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils were unranked but rising under Mike Krzyzewski, a young, unproven coach who had endured turmoil during his first three seasons at Duke.
For a while, the night seemed like it would be Krzyzewski’s finest moment at Duke. The Blue Devils led 67-63 in the final minutes and it appeared it would be a program-defining victory.
But then, as games sometimes did in Krzyzewski’s early years in Durham, everything unraveled.
The Tar Heels came back and won thanks in no small part to Michael Jordan, playing his final college season, and Kenny Smith, a freshman guard. The most memorable moment, though, might have been Dean Smith banging on the scorer’s table with about 4 1/2 minutes to play.
He was, apparently, trying to stop the clock to make a substitution. While he banged on the table, Smith inadvertently added 20 points to UNC’s score. The scorers fixed that, but despite the antics, he wasn’t called for a technical.
After his team’s 78-73 loss – Duke’s fifth in a streak of six consecutive losses against the Tar Heels – Krzyzewski was irate. He vented about what he described as the “double standard” that existed in the ACC – one for Smith and his team, and one for everybody else.
Two things, among many others, changed after that loss for Duke: One, the Blue Devils entered their next 14 games against UNC as a ranked team – often in the top 10. Second, Krzyzewski never again endured a losing streak against UNC as long as the one that included the “double standard” game.
To Brewer and some others who have shared a long relationship with UNC, Duke – and not N.C. State – has always been the Tar Heels’ primary rival. Even so, the Wolfpack was clearly UNC’s equal – and sometimes its superior – during the 1950s and parts of the 1970s and 80s. During many of those years, it wasn’t uncommon for Duke to be the third-best program.
Dean knew: ‘It’s a great hire’
When Krzyzewski arrived at Duke in 1980, though, a slow transformation began. It took time, but he awoke a dormant program. At UNC, Krzyzewski’s arrival was met with a sense of wonder.
As in: who exactly is this guy?
“When Mike came in – because it was an unusual hire, quite frankly, and I’m a big fan of (former Duke athletic director) Tom Butters – but I asked Dean (Smith) about Mike when he was hired,” said John Swofford, the ACC Commissioner who was UNC’s athletic director from 1980 to 1997. “I said, ‘Is that a good hire?’ And he said, ‘It’s a great hire.’ ”
Swofford emphasized the word “great” when he recalled the story, more than three decades later. He went on: “(Smith) said, ‘You mark my word, he will be very successful. And he is going to be a load for us to compete with.”
Smith was right, eventually. Krzyzewski lost four of his first five games against Smith and UNC before Duke won in overtime, 66-65, in February 1981 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Then began a six-game winning streak for UNC in the series – a streak that included the “double standard” game – before Duke won 77-75 in the 1984 ACC tournament. The Tar Heels were ranked No. 1, as they’d been the other two times they played Duke that season.
The “double standard” game might have represented the symbolic start of the rivalry as it’s known today. Krzyzewski’s proved he wasn’t afraid of challenging Smith.
On the court, though, Duke’s victory against UNC in the ’84 ACC tournament represented the arrival of Krzyzewski’s program. He had yet to guide the Blue Devils to a Final Four.
Still, to date, it remains Krzyzewski’s only victory against the Tar Heels when they have been ranked No. 1.
The games that changed everything
Brewer said the rivalry began to change then, when Krzyzewski “really got his program going.” There was another catalyst, too, in pushing the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry to where it is today: television.
“You have to give television credit,” Brewer said. “ESPN started televising those games.”
Like the one in 1992 at the Smith Center. Duke arrived on Feb. 5 unbeaten and mostly untested. The Blue Devils were reigning national champions. The Tar Heels, ranked ninth, weren’t bad themselves.
It ended in a 75-73 UNC victory. At one point blood streamed down the face of Eric Montross, the Tar Heels center, and so people still remember it as “the bloody Montross game.” Also memorable: the postgame celebration that spilled from the Smith Center and onto Franklin Street.
“It was the first year that they stormed the floor on the Smith Center floor,” said Hubert Davis, a UNC assistant coach who was a senior on that ’91-92 UNC team. “Duke was at the time 17-0, had just won the national championship in ’91. …
“Oh, it was unbelievable. These guys will never experience an atmosphere like that.”
He was among the delirious crowd that spent a large part of the night on Franklin Street.
“Oh, my goodness, I was enjoying it,” he said. “I enjoyed it there and I enjoyed it on Franklin Street. Had a great time. I was 20. I was having a great time. It was awesome.”
Games like that one helped elevate the Duke-UNC rivalry from a regional spectacle to a national phenomenon. ESPN, recognizing a marketable asset, began hyping the rivalry annually, and Dick Vitale, the network’s energetic college basketball announcer and pitchman, became something like its national voice.
They push each other to excellence
The roots for what the Duke-UNC rivalry became were in place by the early 1990s. Between 1984 – starting with their second regular-season game that year – and 1989, Duke and UNC met as ranked teams in 14 consecutive games. In 24 of their 26 games between March ’84 and March ’94, Duke and UNC were both ranked. Sixteen times, both were in the top 10.
That’s long been the standard: important games, between teams considered the best in the country, year in and year out. It has been a rivalry built on great teams and memorable games, on All-American players and venerable, Hall of Fame coaches. It has been a rivalry, too, built not as much on hatred as the drive to outdo the fiercest competition – twice, one followed its rival’s national title with one of its own, first in 1992-93, then again in 2009-10. It has been a rivalry born of respect.
“People asked if the coaches hated each other,” Brewer said. “I don’t think so.”
At the height of the Duke-UNC rivalry when Smith was still at UNC, in the late 80s and early 90s, Davis said Smith never changed his demeanor when preparing to play Krzyzewski. Smith was 24-14 against Krzyzewski but didn’t get anything extra out of those wins, Davis said.
“There was tremendous mutual respect,” Davis said. “I mean, there was a great respect. You had coach Smith, who I think is one of the greatest coaches of all time in any sport.
“And Coach K wasn’t in the beginning stages of his coaching career but he hadn’t established himself. Now Coach K, you can make a great argument that he’s the best coach ever.”
Who would have thought it back then, when a young Krzyzewski, in a moment of frustration, let loose on what he perceived as a “double standard?” Later that year, in March 1984, he beat one of the best UNC teams in history and not too long after, in 1986, he led Duke to his first Final Four.
The Duke-UNC rivalry was in bloom then. And now Krzyzewski, who is 40-38 against UNC, has reached 1,000 career victories, a total that baffles and humbles his peers.
“Just unbelievable,” said Roy Williams, the Tar Heels coach who has competed against Krzyzewski for the past 11 years.
More recently Williams, who has won more than 700 career games, thought about winning 1,000.
“No,” he said, drawing out the word, when asked if he could imagine coaching long enough to win 1,000 games. “It’s just mind boggling.”