North Carolina and Duke renew their historic basketball rivalry Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. And when discussing the top rivalries in American sports, the line begins behind the Tar Heels and Blue Devils.
In fact, there really is no argument.
Some people say the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry trumps any other, but given that it was so one-sided – 26 World Series titles for the Yanks to none for the BoSox – for 86 years, it’s hard to call that a genuine rivalry. The last decade-plus has been nice, but how on earth can you have a legitimate rivalry when 215 big leaguers have worn both uniforms, including some who swore hatred for the other side at one time?
Nobody has ever played for both Duke and UNC, and as long as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, nobody ever will. The thought of it is absolute blasphemy along the church of Tobacco Road.
Ohio State and Michigan have a long, healthy football rivalry rich in tradition and storylines. But each program has claimed just one national title since the 1960s, which are the only championships won by Big Ten teams in that span, so they are out. UNC and Duke have won eight national championships in the last 30 years alone.
Alabama and Auburn is quite lopsided, though the Tigers finally won a national title in 2010, which was sandwiched by Alabama championships. A lot was made of the rivals winning back-to-back, but it must be noted that Duke won in 1991 and 1992 only to see UNC take it all in 1993. Carolina cut down the nets in 2009 and watched Duke do the same the following April.
The rivals even lost in consecutive NCAA title games in 1977 (UNC to Marquette) and 1978 (Duke to Kentucky). Furthermore, UNC and Duke have reached consecutive Final Fours on five other occasions, including: 1966 (Duke) and 1967-69 (UNC); 1994 (Duke) and 1995 (UNC); 1997 and 1998 (UNC) and 1999 (Duke); 2000 (UNC) and 2001 (Duke); and 2004 (Duke) and 2005 (UNC).
In addition, as celebrated as Auburn’s history is, it has played in just seven major bowl games, which might compare to Final Four appearances. UNC has reached 18 Final Fours and Duke 15. Auburn doesn’t balance Alabama like Carolina and Duke balance each other.
In college basketball, Louisville and Kentucky have a darn good thing going, which further intensified last spring when they met in the Final Four. But they once went from 1959 to 1983 without even playing each other and squared off just five times from 1916 to 1983. Overall, they’ve played each other just 45 times. * The Tar Heels and Blue Devils will tip off for the 235th time Wednesday night and there hasn’t been one year in which they have not faced each other since their initial meeting in 1920.
Oklahoma and Texas have had amazing success but their games are often lopsided and they just don’t measure up. Army-Navy gets our respect and gratitude for service to this nation, but Doc Blanchard and Roger Staubach aren’t running onto the field tomorrow. The Bears and Packers, Giants-Dodgers, Cardinals-Cubs, Cowboys-Redskins, and Celtics-Lakers have had their moments, but pro rivalries rarely sustain themselves.
UNC and Duke have and will.
Wednesday’s game will mark the 136th consecutive UNC-Duke battle with at least one of the teams nationally ranked. Incredibly, one of them has been among the top-10 in 124 of those contests.
Either the Tar Heels or Blue Devils have reached 18 of the last 25 Final Fours and one of them has played in 15 of the last 35 national championship games.
They sport three of the greatest coaches ever in American sports, notably UNC’s Dean Smith, who may have been the most innovative coach the sport has known, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who might be the greatest motivator ever in American sports.
The best basketball player ever (Michael Jordan) played at Carolina, and the college game’s most clutch player (Christian Laettner) put Duke in two Final Fours with buzzer-beater shots.
And what really spices up the rivalry is that there’s no safe haven to lick their wounds if a team gets pounded. They are eight miles apart. Many of the players use the same barber. They shop at the same mall, go to the same movie theater and use the same pizza delivery guys.
To top it off, North Carolina and Duke win more than other programs, they graduate players, and they send guys to the NBA at an amazing rate. They play in fabled arenas, wear unmistakable uniforms, and they give the sports world incredible drama.
Krzyzewski often says one reason both programs have been so successful in the postseason is because their games against each other simulate a national title-game intensity like nothing else other teams experience, and sometimes the games are more intense than NCAA Tournament battles.
So when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils reach the grandest stage in their sport they aren’t fazed. Thus, they make each other better, which is the highest compliment given to any rivalry.
And that’s why North Carolina and Duke is the greatest rivalry in American sports.