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The Daily Tar Heel

The history of the UNC-Duke rivalry, from its origins to now

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Former UNC guard Charlie Scott stands next to Dean Smith. Photo courtesy of UNC Department of Athletics.

Long before the UNC-Duke rivalry rose to national prominence — before Duke existed and UNC had graduated any students — two prominent families in now-northern Durham County learned to hate each other.

In the 1790s, the UNC-Duke rivalry began with a scandal between the Mangum and Duke families, as first written about in a 1994 News and Observer article. Chaney Mangum and Taylor Duke had given birth to a child out of wedlock. It was a secret that could only be kept for so long. 

“Taylor was married,” said Freddie Kiger, a historian, statistician and longtime Chapel Hill resident. “Chaney was unwed and it starts from there.”

After Arthur Mangum, Chaney's father, sued for child support from Taylor Duke, the relationship between the two wealthy families was changed forever. From then on, the families fought for dominance and power over central North Carolina.  

The Mangums, who were major players in the founding of North Carolina’s Whig Party, became big supporters of UNC. Today, their legacy lives on through scholarships and a dorm on campus bearing their name. 

Meanwhile, the Dukes, staunch Democratic Republicans, funneled money from their tobacco empire into Trinity College, which moved to Durham in 1892 and was renamed Duke in 1924.  

In all of their actions, the families were determined not to be outdone by the other. 

When the state decided to split Orange County in 1881, the Mangums wanted it to be named Mangum County. The Dukes stepped in and made sure that didn’t happen, threatening to move their tobacco interests out of the area. And so, that disputed area became known as Durham County.

Over time, the animosity between the two families grew and transformed into a Tobacco Road rivalry, a battle for dominance between two schools just eight miles apart. 

To be rivals is to hate, and that all began with the scandal of two of North Carolina's most famous families.

"Think about it," Kiger said. "In the span of eight miles, there are 11 championships ... You tell me anywhere else in the country where schools are that close together and (have) that many college basketball national titles."

Hoops? No thanks

Though the origins of animosity between Tar Heels and Blue Devils began while George Washington was still president, it would be a long time before the modern basketball rivalry began. 

Basketball wasn’t invented until 1891, and Duke and UNC didn’t have teams until 1906 and 1911, respectively. Such contention in the new sport wasn’t even thought of until well into the 20th century. 

But in 1898, a writer in an old edition of The Daily Tar Heel wondered why the sport hadn’t taken campus by storm yet. 

“Why is it the game of basketball has never been introduced into the University?” The writer pondered. “In the short time that it has been a claimant for popularity in the athletic world it has made wonderful progress and become a leader among the sports at some of our chief colleges and institutions.” 

The craziness that consumes the campuses today — leading to tenting for tickets or a years worth of sporting events all for one game — would come later. 

On Jan. 24, 1920, the first UNC-Duke game was held inside Angier Duke Gymnasium before a crowd of more than 1,000 fans, according to Kiger. 

“The Carolina quint won over Trinity on the latter’s court last Saturday night by the score of 36 to 25,” read a game story from The Daily Tar Heel. “Fast teamwork and good passing were largely responsible for the victory.”

This game, while the first, mattered little at the time. In that day, football was king. While UNC and Duke played its first football matchup in November 1888, the real rivalry that mattered was the UNC-N.C. State game. 

The rivalry between the Wolfpack and Tar Heels was further exacerbated by Duke ending its football program for 26 years — from 1894 to 1920, according to Kiger. 

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By the time the school fielded another team, the Blue Devils did not care to play UNC in any sport, even as the schools were so close apart. 

“Back during the early part of the 20th century, Duke backed out for many, many years playing North Carolina because they accused North Carolina of using professionals, particularly in football,” Kiger said. “They backed out; we didn't play each other for quite a few years.”


The first known suggestion of a rivalry between the two schools came on Feb. 5, 1929 in The Daily Tar Heel, according to Kiger. 

“North Carolina lost to Duke in basketball Saturday night in Durham 36 to 20, for the first defeat the Tar Heels have suffered at the hands of their neighboring rivals since the season of 1921,” The Daily Tar Heel article said. “The outcome of Saturday’s contest marks Carolina’s second defeat in the Southern Conference this season and the fifth loss in “Big Five” basketball this year.”

By then, basketball was rising in popularity. Over the years before that, tensions had been growing. Articles about the games reported a higher number of fouls, and animosity was building up on either side. But it wasn’t the modern rivalry yet. 

From here, the magnitude of such a game would only build. It was private against public school. Durham versus Chapel Hill. Crowds at the Tin Can and in Durham grew and the games started being broadcast nationally on the radio.

Games became more competitive as the evolution of the game translated to more skilled players. In the first half of the 1950s, Duke got the better of North Carolina, winning eight straight games. Then, in the second half of the decade, UNC won five games in a row, including the 1957 National Championship that year, before going on a run for six more games from 1959 to 1960. In 1961, Dean Smith took the reins of the North Carolina program.

The proximity and skill of basketball teams were driving them at one another. By the 1970s, the games were rivaling contests against N.C. State. 

"(N.C.) State was the rival,” said Kiger, who attended UNC and kept stats for Dean Smith in the 1970s. “At the end of the alma mater, you're shouting 'go to hell, State,' instead of 'go to hell, Duke.'”

But by 1980, the arrival of one man changed it all. 

The modern rivalry

A fresh-faced Mike Krzyzewski became head coach at Duke in 1980, moving over from West Point after learning under the tutelage of legendary basketball coach Bob Knight. 

His arrival brought the rivalry to a new level. While previous games had been competitive, Krzyzewski brought a different competitive edge to contests against Smith that no one had ever seen before. 

"He was going to elbow his name onto the block," Kiger said. "He was going to be there, and he was not going to be ignored."

The competitiveness of Coach K against Smith made the rivalry legendary. While Smith, with a 24-14 record, beat out Krzyzewski more often than not, the era was defined by the two battling for the advantage over the other and for national championships. 

Beginning in 1980 and going until Smith's retirement before the 1997-1998 season, North Carolina won the 1982 and 1993 NCAA titles. Duke won the 1991 and 1992 championships. Krzyzewski took his team to three runner-up finishes, while UNC had one. 

When Roy Williams was tapped as the Tar Heels head coach in 2003, it was a continuation of that legacy. Over the course of history, the schools have accounted for 38 of 65 ACC Tournament Championships and 36 Final Fours. Both schools are in the top five winningest basketball programs all-time. 

Over time, the UNC-Duke rivalry has been among one of the best in any sport. And it all started with two families who couldn't get along.  


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