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Former Tar Heel Eric Montross talks Laettner, Dean Smith, Duke rivalry and more

eric montross rilvary .jpg
Eric Montross played at North Carolina from 1990-94, capturing a national championship in 1993 and helping the Tar Heels upset Duke in the famous "bloody Montross" game. DTH File.

Eric Montross played at North Carolina from 1990-94, capturing a national championship in 1993 and helping the Tar Heels upset Duke in the famous "bloody Montross" game. Now, he works with men's basketball fundraising efforts and is a radio commentator for UNC hoops.

Before this year's first matchup with the Blue Devils, we caught up with Montross to talk his UNC-Duke memories, going up against Christian Laettner, how Dean Smith approached the rivalry and more.

Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you take me through your experience with the UNC-Duke rivalry before you got here, to UNC?

Interestingly, I didn’t have much of a perception of the rivalry in high school. I grew up in Indiana, and Indiana was Big Ten country, not ACC country. Even though I was aware of Carolina, and being recruited by all of the ACC schools, I had never been down here in the heart of it. I didn’t know what the Duke-Carolina rivalry was all about. It wasn’t until coming down here that I started to get a taste for what the old-school Tobacco Road rivalry was.

Was that a part of the recruiting pitch to you from Dean Smith and his staff? Being a part of this great rivalry?

Honestly, I don’t ever remember coach saying that. I think Coach Smith was all about the development of me as a young person, all about team. Team before individual, always. But I don’t ever remember him conveying that it was about what the ACC represented or what the rivalry was like. 

Coach wasn’t much into hype. He was into substance. And he had enough substance to lure me in easily.

Was there a moment when you got here where you felt like you got your first real taste of the rivalry?

There are a couple stories, but initially, being here and watching our students and how they hit Franklin Street out of a win, and walking up and seeing an absolute mob where you can’t walk — that was incredible, and I had never experienced anything like that. It’s quite a rush. 

Similarly, going over to Cameron and seeing the Cameron Crazies — it’s a pretty ingenious bunch. I like to say that back in the day they were probably even more so. I remember one time they were throwing potatoes back and forth across the court over our bench. I have no idea why, but I’m sure there was something that made them do that.

Your first two years at UNC, Duke wins two national championships. What’s it like when the school down the road is winning titles, and that’s obviously where you guys want to be?

We didn’t pay a lot of attention to them (laughs). Not that we didn’t give them the respect that was due for winning championships. But until you win a championship, you don’t realize what caliber of an achievement that is. 

In 1993, we win it, and at that time, I think that’s when I recognized what it took to win a national championship. I mean, teams that win national championships are just really, really good. And it’s so hard. And there are a lot of really wonderful teams that haven’t won championships. So I think after we won it, then I recognized what their accomplishment was, and just how hard that was to do.

And honestly, it’s just a real source of pride that we kept it here between the two schools for three years. That’s pretty cool.

So, there’s a certain level of mutual respect among those championship teams?

I think so. I think so. Grant Hill was someone who I always had a great deal of respect for. I think Grant is a gentleman, and I think he was a terrific player. I have respect for Coach Krzyzewski — he recruited me and treated me very well. But there is an absolute respect, player-to-player, in these rivalries.

Another player — what was it like going up against Christian Laettner for two years?

I love playing against the best competition, and he was one of the best, no question. He was an interesting challenge for me because he was someone who played beyond the 3-point line a lot, and he had more mobility than your typical center. He passed very well. He had aspects of a smaller player. I really enjoyed playing against him. 

There was no love lost, because he was really good, and I was pretty good, but I wanted to beat him. Every second that we were on the court, I wanted to beat him. And he wanted to beat me. It never got ugly, it just was always a very hard-fought game, and one that I think was deeply rooted in respect.

I played with him in Detroit [as well as Grant Hill], and he was a great teammate. People who I tell that to that are Carolina fans say, “Don’t say that! Don’t ruin what I think of him!” But he and I did just fine together.

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The first time I saw him, he stuck out his hand and said, “Sure am glad to finally be on the same team as you.” And what are you gonna say at that point? You can’t say, “I hate your guts.” What you can say is, "We’re on the same team and we’re moving ahead in the same direction."

What are your memories of the “bloody Montross” game?

What I remember first and foremost is that we won (laughs). That game I will remember not because I had cuts all over me. What I’ll remember from that game is just leaving it all out on the court. And I remember the din, the noise that was in the Smith Center. And as we’re walking toward Franklin, you could see this sea of people, and you could start to hear the noise. It’s just one of those things that’s etched in my memory.

Outside of that game, what would you say is your number one Duke memory?

It’s hard for me to parse out one particular game. Certainly it would be a win; maybe it’s the win where I get cut, here in ‘92. It was just nip and tuck the entire way. But all the games represented something unique to me. To me, the consistency with just how much it took to fight through those games — and how much emotion was attached to those games — is why I don’t see just one as a highlight.

But if I had to pick one, it’d be one of the ones we won, for sure.

What do you think Coach Smith’s perception of the rivalry was? When he’s talking to you about Duke in the pregame, what’s he saying?

The interesting thing — and I suspect that Coach Williams does the same thing — is that we prepared the same way for every opponent. Coach Smith did not stray from preparation. It was always the same recipe. 

I think that allowed us to maintain an even emotional keel. Certainly, we understood as players that some games have more hype around them than others, but he prepared us the same, which conditioned us to never feel like the moment got too big. Coach would always be very matter-of-fact about how he approached these teams, even if they had the caliber of players that Duke had when I was in school.

I think that’s the reason why even today, we see Coach Williams’ teams so much better in February than they were in November. It’s the repetition, it’s the consistency in the teachings. These Hall of Fame coaches know that you have to peak at the end of the season, and that losses can be stepping stones for success.

Last question: what’s your experience like in the rivalry today, getting to call every game and still be around it?

It’s really fun, in a totally different way. As a player, you get these nervous butterflies before competition. At least I did. But it was really a good feeling. It was like every hair on your body is standing up; you’re just ready to go. 

I don’t get those feelings watching from the sideline, but I think because I know what those feelings are and I get to see it from the fan’s perspective, I appreciate the little things more now. And just the consistency with how it’s always at the top. People care about Carolina and Duke because it has turned into a national spotlight game. Everyone knows it.

It doesn’t get much better. It just doesn’t. I hate to tell you — you’re young, but it ain’t gonna get any better when you get older. The rivalry may get better, but nothing else is gonna match up to it.


@DTHSports |