Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski never took a paycheck from UNC, never wore the words "North Carolina" across his chest and has spent more than 40 years of his life trying to beat the Tar Heels.
But outside of Chapel Hill, no individual has shaped UNC basketball like him.
On Saturday, Krzyzewski will coach his final game in the Dean E. Smith Center. Chapel Hill will be one of the rare stops on his retirement tour where the Hall of Famer won’t be presented with a parting gift — somewhat understandably so, with the long-standing vitriol between the two fanbases.
But considering Krzyzewski’s impact on the rivalry is necessary.
Dear UNC fans, there is no joy without suffering.
Ask yourself, does UNC beating Boston College or Wake Forest give you the same feeling as seeing UNC defeat Duke? When you think of North Carolina basketball, are any regular season memories clearer than Eric Montross’ bloody face, Tyler Hansbrough’s broken nose, UNC upsetting J.J. Redick and the No. 1 Blue Devils on their senior night?
These moments could not exist without Krzyzewski on the sideline, or Austin Rivers’ buzzer-beating three in 2012 or the two Blue Devil buzzer-beaters in 2020.
Without the occasional heartbreak Krzyzewski’s teams have brought on North Carolina throughout his career, those moments of Tar Heel bliss wouldn’t exist.
If you grew up in North Carolina anytime between Krzyzewski’s first appearance in the rivalry in 1980 and today, chances are you were presented with a strict dichotomy at an early age: “Who do you got, UNC or Duke?”
It’s a question that’s had reverberating effects on generations of North Carolinians. At first, your choice might have come from somewhere shallow — maybe you preferred the look of Carolina Blue, Cameron Indoor Stadium just looked magical through the TV screen or fate possibly guided you to pick at random.
Nobody wants their time on the playground swing set ruined by a conniving “Duke is puke!” and giggle, just like no one wants to hear a play-by-play recollection of the Rivers buzzer-beater as their friend shoots one over them in a pick-up game.
As you get older, the prospect of your team losing grows increasingly terrifying — no matter how much attention you pay in November and December — because for a few days from February to March, your identity is partially defined by whichever color blue you decided was yours all those years ago.
When Krzyzewski took the helm at Duke in 1980, the Blue Devils had only been to the NCAA tournament eight times. He’s taken them there 35 times. Juxtapose that with North Carolina, which had 14 appearances and a national championship to its name by the time Krzyzewski took over.
By 1980, UNC was a burgeoning blue-blood, with a burgeoning legend in Dean Smith on the sidelines and Sam Perkins and James Worthy on the court. Duke was a solid, but unspectacular program.
More than 40 years later, the two teams from Tobacco Road are synonymous with each other and with excellence. The likes of Smith, Roy Williams, Michael Jordan and Hansbrough pushed Duke to be better, just as Krzyzewski, Redick and Christian Laettner pushed UNC to be better.
On both ends of Tobacco Road and in both colors of blue, neither program could exist as they do now without the other.
In your mind's eye, continue to think of Smith and Williams as good and Krzyzewski as evil if you chose the lighter shade of blue. But remember if you can those moments on the playgrounds and in the hallways mocking and being mocked, remember the joy you’ve felt watching the Tar Heels triumph over the Blue Devils and the desolation of a Duke defeat.
Because without Krzyzewski and the program he built, those memories wouldn’t be the same.
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