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Q&A: Sports information director Steve Kirschner speaks on the UNC-Duke rivalry

Steve Kirschner, senior associate A.D. for Sports Information & Media relations is shown during the men’s basketball press conference prior to their game against Florida State University on Friday, January 26, 2024.

Steve Kirschner, UNC senior associate athletic director for media relations, manages communications for the North Carolina men's basketball team. He has been with the Tar Heels since 1990, oversees the Carolina Basketball Museum and has worked countless UNC-Duke men’s basketball games as the sports information director.

Assistant Sports Editor Daniel Wei sat down with Kirschner in late January to discuss the rivalry’s history and Kirschner's favorite moments. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily Tar Heel: How many UNC-Duke games have you worked in total?

Steve Kirschner: I actually counted them up because I knew you’d ask me that. I've been to 80 UNC-Duke games in person, including the last 72 straight. The only game I've missed since I came back was in 1992: Hubert Davis' last game against Duke in the ACC Championship in Charlotte. We were playing Florida State in baseball here, and I was also the baseball sports information director at the time, so I had to be here for that game. Since then, I haven't missed a UNC-Duke game.

I say this: It makes me the luckiest person in our industry to say that I've been to 80 UNC-Duke games. I'm spoiled beyond belief, because it's been so much fun to see those games in person.

DTH: You sit courtside for all the games. What are things you notice that the average viewer wouldn’t be able to from the stands or TV?

SK: You pick up on the intensity of the game. I think back to my first year as an intern at the ‘89 ACC Championship game in Atlanta. It is still the most intense sporting event I've ever been to in person. It was almost hand-to-hand combat, in a basketball sense.

There was so much on the line. Both programs were at their heights. UNC hadn't won the ACC in seven years. Duke had been to several Final Fours in a row. People were talking about Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski passing UNC head coach Dean Smith. Off the court, the teams didn’t like each other. You could just feel the anxiety, the tension.

You see the interaction between the players during huddles and side-by-side at the scores table when they're waiting to go in. There have been times where our guys and their guys look at each other and go, "Man, this is a hell of a game." The intensity of the rivalry comes from the fanbase; the respect in the rivalry comes from the players.

DTH: You interact with the players frequently. In the days leading up to the game, is there anything different that you notice about the team?

SK: I think as much as we like to say, "Oh, it's just the next game on the schedule," you always know when certain games are the next game. You pick up on that they're dialed in more. It's one of the reasons we try to do the pre-Duke game press conference two days before, instead of the day before. They're so focused on what they're doing, I like to not distract them the day before with other things because they’re so focused on the game.

DTH: You're married to Jeanne McFeely, a 1994 Duke graduate. Does that make the house tense around rivalry week?

SK: No, not at all. Early on, it was. When UNC won at Duke in 1995, 102-100, we were dating at the time. She was a year out of school and was working at Duke. That didn't go over very well because she said that every time UNC was winning, I'd be smiling and laughing. Then, every time Duke took the lead, I wasn't.

She goes, "Don't be a jerk. Just be the same, regardless of who's winning the game."

Afterwards, we went to dinner at Miami Subs up in Durham, and she wouldn't talk to me. I said, "Why?" She goes, "Don't change. Just be the same guy, regardless of whoever's winning."

She works at Duke now, and she’s a Duke fan. But she knows that if UNC goes to the Final Four, that's great for me. It’s great for us and she might get to go. If Duke goes to the Final Four, I'm not very happy. She respects both programs, and so do I.

DTH: What was your immediate reaction to finding out UNC was playing Duke in the 2022 Final Four? What was working that game like?

SK: My immediate reaction was disappointment. Winning four games to get to the Final Four is really difficult to do, and I knew that if we beat St. Peter's to get there, fans would be ecstatic. But all week, as soon as we would win that game, I knew our fans would be thinking, "Oh, but we have to play Duke." I knew that one of the two fanbases was going to be epically disappointed by losing to the other in the Final Four. I had said for my entire career here, I hope we never play [Duke] in the Final Four or the national championship game, because it's too big to fail.

I remember sitting in the Caesars Superdome before the game. I've never been in a building where the energy was like that, because it was history. It had never been done before. It's like a Steelers-Cowboys Super Bowl, the Celtics and Lakers, Ali-Frazier — that's the level that it was at.

DTH: On the flip side, what has been the most forgettable UNC-Duke game?

SK: In 2002, we went over there and lost by 25. That wasn't fun. There haven’t been many, but that was one. Jay Williams was the best player in the country that year and he tore us up.

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DTH: You mentioned Williams. Did you see what he recently said about wanting to play at UNC in today’s game?

SK: Yeah. Williams wanted to come here. We had numerous point guards that had already committed to us. At the time, our coaches had a question as to whether he could play the two. He wanted to come. He’s told me before. He had a UNC poster of Michael Jordan or Vince Carter or somebody in his room. He was disappointed. And he's one of the best guards I've ever seen us play against.

DTH: Can you name five Duke players that you’ve watched in person that made you go, "Wow"?

SK: Zion Williamson, just because of his physical strength. I remember right in front of me, I was about 10 feet away when his shoe blew out. Williams was fantastic. Christian Laettner is just one of the best college basketball players to ever play. JJ Redick is one of the best shooters we ever played against.

Who else? Shane Battier, he did everything for them. He could play any position. He was a great defender. Probably flopped a little bit too much, but he was a great all-around player.

I mean, that's a pretty good group. I always said that I could put a five-man UNC team together that would beat everybody. All time, I take the five that we could put up against any five in the country. Against that five for Duke would be a heck of a game.

DTH: Who's in your five for UNC?

SK: I can't say. I’d get too many emails. But I like our five. Our five would be pretty good.


@dthsports |

Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.