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Jim Sumner on Duke/UNC Gridiron History

I suspect most 0-10 football teams don’t really look forward to their last game. Certainly, their fans don’t. Yet, there seems to be genuine enthusiasm in the Duke community concerning this weekend’s season finale against the University of North Carolina. Much of this enthusiasm stems, of course, from the recent revival of the previously dormant Duke offense, which has scored 57 points in the last two contests, a revival that gives Duke a realistic chance to post its first victory of the season.

But the main reason for the enthusiasm is that the game is against our good friends from eight miles down the road. Earlier in the week AP had an article on “Rivals Week,” the upcoming football dogfights like Florida-Florida State, Ohio State-Michigan, and Clemson-South Carolina. No mention of Duke-Carolina. As much as the game whets our whistles, it largely has disappeared from the national radar. This largely is because of UNC’s recent dominance of Duke. In fact, UNC has now won the last ten contests, the longest such winning streak by either school in the rivalry, which dates to the 1880s. Duke hasn’t won since Steve Spurrier took his offensive brilliance south to Florida. A chance to end all this and paint the Victory bell a darker shade of blue should be all the incentive anyone needs to generate some enthusiasm for this weekend’s game.

It hasn’t always been this way. Duke led the series record as late as the middle 1970s.
Duke’s longest winning streak in the series is seven straight, from 1950 through 1956. This includes Wallace Wade’s last season and Bill Murray’s first six. Several of those Duke victories were quite one-sided, including a 34-0 shellacking in 1952 and a 47-12 win in 1954. The latter game, incidentally, was the largest margin of Duke victory in the series until Spurrier’s 1989 Devils defeated UNC 41-0. Spurrier was 3-0 against the Heels, winning by a combined score of 101-39. Of course, technically, Spurrier wasn’t the game coach in the 1988 game, having been suspended by the ACC for criticism of the officials in a heart-breaking loss to North Carolina State the previous week, but I suspect he found some ways to communicate his wishes to the Duke team. Wade was 8-7-1 against UNC, including four straight losses after World War II to the famous Charlie Justice-Art Weiner juggernaut. Eddie Cameron was 3-0-1, while Bill Murray posted a 10-5 record against UNC. Both Wade and Murray finished their coaching careers with victories over UNC.

A final reason to get psyched for the game is that it provides a chance for Duke to give Carolina a losing season and bump them from a bowl game. There is a historical parallel to this opportunity. In 1935, when bowl games were a good deal sparser than today, and hence, more prestigious, Carl Snavely’s UNC team entered the Duke game with a record of 7-0. Wade’s Duke team was 5-2, having lost to Georgia Tech and Auburn. Although the AP poll didn’t start until 1936, several national newspaper polls had UNC in the top five and they were considered a good bet to win an invitation to the Rose Bowl if they could get past Duke. Keep in mind that the Rose Bowl, at this time, matched the top team from the East against the top team from the West, and was easily the most prestigious bowl game going.

The game attracted national attention but the Southern Conference refused to let CBS broadcast the game over its national radio network. Temporary bleachers were erected, enabling Duke to cram a record 46,880 into the stadium. It was claimed that this was the largest crowd in southern football history. Reports were that some mid-field tickets were scalped for the outrageous sum of $7.50, three times face value; remember this was the middle of the Great Depression.

The game was played in a steady drizzle. Early in the second quarter UNC moved 87 yards, much of it on a first-down, fake-punt; teams routinely punted on first down in those days if they were backed up. Duke held inside the ten, however, and UNC missed the short field goal. It would be their best chance. Duke took a 6-0 lead into halftime, when Jule Ward scored from 47 yards out on a reverse. Early in the third period Duke’s “Ace” Parker punted the ball dead at the UNC two. A subsequent interception led to another Duke score and a 13-0 lead. UNC moved to the Duke 25 but fumbled. On their next possession Jack Alexander intercepted a pass at the Duke ten and sprinted 90 yards for the touchdown that broke the game open. Parker ended the scoring with a 30-yard run, making the final score 25-0. Carolina committed seven turnovers.

UNC won its final game to finish 8-1, while Duke finished 8-2, but with the Southern Conference title. Neither team went to a bowl game. Writers at the time considered this to be the game that put Duke on the national map. Perhaps the 2000 Devils can take a page from that book, knock their archrivals out of a bowl, and begin something special. We’ll see.

Jim Sumner is curator of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and historian at the North Carolina Museum of History. He is a 1972 graduate of Duke University. His email address is