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What Drives The Duke-UNC Rivalry?

That’s easy. The politics of manners.

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North Carolina v Duke
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 09: Marques Bolden #20 of the Duke Blue Devils blocks a shot by Luke Maye #32 of the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

With the Super Bowl behind us, as Al Featherston points out every so often, ESPN uses the first Duke-UNC game to make college basketball the sports focus through April.

It’s the right choice really. There are some great rivalries in college basketball - Kentucky-Louisville, Xavier-Cincinnati and though it’s faded a bit since Syracuse left the Big East for the ACC, Syracuse-Georgetown.

But Duke-UNC is different.

First, as everyone likes to note, the schools are very close physically, just eight or 11 miles apart, depending on who you asked. We never measured, but if you can ride a bike from one to the other, they’re close.

Second is the academic nature of the schools. UNC is the People’s University, or that’s the conceit anyway. A lot of people in this state would agree with Jesse Helm’s old crack that “North Carolina doesn't need a zoo. Just put a fence around Chapel Hill.”

It’s sort of a dual identity: on the one hand it is a fine public university and accessible to any smart kid in the state who busts his or her butt. On the other, it is in many ways detached from the state and exists in a world of its own. For all the talk about Duke being a school of elitists snobs, people in Chapel Hill have always to an extent seen the rest of the state as a collection of boobs and dimwits who aren’t as enlightened as the folks on the Hill who generally think they know better.

That makes the whole Duke-is-for-snobs thing a bit hard to swallow. The traditional taunt is that everyone from Duke is from New Jersey but there are a couple of things about that that bug us.

First, and maybe it’s just us, but we like almost everyone we’ve ever met from New Jersey. They’re unpretentious, warm and funny and generally nice people. The stereotype there is grossly unfair.

Second, you don’t have to watch a Duke game for long to understand that Duke’s student body is from all over. If the New Jersey thing ever worked, it doesn’t work like that anymore. A lot of those kids are first or second generation Americans and have busted their butts too.

And third, we’ve always felt that saying “New Jersey” when it came to Duke always held a certain of anti-Semitism and even if not, a level of bigotry that the enlightened people in Chapel Hill are supposedly above.

As the rivalry proves, we’re all tribalists to some extent and our disdain is directed at those outside our various tribes.

The nice thing about the rivalry, and a great driving force behind its intensity, is that we have to live with each other.

After a game you see your co-worker or boss or neighbor or, God help you your spouse, and you are polite and complimentary.

And then the door closes and if your guys won, you laugh and pump your fist and if your guys lost, you curse and flip the bird although hopefully not to your spouse because out of that great sea of the wrong blue, aside from that one flaw, you do love your spouse.

The secret of the rivalry is that you have to live with each other. You can’t destroy Toomers Corner like that idiot Alabama fan did to Auburn. You’re required to be polite.

But as psychologists tell us, subverting your emotion tends to make it stronger, so when you’re polite and say congratulations, great game, or whatever, behind that is the real emotion, the desire to see the other team annihilated in competition.

Repression in the name of civility makes this rivalry far, far more intense than any other.

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