Three days ago, before Duke poo-poo’d all over itself during a ghastly second half and gave the folks in Chapel Hill something to be happy about, Joel Berry II did what every single Tar Heel fan does before each of the annual clashes between N.C. State and UNC. Yes, he denied that the Wolfpack and Tar Heels have a rivalry, saying he only counts the Duke-UNC clashes as his rivalry games.
As a lifelong N.C. State fan—and, in the interest of disclosure, as a Duke fan, by way of going there—I carry some bias where this particular type of disphittery is concerned. That noted, this rivalry-related tic is easily the second-most tired of all the stock lines you tend to hear from Tar Heels and Blue Devils fans—the first, by far, is the belief that referring to the students at the state’s leading agricultural and ag-business university as “farmers” is an insult. Duke (and Durham) was bought and built with tobacco money, you fucking rubes, and UNC was built and expanded with the tax dollars paid by citizens, who, up until the 1970s, were largely... small family farmers. Read a book about this and you’ll both learn something about your state and develop better, more pointed insults. (For UNC athletes: “books” are those rectangle things you sometimes see other students holding; “rectangles” are like squares, but a little longer; “students” are the other people on campus.)
I do get Berry’s point, to an extent. UNC and its groupies are hardwired to believe that N.C. State’s constant ineptitude denies them a chance to be their rivals—those rank farmers don’t even deserve to get stomped out by 18 points every year. Ever since the disastrous Sidney Lowe administration, North Carolina State has struggled to hold up its end of making its relationship with UNC feel like an actual rivalry. As the nation saw last night, Duke-UNC almost always, somehow, lives up to the hype. The games are close, heated, and regularly feature a minimum of five NBA-grade highlights—Trevon Duval’s stunner of a tomahawk, for instance, came just five minutes into Thursday’s contest.
N.C. State-UNC games, on the other hand, are merely an extension of the everyday life of a Wolfpack fan. You lose most of them, terribly, but every three or four years, you’ll sneak a win and get to storm the court; after that, whoever’s the head coach will play the win up in the media and probably earn a minimum of two undeserved years on a contract extension. When that coach is canned sometime before that extension’s end, his record will be revealed to have been barely average. It’s frustrating, but you get used to it.
It’s fair to say that the UNC-N.C. State rivalry is widely accepted on the football field, where the two middling programs have been a bit more evenly matched in their mediocrity. But to grow up and cheer for such a resolutely unremarkable team in a state that features two programs that have been to 25 of the past 37 Final Fours and claimed 10 national titles—this is not easy. It is a very real form of masochism.
But while nobody would argue that this is a balanced rivalry, that doesn’t change the fact of its existence. It is really, really unbalanced—the best two coaches in N.C. State’s history, Norm Sloan and Jim Valvano, went a combined 20-44 against Dean Smith’s program. The only two decades from which the Wolfpack emerged with the upper-hand were the 1910s and the 1950s. As of today, there are only two Wolfpack coaches with a winning record against their Chapel Hill counterparts: Everett Case (who led the program from 1946-1964) and Kevin Keatts, N.C. State’s current head coach. He was hired prior to this season and his record currently sits at 1-0.
But to discount the decades of great UNC-N.C. State battles fought by Bob Speight and Mel Thompson or David Thompson and Tommy Burleson or Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey in favor of the past (boring, lopsided) 15 years is to discount the very idea of a rivalry. The point of being someone’s rival isn’t just that you’re both extremely good at the same time and butt heads over who’s better. Rivalry is grounded in wanting to beat the hell out of a particular opponent, even when you know you’re far and away the better team on paper, just because of who that opponent is. Berry betrayed his entire foundation when he admitted in the above clip, “We just don’t like them.” That’s the whole point, doofus! That’s a rivalry! Yes, N.C. State is in the middle of the pack in the ACC; yes, Keatts’s two wins over UNC and Duke will likely provide him the same cushion they provided Mark Gottfried and Lowe before him; yes, N.C. State will probably be bounced in the first or second round this year. None of that matters, really.
What matters is that Tar Heel fans burn hotter when N.C. State beats them than they do when, say, Wake Forest or Clemson manages the feat. Of course, UNC fans hate losing to Duke; in that scenario, they’re losing to pretentious assholes. The Tar Heels can always comfort themselves by pointing to their six national titles, but that will not humble a Duke program that 1) has five of its own and 2) cannot, by definition, be humbled. What causes UNC fans discomfort at the thought of losing to N.C. State fans, I think, is that the dynamic in this rivalry turns them into the pretentious assholes; they think themselves above the rivalry, simply because the Wolfpack lacks the pedigree, what with the program’s mere two national championship banners and 10 ACC titles. Carolina fans get to be the upstarts against snobby-ass Duke, and that feels great. It’s less appealing when they find themselves in the Duke role against N.C. State.
It’s all very dumb, honestly, and extremely college sports. But just because the Wolfpack typically sucks doesn’t mean this rivalry suddenly disappears. It just devalues it, apparently to the point that the current starting point guard for the Tar Heels feels compelled to pull the “I’m not owned!” move to cover up the fact that he played 41 minutes and scored six points in his team’s Jan. 27 overtime loss to the Wolfpack.
Berry won his final home-court Duke-UNC rivalry game last night; if there’s any justice in this world, he will finish his final Tar Heel season 0-2 against his non-rivals. It won’t bother him much, I’m sure.