North Carolina and the Blue Devils are bitter enemies on the hardwood, but they also have a fascinating history on the gridiron you may not be aware of.
It’s one of the most storied rivalries in all of sports. Duke and Carolina.
Naturally, men’s basketball is the ultimate staging area for bragging rights between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. Neither school is known as a football powerhouse — to say the very, very least — or even one with a ton of fan interest compared to traditional ACC powers like Florida State or Clemson.
But there will be plenty on the line for the Tar Heels and Blue Devils when they meet on Saturday for the 108th time. In fact, the footballing history between the two neighbors might be a whole lot more intriguing than you realize.
North Carolina hosts the annual battle for the Victory Bell this season. It’s Duke’s first ACC contest of 2021, and though David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils are off to a 3-1 start, that one loss is to the Charlotte 49ers and none of their wins is all that impressive. Mack Brown’s Carolina, meanwhile, is 2-2 (1-2 ACC). The Tar Heels are coming off a disappointing loss to Georgia Tech after starting the season with a close loss to Virginia Tech and two blowout wins.
Both teams need a win on Saturday, adding some more flavor to an oft-overlooked rivalry. Even by fellow athletes. Jay Williams, who played for Duke from 1999 to 2002 before going No. 2 in the NBA Draft, had fond memories of the lead-up to football games.
Though not exactly the games themselves.
“I didn’t go to the game. Never went to a football game,” he told Boardroom. “I went to a lot of tailgates.”
But he conceded that with everything on the line this time, maybe this would be a good year to tune in.
UNC-Duke Football Rivalry by the Numbers
Total meetings: 107
Official record: UNC leads 63-40-4
First meeting: 27 November 1888 (Duke 16, UNC 0)
Longest win streak: 13 (UNC from 1990 to 2002)
Consensus All-Americans: UNC 14, Duke 5
Active NFL players: UNC 13, Duke 11
Officially, North Carolina leads the all-time football series with a 63-40-4 record.
That record is, however, not accepted as gospel in Durham.
The dispute dates back to 1889 when the two teams were set to meet for just the third time ever. Both schools claimed they should have been the home team in that game, and so both stayed on their own respective campuses and claimed victory by forfeit. The official record books ultimately give the nod to Carolina, but in Duke’s own archives, it’s Blue Devils win.
Forfeits aside, the college now known as Duke — they were called Trinity College until 1924 — won the first three games that were actually played on the field. From there, however, Carolina won 10 of the next 11. Both sides have had their share of dominant runs, with Duke winning 11 out of 15 in the 1930s and 40s, then seven in a row in the 1950s.
More recently, North Carolina won every Victory Bell game but one from 1990 to 2007, including 13 straight from ’90 to ’02.
The Victory Bell
Like many football rivalries, Duke and North Carolina have silly traditions to go along with it. The most prominent involves the actual trophy, the Victory Bell. The trophy entered the rivalry in 1948, made from the remains of an old train. For a while, that was all there was to the Victory Bell, which changed hands each season depending on the winner.
In 2004, the two teams added another wrinkle: The winning team began spray painting the bell in its school colors — Carolina Blue for UNC and Royal Blue for Duke. It was a harmless element added to the postgame celebration… until 2014, when the Heels beat Duke in Durham. They spray-painted the bell as normal on the field, but then took things much further, giving their locker room, the Duke practice field, and part of Duke’s practice facility a similar Carolina Blue makeover.
UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham and then-coach Larry Fedora coughed up $27,170.44 to pay for the damage.
This led to a new look for the bell in 2016 that was meant to represent both sides with a base split down the middle and featuring Duke and Carolina’s respective logos. Fans and players alike took this as a sign that the spray painting days were over and, not surprisingly, it didn’t go over well. Then-UNC defensive tackle Nazair Jones even offered to take matters into his own hands.
Cunningham was eventually forced to relent, assuring everyone that the spray paint tradition would continue. Crisis averted.
North Carolina is a 20-point favorite, as of this writing, so Vegas doesn’t seem to think last week’s letdown is a harbinger of things to come. Quarterback Sam Howell was preseason ACC Player of the Year, but has been inconsistent this season. He threw three interceptions in the Tar Heels’ loss to the the Hokies and was sacked eight times against Georgia Tech.
In the Tar Heels’ wins, however, he’s been extraordinary. He threw for five touchdowns against Virginia, adding three more against Georgia State along with two rushing touchdowns.
On the Blue Devils’ side, preseason All-ACC running back Mataeo Durant leads the way. He has more than twice as many rushing attempts as anyone else on the team and has translated that into eight touchdowns and an average of 130.5 yards per game, which ranks third in FBS.
Ironically, Durant’s best performance came in the Charlotte loss, when he set a program record with 255 yards.
With the heavily favored Tar Heels looking to bounce back at the expense of their most heated rival, Durant will need another monster game to give the Blue Devils a chance.
No matter who wins, however, expect the spray paint to come out around 3 p.m. ET. It doesn’t matter that it’s not happening at the Smith Center or Cameron Indoor; Duke-UNC is always, eternally Duke-UNC.