Like the Hatfield-McCoy feud, hardly anyone knows why the Duke-Carolina rivalry got so hot and contentious in the first place.
Over 50% of the people who live in North Carolina were not born here. To many of them, the vituperative nature of the rivalry must seem confusing and odd given the stature of both universities as great institutions of research, medicine and higher education.
Memories of Gerald Henderson’s elbow breaking Tyler Hansbrough’s nose makes Tar Heel fans fume about Duke’s dirty players. Photos of Eric Montross shooting free throws with blood running down his face incite Carolina fans to swear Duke’s mascot really is Lucifer dressed in blue.
Walter Davis’ 35-foot bank shot to tie the game in 1974 after being down 8 with 17 seconds to play makes Duke fans visibly collapse at its memory. Say “Austin Rivers” and Tar Heel fans shudder remembering his 3-point rainbow to win by 1 for Duke at the buzzer.
Old-timers point to the 10-minute brawl between Duke’s Art Heyman and Carolina’s Larry Brown in 1961 that spilled into the stands at Duke as the start of the red-hot rivalry. Heyman was supposed to follow fellow Long Islander Brown to Carolina but didn’t and bad blood boiled between the two players and schools for years to come.
Why did the Duke-Carolina rivalry reach such a fever pitch? Competition gets heated between any rival teams. What made Duke-Carolina go nuclear?
According to personal accounts of protagonists at the time, the real reason started when a slick New York Catholic coach, Frank McGuire, came to Chapel Hill in 1952 and brought a slew of great Catholic and Jewish basketball players with him from New York City.
Football was still king in the South in the 1950s. Duke and Carolina football players would have a few beers after games in a collegial manner and swap tall tales for hours on end. There was a common admiration and friendship, not hatred and disdain.
Frank McGuire shook up the gentlemanly nature of the athletic community in North Carolina and the ACC. He sported slick pomaded hair, wore expensive tailored suits and talked in a brusque, clipped New Yawk accent that irritated every Southerner who heard it.
Duke fans hated him. So did fans of every other ACC team.
To make matters worse, for Duke fans especially, McGuire brought a national title to Chapel Hill in 1957 with an undefeated team no less.
Soon there was talk about “recruiting irregularities” under Coach McGuire which caused even the UNC administration to become more than slightly “uncomfortable” with the Tar Heel coach.
When Duke Athletic Director Eddie Cameron went public with his concerns about McGuire’s recruiting tactics, Coach McGuire held a press conference specifically to call Cameron a “prick” for questioning his integrity.
All hell broke loose in the Duke athletic department.
Duke Football Coach Bill Murray, renowned for his vice-like handshakes, swore he would kill McGuire for insulting his friend Eddie Cameron and got into his car heading to Chapel Hill to do just that.
Somehow an assistant coach cut him off in a chase car before Murray got to Chapel Hill to commit capital murder with his bare hands and disaster was averted.
Seething anger became deep-set in the Duke football program under Murray and emotions and fistfights spilled out on the gridiron often during the annual year-end Duke-Carolina games.
But it was on the basketball court in hot, steamy Duke Indoor Stadium and Carmichael Auditorium where the Duke-Carolina rivalry became molten steel-hot and still is to this day. Having national title caliber talent, teams and coaches battle each other for the past 60 years has only added to the rivalry every winter.
You can thank Frank McGuire and Bill Murray for igniting the rivalry every time you watch the next Duke Carolina classic. It would not be the same without them.