Mack Brown remembers a Carolina-Duke game early in his first tenure as head coach of the Tar Heels. It was 1992, and UNC was on the verge of returning to a bowl game, Brown’s first since suffering through twin 1-10 seasons in his first two years with the team.
“I had just married Sally,” he recalled, “and they said, ‘If you lose to Duke, you’ll play in Hawaii, at the Hula Bowl. If you beat Duke, you’ll go to play in the Peach Bowl.’ Sally said to me, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope we lose! We’d get to go to Hawaii!’”
Brown had to quickly give his new bride her first lesson in the rivalry game.
“I said, ‘No, sweetie. That’s not the way this works. If you beat Duke, you’ll have enough money to go to Hawaii. If you lose to Duke, you’ll probably get fired.’”
Brown and the Tar Heels beat Duke that year, and each of the five following seasons before he left to coach Texas. Since returning to the sidelines in Chapel Hill, he’s beaten Duke all four times they’ve played. It’s safe to say that streak of victories has helped him and Sally afford to make the trip to Hawaii a few times.
While most coaches tend to downplay what the rest of us think of as “big games,” the coachspeak goes out the window when it’s Carolina-Duke week. It’s a must-win or, to be more accurate, a mustn’t-lose, and everyone on both sides knows it.
“Carolina-Duke is bigger than anything else,” Brown said. “The rivalry game this week is bigger than what happens at the end of the year with the postseason … any of that stuff. This is a fun game that’s been played for so long, that’s really important to both schools. So I would say this game overrides everything else.”
Duke coach Mike Elko also wasn’t pulling out any “it’s important because it’s our next game” cliches.
“Everybody knows what this game means and what this game is about around here,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for our seniors to go and compete and try to get the bell and bring it the hell back here to Durham, and so that’s not something that we take lightly. We understand how important that is to our fans, our alumni and all the people associated with Duke football.”
As if the game needed any more heat applied to it, both Carolina and Duke are still fighting for position in the second tier of the ACC (defined as “all the bowl teams after Florida State”) and hold out hopes of making it to the conference championship game next month.
It will also be homecoming at UNC, as well as Senior Day. And if the final home game for the senior class wasn’t emotional enough, there’s a good chance it will include a notable junior as well.
“I love Drake Maye like a son,” Brown said of his star quarterback, who is likely playing his last home game with the Tar Heels. “We will ask him if he wants to (participate in the pregame senior ceremony). It’s not my place to tell him to. … He’s so humble and doesn’t want attention brought to himself, but I think it would be cool for him to walk out there, for everybody to say thank you.”
While UNC knows who will be starting at quarterback in the game, Duke’s quarterback situation is still fluid. Riley Leonard has been battling an ankle injury and missed last week’s game, as did freshman backup Henry Belin IV. Grayson Loftis got the start and became just the third true freshman in Duke history to win his first start and the first since 1976.
“We don’t want to be surprised,” Brown said of preparing for all three Duke quarterbacks. The UNC coach, however, wouldn’t be surprised to see Leonard take the first snap of the game. “In a game like this one, most guys play if there’s any way they could possibly play.”
The winner of the game will get possession of the Victory Bell, which has been in Chapel Hill for the last four years, the longest stretch it has remained in one place since Carolina won eight in a row from 2004 to 2011.
“At the end of the day, this game means an awful lot,” Elko said. “It means an awful lot to us. It means an awful lot to them. Any time that’s the case and there’s such proximity between the schools, that just adds a level of intensity to it.
“So I think going through it you recognize the intensity, you recognize that neither program is going to give an inch. You recognize that both programs and teams are going to fight all the way to the end, and it’s going take a full 60 minutes’ worth of playmaking and maybe even more for somebody to walk out of there with the bell.”
It reflected an attitude that the coach on the other side of the field could certainly appreciate.
“Mike was new last year,” Brown said of his Duke counterpart. “He’ll understand that he wants that bell.