The annual meeting of Duke and Carolina's football teams is a continuation of one of the most interesting rivalries in the history of the sport. The series can be characterized as a player's and coach's dream and a fan's delight. It has everything—history, controversy, intensity, and trickery, all heightened by the schools being only eight miles apart.
The first game was an historic occasion. Trinity College challenged the University of North Carolina to the first football game in the South played according to the new "scientific rules" of the American Intercollegiate Conference. The game was played on Thanksgiving Day, 1888, at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh, and Trinity won 16-0.
The rivalry heated up immediately. Controversy over a game played in 1889 persists to this day.
After the first game in 1888, several schools met to organize the North Carolina Inter-Collegiate Football Association. Initially run by students, the organization had a complicated set of eligibility rules, voting rights, and by-laws. Institutional administrations and faculty quickly weighed in with additional regulations about travel and not playing games during examination time.
The evolving, new rules complicated scheduling, but they also were used to not play a game if one of the teams appeared weaker than its opponent. In 1889, Wake Forest defeated UNC and Trinity defeated Wake Forest, leaving the Trinity-UNC game to determine the conference championship. Trinity proposed several dates for the game before exams and the deadline for the end of the winter season on Jan. 15. Trinity also agreed to a game in Chapel Hill because the UNC faculty ruled that the team could not play games away from campus.
The game was never scheduled and never played. Carolina claimed that the Jan. 15 end-of-season date was unconstitutional. Trinity claimed otherwise. Carolina claimed a forfeit victory. Trinity did the same. To this day, more than a century later, the schools disagree over the number of wins in the victory column of the series.
In 1992, Bill Cromartie published Battle of the Blues, Duke vs. Carolina, a game-by-game history of the series to that date. The author of six similar books on collegiate football rivalries, Cromartie claimed the Duke-UNC rivalry was among the very best in the nation. It had as many close games and games won in the last quarter as any rivalry.
At the date of Cromartie’s book, UNC led the series 37-34-4. Carolina had scored 161 touchdowns and 1,176 points. Duke had scored 154 touchdowns and 1,116 points. The average score was 15.7 to 14.9. There was hardly a home-field advantage at all, with the home team having a record of 35-34-4. (Two games were played at a neutral site in Raleigh).
With such amazingly close statistics, it is no surprise that perhaps the most talked about games have been the 25-0 Duke win in 1935 and the 50-0 Carolina win in 1959. Duke’s surprising upset in 1935 kept UNC from receiving a much-anticipated invitation to the Rose Bowl, and UNC's win in 1959 was a then relatively new nationally televised game on Thanksgiving Day.
However, Duke's 17-13 upset with the "shoestring play" in 1969 may rival the blowouts for attention. With the game tied late in the third quarter, Duke used a trick play to forge ahead. As quarterback Leo Hart stooped to tie his shoelace, the entire Duke team lined up on the left side of the ball. Flanker Marcell Courtillet picked up the ball and tossed it to Wes Chesson, who went down the sideline to score. The area had experienced an earthquake the previous Wednesday night. On Saturday, sportswriters called the Duke play another "earth tremor."
Intercollegiate football achieved a special status in the 1920s, especially with UNC and Duke dedicating spectacular new stadiums in 1927 and 1929. In 1931, Duke hired Wallace Wade, a highly successful coach at the University of Alabama who had taken two teams to the prestigious Rose Bowl. He repeated that success at Duke, gaining Rose Bowl invitations for the Blue Devils in 1939 and 1942.
Wade’s assistant, Eddie Cameron, also took a Duke team to the Sugar Bowl in 1945 when Wade was in the Army during World War II. Southern rivalries developed between Duke, Georgia Tech, and Tennessee, but the most hotly contested game became the season-ending one with Carolina. From 1931 through 1945, Wade and Cameron compiled an 11-3-2 record against the Tar Heels, avenging a series of seven losses and one tie in the 1920s.
The Duke-Carolina rivalry peaked in the post-World War II years during the Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice era at UNC. Duke had its largest home crowds ever at the Carolina games in 1947 and 1949. Bleachers were added to the 35,000-seat stadium, and those games attracted more than 56,000 fans, even more than the 1942 Rose Bowl held at Duke.
Such excitement spurred a variety of activities by students and fans. Duke freshmen were given the responsibility of guarding a huge bonfire that Carolina students tried to light prematurely before the campus-wide pep rally. Duke instituted the selection of a Homecoming Queen in 1948, and Carolina started its annual "Beat Dook" parade.
Amid the escalating hoopla and high jinks associated with the rivalry, the 1948 head cheerleaders, Loring Jones for Duke and Norm Speer for UNC, met to discuss the exchange of something symbolic at the game. They probably had the well-known Harvard-Yale "Old Oaken Bucket" or the Michigan-Minnesota "Little Brown Jug" in mind. Speer found a railroad engine bell, and Jones' engineering drawing professor designed a cart.
With no money for construction, the cheerleaders approached the Duke Athletic Association for funds. They then had a Durham machine shop construct the cart, and polish the brass bell. The Duke Men's Student Government Association reported the hope that "the token of friendly rivalry would foster friendly relations and eliminate vandalism between the two neighboring schools."
The bell was painted half Duke blue and half Carolina blue and shared for half of the 1948 season with the victor of the game retaining possession. The Tar Heels won the game and the bell. It has been exchanged 18 times, with Carolina winning 29 games to Duke’s 19 with one tie.
Today, most fans think of the Duke-UNC rivalry in terms of basketball, but it is clearly as strong in football as well, and baseball and soccer and field hockey and crew and any sport where the two nearby rivals meet, including debate, moot court, and math competitions!
- Athletics Reference Collection, 1888-2005 (collection guide)
- Football Records, 1922-ongoing (collection guide)