Pre-K: Inside the early days and origins of the Tobacco Road Rivalry
For 42 years, “Coach K” and “the rivalry” were intrinsically linked. Mike Krzyzewski dominated the Duke-North Carolina narrative, leading the competition and stoking the fire. Without his familiar face as leader, many wondered about the future of the rivalry. Duke’s 1,560 students have camped out in Krzyzewskiville, and the hundreds more who have failed in their search for that coveted real estate, disagree.
Just as the rivalry didn’t die with Krzyzewski, it didn’t start with him either. Duke and North Carolina have faced off on the hard court since 1920, and those first 60 years paved the way for the modern Triangle college basketball landscape.
The first game for both programs was on January 24, 1920. True schools of football at the time, basketball took precedence, funding, and publicity for the early years. The Tar Heels dominated the first decade, winning all but four of the 1920s matchups. Duke football head coach Eddie Cameron took over the program in 1929, guiding it to the Southern Conference and into the national spotlight. Cameron kept the rivalry competitive throughout his tenure, although he moved to sporting director after World War II. The early days of the rivalry were still heated and competitive, but not quite by modern standards. It will take a few decades for this current hostility to reveal itself.
A despised coach
While Duke and North Carolina, fueled by their eight-mile proximity and enduring success, always had an adversarial athletic relationship, it was heightened in 1959. Tar Heel head coach Frank McGuire had a firm cemented his program at the top of the college basketball ranks, winning the 1957 national championship to cap an undefeated season. The New York native dominated the North East recruiting scene and Art Heyman was the player to enter the Class of 1959. He had signed his national letter of intent to play for McGuire at Chapel Hill, but his family visit went wrong. Heyman’s stepfather and McGuire had a falling out, and Heyman opted out of North Carolina.
“I had to come between them,” Heyman said of the incident, according to GoDuke.com. “My stepdad called Carolina a basketball factory and McGuire didn’t like it. They were about to start swinging at each other.
Shortly after Heyman’s initial recruiting, Duke brought in Vic Bubas as the next head coach. Bubas was hired from staff at NC State where he had worked under head coach Everett Case for eight years. The Gary, Indiana native was an expert recruiter and continued to pursue Heyman despite his commitment, specifically targeting his family. His perseverance paid off.
“He charmed my mother and my stepfather,” Heyman said. “They made me go to Duke.”
McGuire’s failure to maintain one of the best players in the country and losing Heyman to his rival took the rivalry to new heights. When the Blue Devil and Tar Heel freshman teams met in 1960, Heyman was punched in the mouth, an injury that required five stitches. The violence was indicative of what was to come, as the striker would soon set the rivalry on fire.
In the 1960-61 season, Heyman left for the Blue Devils as a sophomore. Duke had just won the ACC Tournament before losing in the Eastern Regional Final of the 1960 NCAA Tournament to NYU. Tobacco Road’s first matchup of the season ended in a 76-71 loss to Duke. Doug Moe of North Carolina stopped Heyman for the final 35 minutes. The Blue Devils took the loss personally, winning six straight and climbing to fourth in the AP poll with a 15-1 record heading into the rematch. The Tar Heels were seeded fifth at 14-2.
The game was lousy. With 15 seconds remaining, Duke led 80-75 after two free throws from Heyman. North Carolina guard Larry Brown drove to the basket and was fouled by Heyman. This hard fault, probably unnecessary, was enough to overflow the tension. Brown tossed the ball at Heyman and the two began trading blows. Both benches quickly cleared as officers rushed onto the field to break up the fight.
While the violence on the pitch is exemplary of the two schools’ feelings for each other, the events that followed seem familiar to anyone involved in the rivalry. A debate immediately ensued regarding the first punch, with much of the media claiming Heyman landed the initial blow. Bubas’ answer? The coach called a press conference the following day to release footage of the fight for all media members present, clearly showing Brown hitting Heyman first.
“I think at that time Duke replaced [N.C.] State as Carolina’s big rival, and basically it has been ever since,” journalist and longtime Duke pundit Jim Sumner told The Chronicle.
“The Fight”, as it was coined, proved disastrous for the seasons of both programs. Heyman, Brown and Tar Heel Donnie Walsh have been suspended for the remainder of the season. This season was McGuire’s last with North Carolina, as his recruiting tactics got him in trouble with league administrators, resulting in NCAA probation for the Tar Heels. He quit and was replaced by eventual North Carolina legend Dean Smith.
Back and forth
Although the Tar Heels won the regular season finale, beating the Blue Devils 69-66 in overtime, McGuire’s departure launched Duke on a winning streak that it would maintain for most of the 1960s. 1965-66 season, the Blue Devils had won nine of the last 11 meetings, including two in the ACC tournament. Those two losses, however, were crucial to Smith’s career in North Carolina.
On January 6, 1965, the Tar Heels fell hard to Wake Forest, their fourth straight loss. The frustration with Smith had reached a breaking point. The team returned to the Woolen Gymnasium after a beating of an effigy of Smith hanging from a tree outside. The hateful display sparked a fire under North Carolina – he hadn’t beaten Duke since the Tar Heels won overtime in 1961, and had a quick three-day turnaround before making the eight-mile drive to at Duke Indoor Stadium.
There, for the first time in his career, Smith and his unranked Tar Heels defeated No. 8 Duke. They will repeat the feat a few weeks later in Chapel Hill. Smith had redeemed himself in the eyes of the faithful in North Carolina. Two seasons later, he took his team to the first of three consecutive Final Fours, and while the Blue Devils still managed to pull off an upset here and there, the Tar Heels ruled the next decade of Triangle basketball.
Bubas moved into administration in 1969. Bucky Waters and Neill McGeachy, his successors, kept the team afloat, but neither could do better than a fourth-place finish at the NIT. In 1974 Bill Foster arrived in Durham to attempt to right the fallen Blue Devil ship.
Foster began his tenure by defeating No. 8 North Carolina in the Big Four tournament.
It was a feat he wouldn’t repeat for another three years, but a proud accomplishment, nonetheless. Foster spent his early seasons putting together the broken pieces of Duke’s program, bringing in solid players and setting up his 1977-78 crowning glory.
January 14, 1978 was the next time the Blue Devils took down the Tar Heels. Foster had honed his team, consisting of junior Jim Spanarkel, second Mike Gminski and freshman duo Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard, all future NBA players. At Cameron Indoor Stadium, Foster’s team upset North Carolina’s No. 2 to cement themselves in the conversation of the top teams in the country.
“1978 was, for the first time since maybe 1968, the programs were on par,” Sumner said.
Although the then-13th-placed Blue Devils fell to the eighth-placed Tar Heels in the second game of the season, Duke would not lose again until the national championship game against Kentucky, its first Final Four appearance since the Bubas era. The programs traded their next five contests to close the last two seasons with Foster at the helm of the Blue Devils. To replace him, Duke hired the Army head coach with a long Polish last name – and the rest is history.
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Rachel Kaplan | Blue Zone Assistant Editor
Rachael Kaplan is a sophomore at Trinity and associate editor of Blue Zone’s 118th volume of The Chronicle.