Let’s begin with a simple truth. The University of North Carolina has rivalries with both Duke and NC State. The “not our rival” cheer that Carolina fans love breaking out is actually proof positive that a rivalry exists between the two schools; it wouldn’t have any impact otherwise. The true intention of “not our rival” is to pour salt in the wounds of a fanbase that wants to break a relative cycle of losing.

That said while those who dismiss the existence of the State-UNC rivalry are either trolling or not paying attention, there are definite differences in the way Carolina’s rivalries with Duke and State are approached by the school, the media, and the athletes involved. These distinctions are easily recognized on the hardcourt — the 24 hour ESPN Classic Marathons, the multiple documentaries and Dick Vitale’s soliloquies distinguish the Duke-UNC basketball rivalry as something not only distinct from the UNC-State rivalry but from all other college basketball rivalries in the country.

It wasn’t always that way. During the 70s and most of the 80s the UNC-NC State rivalry reigned supreme on Tobacco Road. Coach K took the reigns at Duke, establishing the Blue Devils as a college basketball powerhouse right around the same time NC State was crippled by NCAA sanctions. While the Duke-UNC rivalry flourished in the late 80s then hit its peak in the early 90s, the Wolfpack was forced to watch its biggest rival move on into the national spotlight consistently.

Though the Tar Heel-Wolfpack basketball rivalry seems doomed to exist in the shadow of Duke-UNC, the football rivalry between the two biggest public universities in the state has remained equally preeminent for both fanbases. Despite neither program’s ability establish national relevance the UNC-NC State rivalry reached a peak during the Tom O’Brien era during which the Wolfpack reeled off a five-game win streak, several of which were made possible by the late game heroics of Russell Wilson.

It would take heroics to break the streak as well. In the fall of 2012, under the leadership of first year coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels finally took down State thanks to Gio Bernard’s game winning punt return with just seconds remaining. It was a kitchen sink game for the Tar Heels who broke out a gimmicky-yet-awesome switch to Chrome Helmets right before kickoff.

A week before that game in 2012, the Tar Heels had lost to Duke on a last second touchdown by Jamison Crowder that gave the Blue Devils the rights to the Victory Bell for the first time since 2003. At the time it seemed like a one year anomaly, the perfect coinciding of a bowl ineligible Carolina team versus a Duke team that was playing for bowl eligibility for the first time in what felt like forever. Even if the Victory Bell was going to spend the year in Durham the bitter taste was quickly eliminated by Gio’s return.

It wasn’t until the following year that the rivalry tides began to shift. State fired Tom O’Brien after the 2012 season, replacing him with Dave Doeren and proceeded to not win a single ACC game. Meanwhile rather than fading back to irrelevance Duke put together a banner season, going 10-2 in the ACC and making the ACC Championship game. Even still, the State-Carolina game was treated like the “bigger” game for UNC — Fedora made headlines by filling the locker room with “Our State”1 banners in Wolfpack Red, White, and Black. Eric Ebron made headlines by talking trash before, during and after the game.

Now back to Thursday night in Durham. The Tar Heels warmed up in black helmets then re-emerged for kickoff in Carolina Blue Chrome helmets. What was so striking about this display was that it was the exact type of gimmick UNC has pulled against NC State the last couple years. While Fedora will likely do something to add extra motivation for the NCSU-UNC game this week, Carolina seems content to spend their “good surprise” on the Blue Devils.

And while the Chrome Helmets may have been the most obvious evidence, the shift could be noticed in more subtle ways amongst the members of the Tar Heel football team. In every one of the “all access” videos that was posted by the GoHeels media account, the players celebrate victories by singing the “I’m a Tar Heel” fight song. While the original verse ends with “Rah Rah Rah” it is commonly sung as follows:

I’m a Tar Heel born I’m a Tar Heel bred
And when I die I’m a Tar Heel dead.
So it’s RAH, RAH, Car’lina ‘lina
RAH, RAH, Car’lina ‘lina
RAH, RAH, Car’lina 
GO TO HELL _____

From the 70’s to the 90’s the blank was commonly filled in with “State” but ever since the rise UNC-Duke basketball rivalry in the 90’s it is more commonly finished with “Duke.” Still, you’d occasionally hear the “State” version sung at football games over the last several years. But if you watch any of the instances of this year’s football team singing the song there isn’t a single “State” to be heard. While people can debate whether Duke has overtaken State as Carolina’s primary football rival, it’s clear which team the current players view as their primary adversary. If you think I’m extrapolating too much from a fight song, current Tar Heel linebacker Norkeithus Otis put it directly in his press conference this yesterday.

Obviously the perspective of the athletes involved doesn’t always perfectly align with that of the fanbase. A majority of North Carolina fans would still cite NC State as Carolina’s biggest gridiron rival if forced to give an honest, non-trolling answer. That said, the magnitude of each rivalry to some extent follows Newton’s Third Law — an opponent perceived as more “powerful” will merit an equivalently powerful response in terms of the rivalry. During the Tom O’Brien era the Wolfpack remained formidable despite only achieving middling ACC success because they just kept beating UNC head-to-head. Over the past couple years, Duke has not only beaten the Tar Heels, but they fielded a team that last year achieved a level of success in ACC play that State and Carolina have fallen short of the past decade.

NC State will always have a rivalry with North Carolina. But if the Wolfpack don’t want to end up taking a backseat to the UNC-Duke rivalry in another major sport they must reestablish a trend of either beating Carolina and/or contending for ACC titles more regularly.

  1. RIP NC State “Our State” campaign
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