Wednesday night played host to one of the Christmas-like holidays of the NCAA men’s basketball season — UNC vs. Duke Part I, the first half of one of the most hate-filled, violently competitive games of the year.
The annual clash between these two powerhouse rivals is something to celebrate for a college basketball fan. Year in and year out, it’s a consistent event that eclipses any season records or Top-25 rankings. It really doesn’t matter if North Carolina is on track to another national championship, or if Duke has a fleet of freshman monsters like forward Zion Williamson. In any given year, on any given rivalry day, both teams have an equal chance of beating the other.
I grew up on this type of rivalry. It didn’t matter if it was Chiefs against Raiders or Kansas playing Mizzou; all of my teams hated the hell out of someone else, guaranteeing at least two great rivalry games per season. The beauty of one of these contests was only exacerbated by circumstances — the David and Goliath odds of my (often weaker) team facing a powerhouse or the thrill of watching a sub-zero game played outdoors.
I was hoping for this type of energy, this type of generations-old hatred, when I came to college. I had heard enough tales spun about the bad blood between UCLA and USC, and after watching two teams sharing a state battle it out in Kansas vs. Kansas State, I was ready to see just how much living in the same city upped the ante. After all, I was told that the two schools hated each other — enough to duct tape the statues on campus for rivalry week, enough to burn a bonfire yards high to simulate burning each other’s mascots.
I thought I was signing up for a new type of sports-induced hatred and when I got to campus, I was ready to bask in it. But in my four years at USC, I’ve come to understand that the USC vs. UCLA rivalry, despite all the trash talk and traditions, is in the second tier of sports rivalries. It brings a dull consistency, for sure, a Saturday each football season to circle in order to properly plan for a tailgate. But the actual ferocity of the fandom isn’t at the same level as other schools or other teams, and that lack of fire has left me feeling somewhat left out, as I watch friends around the country bask in their senior years of rivalries.
It’s hard to put a finger on the exact reason that the USC vs. UCLA rivalry feels lesser, but a lot of a it comes from where I grew up. When I was in third grade, my teacher (what’s up, Mrs. O’Neill?) went around the room at the start of one week and asked each of us who we cheered for — KU, K-State or Mizzou. She then rearranged the seating chart to put the KU fans in the front rows of the classroom, the K-State fans in the middle and the Mizzou kids in the very back for the rest of the week. We were 8 freaking years old.
Mrs. O’Neill was a bit of an outlier — her room was basically bathed in crimson and blue from October to March every single year — but that question was a fairly common icebreaker asked in classrooms from first grade on. Where I grew up, our teams were an intrinsic aspect of our identities. We split up by them to play dodgeball in elementary school gym class and wore jerseys for a day of spirit week in high school. Cheering for one of those three colleges — which most of my graduating class ended up attending — was so important that I can still remember, to this day, the college allegiances of almost all of the 70 kids in my grade at elementary school.
So it’s different for state schools like Kansas and K-State, or Nebraska and Iowa. Blame it on the overabundance of wheat and corn fields and the lack of things to do; blame it on small-town ideals (even though I grew up in the suburbs) or the fact that the Midwest is obsessed with basketball. But that still doesn’t explain the ferocity of a rivalry like Duke and North Carolina, two schools that are as academically competitive as USC and UCLA, yet still hate each other much, much more.
I don’t really have an answer to this question. Maybe it’s because those two schools are sequestered in a semi-rural area of North Carolina, with less to do than a bunch of college kids plopped in the dead center of one of the largest cities in the world. Maybe it’s because Duke and North Carolina have kept winning year after year with seasoned, Hall of Fame coaches at the helm, while USC and UCLA have watched their football and basketball teams flounder. Or maybe it’s because we’re both too focused on different sports — UCLA on basketball, USC on football — to breed a rivalry, since we never meet on common ground.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter why this rivalry hasn’t been all that compelling in recent years. The point still stands that our rivalry is second-rate at best, relegated to noon kick-off times and repeated as half-hearted jokes by professors. As my senior year comes to a close, I couldn’t help feeling a little jealous settling in for a true rivalry game like Duke and North Carolina, wondering what could have been, if USC hated UCLA just a little bit more.
Julia Poe is a senior writing about her personal connection to sports. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs weekly on Thursdays.