Duke and North Carolina renew their storied rivalry tonight in Cameron Indoor Stadium (ESPN and WatchESPN.com, 9 p.m. ET). ESPN.com spoke with several participants in each shade of blue about both playing and coaching in what is arguably the most important matchup of the season for the respective schools.
The Blue Devils are represented by coach Mike Krzyzewski, Chris Collins, who played at Duke from 1993 to '96 and was an assistant coach from 2000 to '13 and is now the head coach at Northwestern; Steve Wojciechowski, who played at Duke from 1995 '98 and was an assistant coach from 1999 to 2014 and is now the head coach at Marquette; and Jeff Capel, who played at Duke from 1994 to '97 and is currently Duke's associate head coach. The Tar Heel voices are coach Roy Williams, Phil Ford, who played at Carolina from 1974 to '78 and was an assistant coach from 1988 to 2000; and Matt Doherty, who played from 1980 to '84 and was the head coach from 2000 to '03.
There have always been other rivals for each school, but when was the moment you noticed the Duke-Carolina rivalry surpassing all others?
Phil Ford: It seems like the big game in the ACC has always been North Carolina and somebody. When I was in school, it was North Carolina and (NC) State. Then, it became North Carolina and Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia and now, North Carolina-Duke has just created a life of its own. I think it's the greatest rivalry in college basketball.
Mike Krzyzewski: I don't think there's a moment, but there's a period of time. I think the first thing was the advent of television coverage in the mid- to late '80s. More great games were on and you're looking for marquee games to showcase. North Carolina has been outstanding once [late coach] Dean [Smith] took over -- well, before that, too -- but when he took over from the '60s on. We were great -- Coach [Vic] Bubas and Coach [Bill] Foster had great years, but there wasn't the continuity. But in the mid-80s, 1985-86, then we started to be an elite program and they were elite and TV was there and -- boom -- it became the biggest game. So it's a matter of a few things hitting, but having two outstanding programs who are both going for national honors, that helps.
Roy Williams: They had (Tommy) Amaker and Mark Alarie and Johnny Dawkins and those guys. All of a sudden, they were really, really good. It's been a long time there that both programs were really, really good, going to so many Final Fours. I think during the mid-80s is when it took a step ahead of everything else. When I first came to school here, people talked about the Duke-Carolina football rivalry, and I never felt that. The basketball thing, it was North Carolina-(NC) State. ... It changed over during that time period to Duke, and I don't think it's stepped back any at all.
What was tougher, preparing for this game as a player or preparing for this game as a coach?
Chris Collins: I would say as a player it was tougher because it's so unique in that area. People talk about it but don't realize you're in the same inner circle with both schools: going to get gas, going to the grocery store, going out to eat. Really, it's not just the game. It's like a buildup to the game and then a follow-up of the game, so it lasts about a week. The challenge as a player is not to play the game three days before because anywhere you go that's all anybody is talking about. It was tough as a player to not be wiped out when it comes to game time. You can't really escape it when it's Duke-Carolina week.
Matt Doherty: I remember as a coach getting ready for that game ever since I got the job. I got the job in July and that August I'm on a vacation with my family -- ironically at Roy Williams' beach house in South Carolina. I bring VHS tapes with me. Back then it was VHS. I'm watching the two Carolina-Duke games from the previous year to prepare for Duke. As a coach you try to say no game is more important than another, but I knew that you want to beat the best and Duke and Carolina are the best. In the back of your mind, you're always preparing to play Duke, and I imagine Coach Krzyzewski is always preparing to beat Carolina.
How do you get a player to believe that every game is the same when this one is clearly just a little bit different?
Steve Wojciechowski: Our preparation on a day-to-day basis for any team that played at Duke was always high-level. There wasn't a difference. It wasn't like, 'Oh wow, the coaches are really into trying to beat North Carolina.' The coaches were always into beating whoever we played. The thing that's different is the level of intensity and the atmosphere that surrounds it. The week of -- the game-day experience of North Carolina -- that is something that is different from maybe when you're playing other teams. So when you get to the gym and you're getting ready to play, there's a feeling in the air that it's different. You would hope that feeling takes your level of performance to a whole new level, but in terms of preparation, preparation is similar, but the feeling that surrounds the game is very different, even against other really outstanding teams.
Doherty: At the end of the day, your wins and losses total up so even beating another school has the same value of beating Duke, so you can't lose sight of beating another school that maybe isn't as big a rival but carries as much weight. You've got to try to stay even-keeled, which Coach [Dean] Smith was so good at, but yet, you knew as a player and you know as a coach that this means a lot -- not only in recruiting, the national press, but also seeding in the NCAA tournament.
Is the first meeting in the season in some ways more difficult than the second just because it seems like the buildup and anticipation is much greater?
Ford: No. With a rivalry it doesn't matter whether it's the first, second or third game. When those guys see Duke, it's Duke. When Duke sees North Carolina, it's North Carolina. I don't think the game has anything to do with it. When those two teams see each other, they're going to go after it. You know the thing with a rivalry game, you never know, man. I've known some great North Carolina teams to lose to Duke teams that weren't as good that year. There have been some great Duke teams to lose to Carolina when it wasn't as good that year. That's what makes it good for college basketball and college athletics as well.
Jeff Capel: I always thought that as a player. Obviously, both games are significant for bragging rights. Usually, both games mean a lot for league standings and things like that, but I always felt like there was something extra special about the first one because of all the buildup for it. It just always seemed different. It just always seemed like there was more excitement because it's the first time you played that year. The second one was still exciting, but that one seemed like it was a little bit more business since we had already done it.
Doherty and Collins stood chest to chest arguing in 2003, when Doherty found himself in front of Duke's bench checking on an injured Raymond Felton.
Looking back, was that a moment you regret or simply your contribution to the rivalry?
Collins: I guess it's my contribution to the rivalry 'cause I couldn't do much as a player. You never want those things to occur, and actually, Matt and I are friends and we laugh about it to this day. It was one of those heat-of-the-battle things that happens in competition. I'm sure both of us would like to take it back because of the magnitude of the game and how many eyes are on it. It's not a good example for what should happen out there, but it happened. He and I laugh about it to this day. Certainly, if you can go back in time, you never want something like that to take away from the game and what happens on the floor.
Doherty: [Laughs] Probably both. Chris and I are attached at the hip a little bit because of that. You'd like to think you'd handle it a little differently as an older coach, but then again, it is part of the rivalry. I always had a hard time with the Duke assistants being up and being so vocal. I went over and was checking on Raymond but was also telling the referee this was a bad play and a foul should be called, and Chris comes onto the court and says, 'Is he checking on his player or complaining about the call?' I felt like an assistant shouldn't do that, and so I went towards Chris and we're toe to toe yelling at each other. I'm thinking, 'This has gone too far, millions of people watching on TV, am I really going to punch him? No.' And then one of their players comes out and pushes me in the chest, and that's when I realize this is nuts. That is part of the rivalry and that's the emotions that it brings out.
Is there anything the other program is traditionally known for that you wish your program would have thought of first?
Ford: I just admire their entire program. Those kids go there and get better and play with confidence. I just think they play with a lot of confidence and they believe in their coach. The most important thing as a player, I think, they have to believe in you. Coach K and his résumé, how can you not believe in him? I think both schools try to emulate things that the other does academically, athletically, socially. It's one of the greatest rivalries ever in college basketball. Eight miles? Come on, man, you could almost walk to each arena if you had to. It's really cool. It's a great rivalry.
Wojciechowski: There are so many different things to admire about their program. Coach Smith was an innovator in so many respects. Everybody looked at what he did as a model, and the competition level between the two programs made them both better.
Capel: There's a lot that I admire about their program. I grew up in this state, and so the first school that I can remember was North Carolina. How I identified with ACC basketball when I was younger was Coach Smith. To me, he was the ACC. He was the representative and he led the University of North Carolina. There's nothing I think of like I wish we would have done first, but a lot of programs in the country -- certainly the ACC -- tried to emulate what Coach Smith did in their program, just like maybe now a lot of the young coaches around the country have tried to emulate some of the things that Coach K has done.
Doherty: Nothing. Exclamation point.
State of the rivalry
Williams: I think in college sports it's the best rivalry there is. You're talking about (95) years and playing twice a year every year and being miles apart and so much national media attention with so many times teams being ranked extremely high. That's my opinion. Other people can pick something else if they choose. North Carolina-Duke was a pretty doggone good rivalry when guys named Smith and Bubas were playing against each other, so it's not just us. But I think when you ask about Mike, I just see somebody who has done it better than anybody and done it a longer period of time. You can't do anything but respect a great deal what he has done.
Krzyzewski: This is the best game and it's the best game because you have two of the top five programs to ever play college basketball going against one another. We're only eight miles apart, both great schools. The amount of amazing players who have played in this game who then have become amazing teams. You're talking about Final Fours, national championship teams. The two of us have probably won more total ACC championships than all the other teams combined. So there's a level of excellence, individual and collective excellence, in an area that loves college basketball. And it's only growing. The 35 years that I've been here, it's only getting better.
Ford recalled, as a high school senior, missing arguably the Heels' greatest comeback, in which they rallied from down eight with 17 seconds left in 1974: I was home, the game was in Chapel Hill and I was kind of leaning towards Carolina at that time. I remember watching the game, and maybe with 35-40 seconds left in the game I went outside and starting washing my dad's car. I didn't want to see the guys lose and I felt bad for them. So I'm outside washing my dad's car and I have to go back inside to get something. I needed a brush or a rag or something. When I went back inside the game was still on. So I didn't see the comeback live, but I've seen many, many replays of it.
Wojciechowski on running across the court to hug Coach K after a senior day victory in 1998: That's a moment that's pretty well known in Duke history. One, we won the ACC regular-season championship with that win. But having started as a freshman and having a year where we really struggled -- we kind of brought the program back full circle. As a senior, we were in a position to win the league, so all the things that went into that turnaround is why that was so emotional.
Doherty on when he realized the rivalry was unique: My first recruiting visit was to Duke, and I landed at Raleigh-Durham airport and the Duke coach met me at baggage claim and (UNC assistant coach) Eddie Fogler was there to pick up another recruit. Two weeks later I visit Carolina and (Duke assistant) Bob Wentzel is picking up another recruit. We meet at baggage claim and go in another direction and that direction is only eight miles apart. A lot of times we recruit the same players -- Grant Hill, Danny Ferry, myself. There's a lot of players that were recruited by both schools. There's probably more similarities than not. I don't think there's any other rivalry like it because of the proximity.
Capel on "the shot" he made from half court in 1995 to send the game into double overtime not being his favorite memory of the rivalry: That's what people remember the most about me, but for me personally the two best moments were my senior year -- finally beating North Carolina -- and then my first year back here at Duke when we beat them in Chapel Hill with Austin (Rivers) hitting the shot. That was surreal. We really had no reason being in the game when you go back and look at it. Austin hit an amazing shot, and one of the cool things about that was his shot won the game.