UNC Undercover or The Greatest Fan Experience Ever

As Duke fans will remember from three weeks ago, the joy of winning a rivalry game is much sweeter when the game is away. On top of the extra satisfaction of overcoming the opponent’s home court advantage, the best part about rivalry road wins are getting to see the priceless expressions of disbelief and disgust on the faces of your enemies. Few fans will ever know what that experience feels like in person, but for one group of UNC students, the dream came true in March 2006. It was, in my estimation, the greatest possible fan experience ever achieved: an unexpected victory on Duke’s senior night, surrounded by 9000 miserable and embarrassed fans.

At that point in the season, Duke had only been ranked only #1 or #2, losing just two games at Georgetown and Florida State. It was almost a storybook season that featured Shelden Williams recording Duke’s first triple double, a much-hyped five man freshmen class, Sean Dockery’s 40-foot buzzer beater against Virginia Tech, and classic lights out 40 point performances from JJ Redick against Texas and Virginia. A month earlier, Duke had beaten UNC at the Smith Center behind 35 points from Redick and a sweet reverse alley-oop from Dockery to McRoberts. On top of all that, it was senior night for fan favorites Dockery and Lee Melchionni (who kissed center-court during introductions), and Duke’s leading career rebounder and mayonnaise sandwich eater (Williams and Redick).

On the other hand, UNC came in to the season having lost most of the team that won the title the year before, and struggled out of the gate. By March they had coalesced behind the leadership of 24 year old freshman Tyler Hansbrough, and came to Cameron ready to expose Duke for the paper tiger that it was. (Lest we forget, Lee Melchionni started for this team.) Inshort, the stage was set for yet another classic rivalry game.

Students at both Duke and Carolina are familiar with the Robertson scholars, and not just because of the convenient and free bus that shuttled between the campuses. The scholarship was founded by Julian Robertson, a“godfather of the hedge fund industry” and Mitt Romney Super Donor who had a son graduate from each school and $25 million burning a hole in his pocket. As part of the an effort to “foster collaboration” between the two schools, the scholars attended classes at both Duke and Carolina. The Robertson’s I knew were all all-star students, and were generally well-liked by their peers at both schools. It’s a little misleading of me to call the scholars in question UNC students, as they were took at least one class at Duke each semester, and were enrolled full-time at Duke the semester they attended this game.

My friend Alex, who was part of this elite super group, said the decision to tent was an easy one. “Ever since I knew I’d be living at Duke, I knew I had to tent. It was such a great opportunity,” he told me. Earlier that semester, he had been to other games at Cameron, and ever rooted for Duke. You might imagine that an operation like this could take some trickery to pull off, but they were essentially hidden in plain sight. Other Duke students knew of the plan, and there were even two Duke students in his tent. I asked if he wore his cardigan tied around his starched and popped collar to blend in with the crowd, but he told he that no disguises were necessary. “I think at one point I did wear a UNC sweatshirt while in my tent.” Overall, he found tenting, the supposedly grueling ten day orgy of busch light and school spirit, to be a really positive experience: “Most of my Duke friends were reasonable and thought it was cool that I was partaking in one of their great traditions. It was super fun, a great community atmosphere. White tenting [the week before the game] was fun, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do the 2-3 month process. That’s crazy, dude – you’re paying for a dorm room!”

What happened the night of the game was a different story. The group wore the Carolina gear underneath Duke swag to enter the stadium unnoticed. Once they arrived at their seats behind UNC’s bench, they unveiled their true colors and incited the rage of the rest of the crowd. “Folks weren’t too happy. We had a sign with “We Love Roy” on it, which was taken from us and ripped to shreds. People yelled some things and threw a couple things at us, but most people were respectful. That was in part because we weren’t on the crazy “ESPN” side.”

To re-emphasize the hype around this game, it’s worth noting that this was the first time ESPN unloaded its Full Circle package, featuring some aspect of the game on all three stations. The plain old broadcast aired on the flagship, a different angle (I believe from the top of the goals) aired on the deuce, and, I kid you not, a camera angle dedicated to panning across the student section for the entire game on ESPNU. I’m not sure what the point of the third channel was, but any UNC fan who taped that would have some Schadenfreude porn on the order of this video  from the Daily Tar Heel.

We all know how the game went. I won’t go into details, but the low-light of the night for me was watching Redick start crying the same moment that I did and coming to the realization that painting my beard blue was not the fool-proof good luck charm I thought it to be. While my reaction was a despondent one, other Duke fans channeled their frustrations with the kind of class only Duke fans are capable of: “The sad thing that did happen was when UNC won the fans started chanting ‘safety school’. I like Duke a lot but when I try to convince my friends that Duke is a great school with great people, its those kind of things that make it difficult.”

Ultimately, Alex has more of a detached and respectful attitude about the rivalry in general, one you might expect from someone who has lived as a part of both campuses and rooted for both teams. “The rivalry is fun and all, but it really is just a game, so I was totally prepared to lose. I don’t like when too much gets caught up in the rivalry. The day after the game, life will go back to normal so the whole idea of making a rivalry personal is ridiculous. I had a class with Greg Paulus that semester, who is super nice by the way, and after UNC lost the first game at the Dean Dome, I went up to him to offer congrats and he was super gracious. He was super kind as well after the second game.”

I’ve never been careful about holding back my disdain for Greg Paulus as a player, but Alex is right about him being a humble kid. He was for a time one of the most hated and ridiculed basketball players in the country, and was not even immune to mockery on his own campus. The day after the Georgetown loss in ‘06, he sat behind me in a large History lecture. The professor, a grey haired southern gentlemen straight from central casting, started off class by asking an obscenely convoluted question comparing the social mores of the Puritans to those of the 19th century western frontiersmen. He then turned to Greg, fifteen rows back (I nearly wet myself when I thought he was looking at me), and asked for his opinion on the topic. Understandably, Greg started off answering with “Well, errr, ummm…” and before too long the professor interrupted his stammering and said “Do you want to try and pass that one away, son?”

For those of you that don’t remember, this is how that game ended:

This anti-UNC and ant-Robertson bitterness remained, and ultimately resulted in the Duke Student Government effectively banning UNC Robertsons from tenting in the future. This extremely petty and obnoxious movement was spearheaded by Duke’s Line Monitors, the windbreaker-clad army of self selected power hungry students who were in charge of organizing Krzyzewskiville. They complained that by disguising themselves and deliberately ruffling feathers, they violated the spirit of K-Ville and the Robertson program. One Robertson himself argued that what they did was a mistake.

Alex demurred when I asked him if he thought he was a legend, but I think he was just being humble. I have trouble imagining a a more perfect fan experience. An unexpected win, at your most hated player’s Senior night, and to top it all off, inciting the kind of resentment that reaffirms all the worst criticisms of your rival. What could be better?

Oh, wait, there is one thing better.

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