DURHAM, N.C. – Looking backwards through the mist of history, it’s hard to understand why it took Duke (still Trinity College in those days) and North Carolina so long to begin their basketball rivalry.
But when it did finally get going just after World War I, the first meetings produced the same kind of drama that has turned Duke-Carolina basketball into one of the most celebrated rivalries in all of sports.
The first two games in the series were both upset victories by the road team. The first Blue Devil win featured a dramatic comeback, capped by a hero whose name has been lost to history.
The Athletic Deep Freeze The Methodists from Durham began playing Dr. James Naismith’s new sport in the spring of 1906 – meeting Wake Forest on Mar. 2, 1906 in the Angier B. Duke Gym on what is now Duke’s East Campus (at the time, it was Trinity’s ONLY campus).
It took North Carolina another five years to pick up the sport.
Basketball – or “basket ball” as it was usually called at that time – was a part of physical education classes in Chapel Hill for several years before a student named Marvin Ritch convinced track and field coach Nat Cartmell to put together a team to represent the university in 1910-11.
But even with both schools fielding teams just eight miles apart, North Carolina and Trinity wouldn’t meet on the basketball court for another nine years.
The problem seems to have been fallout from Trinity’s 1895 decision to drop football.
Earlier, the two schools had played the first football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line with Trinity winning 16-0 on Nov. 27, 1888. The new-born rivalry grew in popularity until 1894, when Trinity banned the brutal sport.
The Trinity faculty had been agitating for the elimination of football when the abolition movement received a major push from the Western North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Church. In 1894 the Board voted not to allow any more contributions to Trinity until it gave up the sport. Almost immediately, the school voted to ban football – despite protests from football-crazy students.
Trinity’s opposition to football went beyond a general disgust with the sport. To justify banning the popular sport, officials complained about growing professionalism in football, especially at the University of North Carolina, then enjoying its first era of gridiron success.
UNC officials didn’t appreciate such charges and their response was a gradual breakdown in all athletic relations between the two schools. The annual baseball rivalry between UNC and Trinity – which might have been the biggest annual intercollegiate athletic event in the state in the latter part of the 19th Century – was suspended after 1898. The two schools occasionally met in tennis or competed in multi-team track meets against each other, but for more than two decades Trinity and UNC refused to compete in the sports that really mattered – football, baseball and the new sport of basketball.
The Rivalry is Born It’s not exactly clear what unfroze relations between the two schools.
It may have had something to do with the growing agitation at Trinity to resume football – a long battle that finally led to a resumption of the sport in 1920 – and renewal of the Trinity-UNC rivalry in 1922.
But the first major break in the athletic freeze came in the spring of 1919, when UNC traveled to East Durham for a baseball showdown with Trinity. It was the first major athletic competition between the two schools in 21 years – and ended in anti-climax when the two nines battled to a 15-inning 0-0 tie. A week later, UNC squeezed out a 3-2 victory on a muddy field in East Durham to strike the first blow in the rivalry in the 20th Century.
That set the stage for the first basketball confrontation between the two schools – Jan. 24, 1920 at the same Angier B. Duke mini-gym where Trinity and Wake Forest had battled almost 14 years earlier. The small facility featured a court that was just 32 by 50 feet – a player standing under his own basket was actually in range of the opponent’s basket.
Still, the game grew a large crowd – reportedly several hundred spectators, although it’s hard to see how they fit in the tiny facility. Trinity, which entered the game with a 6-0 record, was favored, but sparked by Durham High product Billy Carmichael (who hit 12 of 13 free throws), the visitors from Chapel Hill pulled a stunning 36-25 upset.
Trinity countered a week later in Chapel Hill, staging the first great comeback in the rivalry. UNC led 18-13 midway through the fourth quarter and seemed to be in control, but the visitors scored the game’s last six points, including the game-winning basket with less than a minute left. The precise time of the winning shot is not known since there was no scoreboard clock, but newspaper accounts agree that it came from directly under the basket with “about a half-minute left”.
While it’s known that Trinity’s William “Skin” Ferrell was the leading scorer for the winners, the newspaper accounts of the game fail to mention the name of the hero who converted the game-winning shot.
Was it Ferrell, the team’s star, who matched the heroics of Gene Banks in 1981 or Chris Duhon in 2004? Or was it a lesser player who stepped up as Freddie Lind did in 1968 or Robbie West did in 1972?
The first hero of the rivalry remains a mystery to be uncovered by further research.
After Trinity’s win, there were attempts to schedule a third game to break the 1-1 tie and determine the “state champions”. But a flare up of the influenza epidemic that was sweeping the country (and killed more Americans than were lost in WWI) made that impossible. The rubber match was never played. Instead, in their first year of head-to-head basketball competition, UNC and Trinity had to share the only title that was available to them.
Each team would get plenty of future chances to prove their superiority.