DURHAM -- There’s a good reason many Duke fans were unmoved when the ACC announced it had added Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the league fold. There’s not much athletic history between Duke and the new members, certainly not since the founding of the Big East in 1980.
Syracuse and Duke have never played on each other’s home courts in basketball. As for football, the most recent encounter with either expansion newcomer was a visit from Pittsburgh to Wallace Wade Stadium in 1976.
Syracuse and Duke have played only twice in football – prior to World War II. They’ve played a measly five times in basketball, counting an 84-40 defeat administered by the Blue Devil women in December 1995 at the Greensboro Coliseum.
In fact, men or women, Syracuse and Duke basketball teams have played only three times since 1971.
The Blue Devil men lost 78-76 to the Orange in Dec. 1989 in Greensboro in the inaugural edition of the short-lived ACC-Big East Challenge, a series the ACC initially avoided. “They didn’t think they had much to gain by playing us, and they were probably right,” said the late Dave Gavitt, then the commissioner of the Big East.
The ACC reconsidered after the upstart conference prospered and ESPN offered a sizable chunk of change for broadcast rights – sizable for those days, anyway. Sure enough, the 9 PM Duke-Syracuse nightcap of a Wednesday doubleheader was one of the network’s highest-rating offerings in its first decade of existence.
The only other time a Mike Krzyzewski squad faced a team coached by his friend, Syracuse alum Jim Boeheim, was in the 1998 Sweet 16. The Devils won that one going away, getting double-figure scoring from Elton Brand, Shane Battier, William Avery, and Chris Carrawell. Brand added 14 rebounds in the 80-67 victory.
Boeheim, notorious for loading up on home games early each season, is second only to Krzyzewski in career wins among active coaches (856).
More interesting is the Duke-Syracuse football series, brief though it was. The Orange came to Durham in 1939 and were crushed, 33-6. More significant by far was their 1938 meeting, a 21-0 victory for the undefeated Iron Dukes.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, a so-called gentlemen’s agreement saw Northern schools bench black players when facing Southern rivals.
North Carolina was the first Southern Conference member to defy the arrangement, facing NYU and African-American running back Ed Williams from 1936-38. All those games were played in New York, however.
Maryland, the ACC’s northernmost member, was less enlightened. (Or daring.) When Syracuse came to Baltimore to play the Terrapins in 1937, the hosts objected to participation by Orange quarterback Wilmeth Sidat-Singh. Maryland officials didn’t realize until the day prior to the contest that Sidat-Singh, adopted by a doctor from India after his mother remarried, was black.
Following protocol, the star player was held out and the Terps won, 13-0. The next year at Syracuse, Sidat-Singh, also a star basketball player, led the Orange to sweet retribution in a 53-0 football conquest of Maryland.
Five weeks later Duke traveled to upstate New York and Blue Devil coach Wallace Wade accepted Sidat-Singh’s presence on the field. As Wade explained before his team posted a shutout, “If he doesn’t play, no matter what the score is, we’ll get no credit for winning.”
The next year the quarterback was not on the roster when Syracuse came to Durham, concluding the series to date between the schools.
Pitt, by contrast, has played Duke more often and more recently in both high-profile sports.
The football teams met 17 times, with the Panthers holding a 9-8 edge. Pitt featured a Hall of Fame end in Joseph Donchess and a Hall of Fame coach in John “Jock” Sutherland when it lost at Duke in 1929 to inaugurate the series. The next meeting came in 1937. The Devils were shut out 10-0 as Pittsburgh enjoyed one of its eight undefeated football seasons.
The teams played for six straight years from ‘37 through 1942 and sporadically thereafter.
Duke lost the three most recent encounters, concluding with a 44-31 defeat at Wallace Wade Stadium in 1976. Heisman winner Tony Dorsett gained 129 yards for Pitt at Durham, one of 33 100-yard efforts during the running back’s career. The Panthers went on to finish the bicentennial year 12-0 and claimed the national championship.
The basketball competition between Duke and Pitt is similarly centered in the past, with seven of the dozen men’s meetings occurring before 1960. Duke’s women beat their Pittsburgh counterparts on neutral courts during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
Since Krzyzewski took over at Durham in 1980-81, the men’s squads met once, at Madison Square Garden in December 2007. Jamie Dixon’s club won by a point in overtime 65-64 as the Devils missed nearly half their free throws.
Clearly the most intriguing game between the schools was Pitt’s last visit to Cameron.
The 1979 contest was regarded as a tuneup for a Blue Devil squad ranked third in the country with 20 straight home wins. Duke boasted 6-11 center Mike Gminski, the eventual ACC Player of the Year, All-ACC guard Jim Spanarkel, and future All-ACC forward Gene Banks.
Yet the star on that February night was Sam “Bam” Clancy, a burly 6-6 Pitt post player who led all players in scoring (23) and rebounding (11).
Clancy went on to rank as Pitt’s career rebounding leader with 1,342 (80 more than Shelden Williams, who holds the Duke record). He also had an 11-year career in pro football as a defensive end.
When he came to Durham, though, Clancy was a largely unknown sophomore – until his steal and layup in the final seconds upset Duke. “There could be only one greater feeling,” Clancy said afterward in his jubilant team’s locker room. “That would be winning the NCAA championship.”
As it turned out, Duke players have enjoyed that feeling four times since, Syracuse players once. At Pittsburgh they’re still waiting.