To put it in perspective: Duke was only slightly more popular than Wake Forest, which was only slightly more popular than East Carolina, which was only slightly more popular than Campbell. It was State-Carolina. That was it. In fact, the old song my UNC friends would sing to me said it best at the time:
"Duke is puke/Wake is fake/But the team I hate is NC State."
Unfortunately, you don't hear that much anymore because a remarkable thing happened in North Carolina over the past 20 years or so. Duke started winning - a lot. North Carolina kept winning. And NC State... well, is there really a need to rehash this here?
At the same time that the fortunes of the three Triangle basketball programs were going through their disparate paths (well-documented by Barry Jacobs in his book, Three Paths to Glory), another occurrence was taking place in North Carolina. It seems that our beloved state had become a hot-spot, for weather-weary Yankees and overly-sun-baked retirees. People began moving to North Carolina, and they came (and are still coming) in droves.
Keep in mind that many of these folks are coming from Ohio, New York, New Jersey and from other parts of the country where the words "Dixie Classic" don't exactly cause a nostalgic stir in the old-timers. Transplants know what they know about the Triangle schools based primarily on what they've seen on TV growing up in Hoboken, Detroit and Columbus. And what they've seen in the past dozen years or so are Blue Devils Mike Krzyzewski, Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Shane Battier, et al. Oh, and three national titles. And over the past 20 years sports fans across the nation have had a hard time not seeing Michael Jordan's mug on the tube once a day. (Hey, did you know MJ went to Carolina? So did Vince Carter and Mia Hamm!)
The point is this: it shouldn't surprise us folks of the red persuasion that when Sports Illustrated featured the state of North Carolina in its 50th anniversary online state-by-state edition that of the 400 North Carolinians polled, 28 percent picked UNC as their favorite college team with Duke coming in second at 15 percent. NC State, with the largest enrollment of any university in the state, a 19,000-plus basketball arena and a football program that's been to four straight bowl games under the charismatic Chuck Amato, came in third at 12 percent.
Along the same lines, when asked to vote on the state's biggest rivalry, Duke-UNC was the favorite with 56 percent of the votes, while State-Carolina garnered 25 percent. And when folks were asked who the "greatest athlete who ever lived in or played in your state" was, Jordan got a whopping 72 percent. David Thompson, who was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan, received 4 percent. Four!
What I believe has slowly happened over the years is that all those transplants who have come to North Carolina have latched on to one school or another, for no other reason than the fact that it's hard to watch the Wolverines, Buckeyes or Nittany Lions on a regular basis down here. Maybe they have no connection at all to one Triangle school or another. Maybe they like their colors. But, most likely, these people coming from parts unknown know the name Duke; they know the name North Carolina. And it's easy to pull for them when they're on TV all the time and when Dick Vitale is hardly going a minute without praising Krzyzewski or Dean Smith (who, by the way, hasn't coached at UNC in seven years).
Who knows if or when this disturbing trend will end? It can't hurt NC State's national profile when the Wolfpack football team goes into Buckeye territory and holds its own with Ohio State on national TV. Nor should the Pack's recent duels with Florida State on the gridiron hurt its national focus.
NCSU may be a "football school" these days, but in the state of North Carolina, the college fan's pecking order begins and ends with how your basketball team does, as the SI polls tend to show. If Herb Sendek's team can put together a nice streak of wins over the next month, then perhaps there will be more and more children across the nation finding themselves pulling for the Red & White. If nothing else, maybe those kids will be right here in North Carolina, rooting, as we all did, for the beloved Wolfpack.