It's no secret that UNC has never liked playing East Carolina. Their meetings over the last ten years only began by legislative mandate, although I don't know if that's the reason the series continues. ECU fans bring heavy crowds to Kenan, especially for a game that rarely draws interest for Tar Heel fans. Pirates fans, on other hand have a huge chip on their collective shoulders, and mixing the two crowds together generally leads to tempers flaring. But the main reason Carolina fans don't want to play ECU is simple - there's no upside to it.
It's this refrain you hear from folks in Chapel Hill every time East Carolina is brought up. When UNC wins, it's a nonevent; routine, expected. When the Pirates win it's a disastrous embarrassment.
When the series started up, I felt the same way. But I haven't been a resident of the Old North State for eleven years now, and I have to say I've mellowed.
What really sold me on an ECU-UNC series was seeing a similar one from the outside. My wife is from West Virginia, and although she fled the state for college, she is, as much as she follows college football a West Virginia fan. And a few years ago, then governor Joe Manchin forced through the state legislature a requirement that they face the other FBS team in the state, Marshall, annually.
I soon started hearing a familiar refrain from here family. They hate the Marshall game. When West Virginia wins, no one bats an eye. Were they to lose, it would be a calamity. There's no upside. WVU fans are pretty livid this is even on the schedule.
As an outsider who's only vested interest is not sleeping on the couch though, I find it charming. Everyone in Charleston wears Mountaineer or Marshall gear on the Friday before. It gives it the feeling of an vent, especially for a school who has had most of their rivalries destroyed by conference realignment. And hey wouldn't West Virginia play Marshall? South Carolina plays Clemson. Florida plays Florida State. Pittsburgh used to play Penn State, and the fact that they no longer do is a travesty. Super conferences are already fraying regional bonds; the last thing we should do is hasten the process.
And that got me thinking; if the arguments against WVU-Marshall don't work for me, why should they suffice for UNC-ECU?
For most of the 2000's Michigan has played at least one of their instate MAC brethren every year. I don't know how Wolverine fans feel about it, but their record is a combined 19-0; when it came time to hit a new low in football embarrassment, they had to import a team from Boone, NC. It's the duty of a flagship university to play instate schools, and win. That UNC hasn't always done the latter is a character flaw on their part. But it doesn't mean they shouldn't play the game.
(Similarly, UNC should be beating Duke, Wake, and N.C. State. That their record against the last two isn't as it should be... grates.)
In the end, there is an upside. Beating instate teams establishes a pecking order. Starkly laying out to potential players that they have the option of playing once or twice in Kenan Stadium and losing horribly or playing there seven times a year and winning is important. So is underlining the fact you're the winning team in the series, even if the other team wants it more, and if the other fans traveled farther. So play East Carolina. Beat East Carolina. Then move on to the next game, and leave them angling for a futile shot at a Big East bid once again.
Heck, do it often enough and the Tar Heels might feel ready to move on and beat State, too.