As we continue our Rivalry Week coverage across the SB Nation Network, we here at Tar Heel Blog would be remiss if we didn’t discuss a certain team that has had a long history of battling the Tar Heels to show who the inferior school actually is. This is a school that currently has two NCAA championships across all of their programs compared to UNC’s 45, with both of them belonging to their men’s basketball program. I am of course talking about the North Carolina State Wolfpack.
When discussing the feud between UNC and NC State, people have taken two different stances on the Tar Heel side of things: this is either a rivalry, or it is not. The fun in this debate is completely sucked out of the room if we are to go by the literal definition of a rivalry, which is competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. By that definition, sure, this is a rivalry, but also that would make every team in the ACC a rivalry as well.
The argument that UNC and NC State aren’t rivals began when Joel Berry said that it hasn’t been a rivalry for a long time because the Tar Heels are constantly beating them, which is a valid point as far as basketball goes. However, things were a lot more interesting when it came to football prior to the arrival of Mack Brown, and if only Wolfpack fans focused on the football side of things they would have a stronger leg to stand on. Even with that said, the Heels still own the Wolfpack on the gridiron in the overall record. So really, what meat actually exists in this “rivalry”?
In this two-part series, we’ll take a look at the two programs and make arguments for why the UNC/NC State feud is or is not a rivalry. I am here to make an argument that this is 100% not a rivalry, and the reason is simple: rivalries are actually fun and interesting. The big brother / little brother dynamic of these two programs is extremely hard to ignore, and there is at least a chance that after I finish explaining it will be even harder to ignore. Let’s begin.
The first two games between UNC and NC State date all the way back to the 1910s, when the Wolfpack swept the Heels under the leadership of Hall of Fame head coach Everett Case. Not only was this the one and only decade that NC State would have a winning record against the Heels, but Case was the one lone coach to have a winning record against the program. Finishing his career 25-19 against UNC, Case was replaced with Press Maravich who split his four games against the Heels. After he took his leave, Norm Sloan, Jim Valvano, Les Robinson, Herb Sendek, Sidney Lowe, Mark Gottfried all had losing records against the boys in Carolina blue, and Kevin Keatts is currently enjoying a 1-5 record.
To be completely fair, one has to look at the coaching records on the UNC side of the fence to really see how this was indeed a rivalry at one point in time. Former head coach Frank McGuire only had a 13-9 record against the Wolfpack, and his predecessor Dean Smith finished his Hall of Fame career with a 60-30 record. While the latter is pretty lopsided, it was nothing compared to what Roy Williams has been able to do to the Pack. Williams currently has a 32-4 record against NC State during his time back at Carolina, which has taken this “rivalry” and made it look comical.
The other thing that is completely missing from the UNC/NC State situation is the recruiting aspect of a rivalry. While it sounds like an odd factor in declaring it so, the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack more often than not are not battling to the bitter end for the same top-tier recruits. When they have Roy Williams usually came out victorious, but there have been one-off situations like NC State locking down Dennis Smith Jr. We all know how that happened.
In short, there’s not a lot to dispute when it comes to whether or not UNC and NC State are rivals on the basketball court. If pure one-sided hatred is the only metric (Roy Williams excluded because we know how he feels about them), then sure they are. However, name one team in the ACC that doesn’t carry some level of hate for the Tar Heels, particularly after the NCAA investigation? Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Here is where things are a bit interesting. The UNC / NC State football record is currently 67-36-6 in favor of the Tar Heels. From 1894 to 1955 UNC demolished State on the football field, with many of the final scores resulting in NC State scoring zero points. Yes, you read that correctly: in 45 meetings between 1895 and 1955 the Tar Heels shut out the Wolfpack 21 times, resulting in either a win or a tie. The Wolfpack began to show some teeth in 1956, however, and went on to win 9 of the next 15 games. Things were back and forth from there, and to fast forward to the 21st century NC State has won 12 of the last 19 meetings between the two teams.
Things have particularly been heated since 2007, as NC State has walloped the Heels nine times between then and now. So then surely things are a rivalry in this sport at least, right? Well...they were before Mack Brown came back into town.
The return of Mack Brown has created a larger headache for NC State than they could’ve ever bargained for. Going beyond the 41-10 beating they took back in November, what Brown has been able to do since then is land a metric ton of four-star/five-star recruits, which is something that former head coach Larry Fedora wasn’t the greatest at doing. The real kicker? Many of the top recruits that Brown has landed are in-state players. During the last leg of Fedora’s tenure NC State did a pretty good job of landing a decent amount of four-star prospects, but now that Mack is back in town things have become quite different. How different? In the 2021 class so far NC State has landed one four-star player in the state of North Carolina, while UNC has commitments from ten of them. Seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it?
When considering the current climate of both programs, it’s not a stretch to say that UNC is set up to make the football “rivalry” disappear. At this rate Mack Brown has the program set up to become nationally relevant, and that’s something that NC State wasn’t able to become even at their best under the leadership of Dave Doeren. I’m sure it was fun for State fans while it lasted, but Mack Brown is likely going to dominate the scene for the foreseeable future.
All and all, it’s hard to see how UNC and NC State are considered rivals by any metric other than the fact that NC State really, really hates them. The main reason Tar Heels fans dread losing to State is because their teams/fans are the epitome of sore winners, and it’s A lot to deal with when it happens. If that’s what constitutes a rivalry then so be it, but we can have a more serious conversation about this when the Wolfpack win 43 more championships.