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Illicit to institutionalized: The fiery history of bench burning at Duke, part 1

The origin story

This is part one of a three-part series about the raucous history of Duke students burning benches after major basketball victories. Read part two here and part three here.

As the final buzzer seals a Duke victory over North Carolina, everyone knows what’s coming. Students living on West Campus stream out of their dorms to gather on the quad, while those watching the game from East Campus pack themselves onto overcrowded buses bound for the Chapel.

After all, the night of revelry isn’t complete without bench burning. Flames and voices begin to rise shortly after the game’s end, a stark departure from the darkness and hushed conversation that enshroud the quad on any other night. But this evening is far from typical—as the first bench is enveloped by fire, cheers rise from the onlookers. The conflagration soon reaches its peak as dreaded assignments and upcoming deadlines fall by the wayside. 

But all good things must come to an end. The crowd thins out as the fire dies down. Some revelers will go to sleep, and others will continue the fun elsewhere. Bleary-eyed students—temporarily united by the triumph of Duke over the Tar Heels—file away to their respective corners of campus, wondering when they’ll have the chance to watch the flames dance again.

Such is the tradition of bench burning after a triumphant Blue Devil victory. 

There’s always been a mythology surrounding Mike Krzyzewski, and when it comes to bench burning on Duke’s campus, he’s the modern-day Prometheus. To burn benches, Duke had to win. And to win, Duke had to have Coach K and his recruits. The Final Four berths in the mid-1980s and National Championship victories in the early 1990s cemented bench burnings as the Blue Devils’ celebratory ritual.

But the practice hasn’t always been such a well-oiled operation. 

As any chemistry major could tell you, combining alcohol and fire can yield uncontrollable flames. And combining alcohol-fueled students and fire can yield several dozen arrests (or at least it did in 1992). 

Ask former students and administrators what they think of the tradition, and you’ll get mixed responses. Is bench burning just another way to “have a good time” after a dominant victory, as one former student suggested, or is it “at odds with the elite university image [Duke] seeks to portray,” as a former dean argued?

Amidst the raucous revelry, tension emerged in the mid-1990s between students looking to celebrate and administrators who saw danger and liability written all over the burnings. After a series of tacit and overt clashes between the two parties, what was once officially prohibited by the University has now become a carefully supervised ritual. 

This is the tale of how an illicit celebration became an institutionalized tradition.

The first bench ablaze

The 1980s were by no means the first time bonfires appeared on Duke’s campus. In 1903, students lit fires in celebration when the Trinity College Board of Trustees declined to accept the resignation of controversial professor John Spencer Bassett, a major win for academic freedom. 

Various bonfires for football games and pep rallies also cropped up over the years, but none ever reached the proportion of today’s tradition.

But there was precedent in the Triangle area, according to David MacMillan, Trinity ‘86 and former Chronicle sports editor. He wrote in an email that when NC State claimed its second NCAA Championship for men’s basketball in 1983, students set furniture ablaze in a bonfire on the university’s Raleigh campus.

It would only be a few more years until the Blue Devils had their own big game to celebrate. On March 29, 1986, Duke took a 32-2 record into the NCAA tournament. After the Blue Devils beat Kansas and advanced to their first National Championship in nearly a decade, the fires roared.

“Bonfires were primarily connected to Duke winning the Final Four National Championship game,” wrote Sue Wasiolek, who has served in Duke’s Student Affairs office since 1979, in an email. “Over time, this tradition evolved to include victories by the Men's and Women's basketball teams against UNC-CH.”

In Clocktower Quad, students spent hours tossing notebooks and furniture into the blaze. Campus “resembled Times Square,” The Chronicle reported afterward, as students cranked up their stereos and heaved toilet paper into the trees.

“This is an intelligent school with a great basketball team. But I think they’re going to have a hard time wiping their butts tonight,” business student Ron Goodstein told The Chronicle during the celebration.

Officers of Public Safety—as Duke University Police Department was known at the time—cut off the fuel supply midway through the fire, and there were no documented clashes between administrators and students. 

Nearly 35 years later, Doug Chalmers, Trinity ‘86 and Law School ‘95, recalled the scene as “one of the most fun nights of [his] life.”

He said that University personnel didn’t try to interfere with the students, and that the revelers were rowdy but safe, not getting too close to the flames. The entire celebration was “spontaneous,” he added, with one fraternity taking the lead by burning a bench and others following.

“That was one of the most fun nights of my life, honestly,” he said. “We were hugely passionate about the team.”

Duke fell to Louisville in the championship, but the tradition gained steam.

Benches were thrown into the flames following the Blue Devils’ victory against UNC in the spring of 1988. But later that season, when students tried to start another bonfire following Duke’s NCAA tournament regional victory over Temple, Public Safety foiled their intentions to burn benches and furniture.

The planning for how Duke would deal with a victory had begun days before the game, The Chronicle reported. The security force more than doubled from the usual number, as around 35 officers were on the scene to monitor the postgame festivities. Guards continued to protect some benches on campus hours after the victory, and the benches escaped unscathed. 

In 1990, however, following another berth to the Final Four after a victory against Connecticut, benches burned freely. Duke Public Safety and Durham police officers stood by watching in case of any over-the-top antics. And although the Final Four win over Arkansas sent more benches to their demise, UNLV’s blowout of the Blue Devils in the championship game prevented the ultimate celebration.

Duke men’s basketball would soon have another shot at the championship the team had been so tantalizingly close to, but that run of success would create clashes between students and administration over the future of bench burning.

Campus set ablaze

Regulations began falling into place in 1991 following student injuries after the March 3 Duke-UNC game. After several students were injured in another common celebration—mudsliding—a committee was convened to discuss how to make the festivities safer.

In light of a fractured vertebra and dislocated shoulder, the committee decided to ban mudsliding and place limitations on bonfires. Students couldn’t nab benches without houses’ consent, and the University, not students, would organize and oversee the fire. Celebrants also weren’t allowed to stand on burning benches or run through the fires. 

Krzyzewski even wrote a letter to the editor in The Chronicle encouraging students to abide by the new rules. 

The policy’s first test came after the Blue Devils’ win against St. John to enter the Final Four, and it passed with flying colors. No violations or injuries were reported in The Chronicle afterward, and the students’ quotes suggest that their joy wasn’t dampened by the restrictions. Toilet paper and tennis balls still flew freely through the air as firecrackers exploded and stereos blasted from around the quad.

Following the semifinal win against UNLV, the celebration was crazier but still manageable. Students poured out of Cameron Indoor, where they were watching the game on the big screen, and descended upon the Duke-sponsored fire in the Cameron parking lot. They also started their own on West Campus.

“The students and fans began running and dancing around the blaze, screaming and hugging friends and strangers in a delirious victory celebration,” The Chronicle reported. “The partying, which quickly spread throughout the bonfire, lasted late into the night.”

It was the danger from off campus, not the students themselves, that dominated storylines the next morning.

Seven larcenies were reported as off-campus individuals broke into dorm rooms and vehicles, and a Domino’s pizza driver had his vehicle stolen. Four non-University-affiliated individuals were arrested for the crimes.

Of course, it was beating Kansas and capturing Duke’s first championship that led to the loudest uproar on campus. Students undressed to dance naked around the bonfire outside Cameron Indoor, as toilet paper and jubilant cheering once again covered West Campus. Several students were injured and went to the emergency room, but after security had been tripled and Towerview Road closed, fewer off-campus individuals were arrested in the celebration.

“The first bonfire in 1991 was quite different than the ones today, as we currently have a plan in place that involves extensive preparation, planning and collaboration and focuses on safety,” Wasiolek wrote.

‘Hurled into the flames’ 

Duke’s string of success would continue, but 1992 would be the year that put bench burning under increased administrative scrutiny. Although the University began further limiting campus access to non-Duke personnel, the celebrations became wilder than ever and forced the University to reconsider how it approached the issue.

Public Safety was unsuccessful in stopping bench burnings after a North Carolina win in March 1992, and one student described the celebration at the time as “lamer than usual.” That attitude was soon to change.

While the celebrations for the iconic Christian Laettner-led, last-second win against Kentucky in the Elite Eight and the Final Four triumph over Indiana were lively but manageable, all hell broke loose after the Blue Devils won it all for the second consecutive year. 

“The 10-foot high scorching blaze built and ignited by the University for students was not high enough—within minutes, the possessed fans obtained a dilapidated couch and a section of metal bleachers ripped from Wallace Wade Stadium,” The Chronicle reported afterward. “Both the couch and the bleachers were hurled into the flames as the students yowled with delight.”

The official fire outside Cameron spread, as students started bench-fueled bonfires of their own in Clocktower Quad. Amidst the carnage and craze, dozens of students were injured, some falling into the fire and others struck by flying bottles.

“We spent a whole year in preparation to make this a safe celebration, and the students made our jobs as difficult as hell,” Public Safety Chief Robert Dean told The Chronicle at the time. “We weren’t out there to spoil their fun. Fortunately, no one was killed.”

There were reports of guns and knives being wielded on campus, and fights broke out in dorms. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon common room was the site of a tussle after the fraternity refused to give beer to a student, leading to a fight that knocked someone unconscious.

Despite the dozens of injuries, several Duke alumni told The Chronicle that the injuries and conflict don’t dominate their memory of the events.

“When I remember those nights, I don’t remember them for tension with Public Safety,” said Paul Hudson, Trinity ‘94, who served as Duke Student Government president. “I think overall, when people remember them, they remember having a good time, remember being excited—maybe doing a couple stupid things—but there wasn’t any kind of police-state feeling to the evenings.”

He attributed the more raucous behavior to a few bad apples, but added that most students were just there to have fun.

Michael Saul, Trinity ‘94 and a Chronicle reporter who covered many of the bench burnings, said that the conflict between police and students was generally limited to those who chose to celebrate in crazier fashion. How students would remember those nights is very dependent on perspective, he explained.

Sara-Jane Raines, Trinity ‘83, has been working for Duke University Police Department since 1989. She was an officer assigned to work during the bench burnings after the 1991 and 1992 National Championships and called the spontaneous bonfires “very, very dangerous.”

“My recollection of most altercations on bonfire nights was that the arguments were generally between a group of students who wanted to burn a bench and the students who wanted to protect the benches that they worked hard to build and paint,” she wrote in an email. “Our role was to keep the peace and mediate as best we could.”

This story is part one of a three-part series. Read part two of the bench burning series here, and part three here.

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