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Q&A: Jay Bilas discusses the Tobacco Road rivalry

As a player, coach and now broadcaster, Bilas has experienced the Duke-UNC rivalry from a number of different vantage points.
As a player, coach and now broadcaster, Bilas has experienced the Duke-UNC rivalry from a number of different vantage points.

Jay Bilas has been involved in the Duke-UNC rivalry for nearly four decades in a variety of fashions, playing for the Blue Devils from 1982-1986, serving as an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski from 1989-1992 and now broadcasting the games as a studio analyst for ESPN.

The Chronicle spoke with Bilas over the phone Saturday, discussing the best Duke-UNC games ever, how the rivalry has changed over the years and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: To start off, obviously you broadcast a countless number of college basketball games each year. I'm just wondering, when you wake up to call a Duke-UNC game that day, is there a different feeling than all the other games that you cover?

Jay Bilas: Yes and no. I mean, no from the standpoint of your preparation is the same every game and how you go about your job is the same every game. But I think there's a different feeling simply because of the amount of attention the game draws. I mean, it's not only a rivalry game, which there are a lot of those, but it's somehow a rivalry game that so many people outside of that sphere are interested in. I mean, it's our highest rated game of the year, every year. And so it just carries a different feel than other games. I mean, it shouldn't be more important, theoretically, but it is.

TC: I saw on ESPN, you made some comments on the one-and-done era and sort of criticizing those who say that one-and-done teams don't and haven't won. I'm just wondering how you think that one-and-done has impacted Duke-UNC, specifically related to the fact that you see mostly new faces on each side every single year?

JB: Well, I don't think it's impacted the rivalry at all. I think it's the same, because every game is its own entity. Every game is really its own lifetime in a way.

TC: Going back to last February, a lot of people are comparing [Duke's comeback at North Carolina] to the Austin Rivers game.... In your opinion, are those two games in the conversation [for best Duke-UNC games ever] and which others belong in that conversation?

JB: I mean, I wouldn't even know. There have been so many. You know, the game in the ACC tournament with Coby White and Zion Williamson when Coby White had the last shot. The shoe game—even though it wasn't a good game, it was one you'll remember forever. I mean, there have been so many. Heck when I was playing, we had barn-burning games. In '84, there was the double overtime game, and then the game in the ACC tournament. 

I mean, there's so many, so it's really hard. You know, when Battier blocked Joseph Forte's shot from behind, that game. Chris Duhon's buzzer beater. I think it was [Marvin] Williams from North Carolina made a shot at the end of the game for Carolina to win at UNC in 2005. Carolina won the national championship that year. 

You know, there's so many of them. That's the best part about the rivalry is it always delivers. I mean, I say that all the time, but it's true. There's never a time that that rivalry doesn't deliver.

TC: Going back, it's said that 1986—your senior year at Duke, your final Duke-UNC game that you played in—was when tenting and Krzyzewskiville really began. Did you or your teammates notice at the time the tenters prior to the game? And what were your and your teammates' initial reactions to that, if you noticed it?

JB: We did not—I don't know that we were that aware of everything that was going on. We certainly didn't know it was gonna be a long-lasting thing, where it was starting some sort of tradition. That was sort of the innocent climb of the program, where there had been—probably '84, '85, '86, the program had been consistently nationally ranked, and then we rose up to be the No. 1 team in '86. And that was sort of the first of everything from Coach K, where it was his first ACC Championship, his first Final Four, his first No. 1 ranking and all that stuff. So, I'm not sure we knew sort of what it was gonna become, that you could fathom all this stuff. I certainly remember all the people waiting outside, but you never thought it would be an every year scenario.

TC: Related to that, you've been involved with the rivalry since then. What's it been like each year seeing tenting and Krzyzewskiville continue to grow to what it's become in recent years?

JB: It's been interesting. At first, I really didn't understand it, why people would want to wait outside all that time. I mean, I understood wanting to get the best seats, but doing it for weeks and weeks at a time when the truth is just about everybody gets in anyway—I didn't get it. But it's a social thing, too, and so it's become ritualistic and all that. Maybe it's just the way, kind of being there when we were, it's hard to wrap your head around waiting outside and sleeping in tents for weeks at a time. I don't get that when you've got a warm bed waiting for you somewhere else.

TC: Obviously, everyone's seen the impact that no fans in the stands has had this season. But is it still gonna be weird seeing no fans involved [in Saturday's game]?

JB: I mean, the levels of weird of all this is still hard to fathom. I know in the building for the games I've been to already, [including] Cameron, it's like watching practice. So it's certainly a different feel. I think it'll be even more pronounced, with Duke-Carolina. Usually you walk into that building and the air is heavier, it's hotter—I don't know what it is, but for the Duke-Carolina game it's always hotter in there than it is for a normal game. It doesn't matter how many people, it's just hotter. So it's hard to figure that out. 

But yeah, it'll definitely be different. It's the same for both teams, obviously. It changes the juice in the building. And that can't be helped, there's nothing you can do about that. I wear a headset during the games, so I haven't noticed how loud the fake crowd noise is, and whether that's of any consequence. I don't really think it is. But it's just something—hopefully we won't have to get used to it, because hopefully it won't go beyond this year. But it's definitely a radical change that has made it—it kind of shows how reliant that fans are on the atmosphere. To me, fans are great for the atmosphere. But the most important thing is the game itself, and so many fans seem like they're less engaged because they don't have the crowd to let them know when they should be excited and when they shouldn't. That's surprised me a fair amount.

TC: Another change this year—both teams are unranked. How do you think that affects the profile of this game, if it does at all?

JB: I don't think it affects it at all. I think people are still interested in it. And Duke is on an upswing—both Duke and North Carolina have played significantly better over the last couple of weeks. They're both young in spots, and when you're young, I think sort of the pandemic schedule is more likely to affect young teams in a negative way than older teams. But that's the way it goes. I mean, you can't do anything about that. 

Our research showed the last time both these teams were unranked at the same time was in 1982, when I was playing at Duke, Michael Jordan [and] Sam Perkins were playing at North Carolina. It's really kind of amazing that that team was unranked for any period of time. But you'd have to go back to the 60s, probably, when both teams were unranked when they played. I don't think that's a knock on this year's teams, it just shows how good the programs have been over the years. But I don't doubt that they'll both be ranked before the end of the season if they stay on this trajectory.

TC: You've been following the rivalry for a long time, as a player, coach and broadcaster. I'm just wondering if you've seen the rivalry change over the last couple of decades, and how so?

JB: It's just gotten bigger. It hasn't changed. There's just more to it. There's more money riding on it, there's more attention. It seems like over the years, you go to these games, it's like a Lakers game in the 80s. They're stars all over the place that come to this game, over any others. It's the hottest ticket—it has been for 35 years, maybe longer. 

The one thing that has changed—I think in the 60s and 70s, it was very one-sided. North Carolina was the dominant program. I think once you got to the mid-80s, it became a fair fight. You look at the numbers [since then], they're extraordinary. The number of wins are even, the number of points that the teams score against one another are just about even. I mean, you couldn't make that up. It seems like ESPN is making that up when you see it, that [it] can't be true. But it is. It's really remarkable. And that's yet another reason why this rivalry is so amazing, is how one team may go on a run for a short period of time or whatever, but it's amazing how even it has been, and it's [at] the highest possible level. 

And people say, 'Well, it's a lot like the Yankees-Red Sox.' Yankees-Red Sox—they haven't had this kind of rivalry, where both teams have won this amount of championships and been at the top of the game for that amount of time. And Lakers-Celtics, all that stuff, you name it—they can't match that for that amount of time. It's really incredible, hard to believe in a lot of ways.

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest here.

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