There seems to be an attempt on Tobacco Road to rekindle the football rivalry between Virginia and Duke, two desperate teams that clash today at high noon in Durham.
The series used to be one of the hottest rivalries in the ACC during the George Welsh years — particularly during Steve Spurrier’s short reign over the Duke program and for several years following his departure. Yes, there was bad blood between the two programs...boiling blood, as a matter of fact.
When former UVa offensive coordinator and current N.C. State head coach Tom O’Brien was asked about that rivalry earlier this week, he played it down.
“I don’t know if contentious is the right word,” O’Brien said when the topic came up. “Both fought hard to win football games. When we came to Virginia, they were similar schools academically, going after the same kids, and we were trying to get it going. I don’t know if it was personal.”
No love lost for Welsh
Maybe it wasn’t personal, but this columnist never saw another coach get under Welsh’s skin like Spurrier. But it wasn’t exclusive in that respect.
“I think I got under his skin a few times too,” Welsh said during an interview this summer. “I don’t know if it was arrogance, but it bordered on it. He never seemed to want to give the other team credit when he got beat.”
There was definitely friction in the games between the two, stemming from Welsh’s first year at Virginia in 1982. Spurrier was the offensive coordinator under Duke’s Red Wilson that year, and the Cavaliers were simply awful.
Getting their revenge
In a 51-17 loss at Duke, the Blue Devils scored twice in the fourth quarter, leaving the Virginia staff miffed that Spurrier was pouring it on. Welsh and his assistants never got over that issue and won 14 of the next 18 games, sometimes by wide margins.
Of course, Spurrier wasn’t always on hand for those games. He left Duke before returning as head coach in 1987 and stayed there through ’89 before taking over at Florida.
During the Spurrier years and long afterward, there was no love lost between the Cavaliers and Blue Devils. There were accusations of “negative recruiting” by both sides, intense games and even a bench-clearing brawl in the post-Spurrier years.
As long as there was any trace of Spurrier at Duke, then Welsh was on the warpath. Steve Spurrier Jr. was on the Duke staff for a while, and Barry Wilson, hand-picked by Spurrier Sr., to be his successor, drew the wrath of George, as did others.
The height of the nastiness came in 1989 and 1990. UVa and Duke tied for the ACC championship in ’89, but Cavalier players claimed they should be the champions because they had hammered Duke 49-28.
Spurrier came out and said that because Duke had beaten defending ACC champion Clemson that season and Virginia hadn’t, then maybe the Devils should be champs. Spurrier went on to say that in order to be the champs you should beat the champs, that Duke did, and Virginia didn’t and probably never would beat Clemson.
Those memories still stir Welsh’s blood. During a celebration of the 1989 team a few weeks ago at Scott Stadium, Welsh recalled that bitter feud.
“We scored on seven straight possessions in that game,” Welsh said. “If Duke hadn’t recovered a couple of onsides kicks, it could have been worse. I might have been able to score 70, if I’d wanted to.”
The following season, after Spurrier’s departure, it seemed that Welsh wanted to score 70. Virginia rolled 59-0 over the Blue Devils and after one scribe accused Welsh of running up the score in the post-game interview, the Cavalier coach snapped back, “Don’t blame me if [Duke] can’t tackle.”
Welsh clearly hated playing at Duke in the latter years of his career because the Devils had fallen on hard times. There was very little interest in Duke football throughout most of the ’90s and even into the 2000s until new head coach David Cutcliffe came along this season.
Welsh used to say about playing at Duke: “Nobody comes to the games, you have to walk a mile to the dressing room and they read [bleep] poetry over the public address system.”
He was right, and it made for a horrible football atmosphere. Cutcliffe is changing that culture and a win over Virginia today could be a defining moment for what he is attempting to accomplish. Meanwhile, it could be a defining moment in the negative sense for Virginia.
Should the Cavaliers lose to Duke, which will bring a 24-game losing streak in ACC play into the game, it would cast some doubt as to whether UVa can turn this season around. With heavy unexpected personnel losses decimating Groh’s roster, it will be a huge statement if he can coach the Cavaliers to a win today, then hold things together through an upcoming three-game home stand.
Whatever the case, the rivalry could be back.
Us media types always looked forward to the Duke vs. Virginia game during those days because it always meant good copy. There would always be some spice to the rivalry, unlike recent times. Virginia has won 12 of the last 13 meetings and Al Groh has never lost to the Blue Devils in seven meetings.
However, Groh’s Cavaliers are seven-point underdogs heading into today’s game.
If you don’t think the old Cavs and old Devils took notice to that, you’d be dead wrong.
Spurrier was quoted in the Raleigh News & Observer this week about the game and Duke being favored over Virginia.
“My son, Steve Jr., told me, ‘Can you believe Duke is favored?’” said Spurrier, now head coach at South Carolina. “I said, ‘Well, it is unusual.’ It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”