Sports, particularly the men’s college variety, has long been integral to our region’s common language, its contests, rivalries and lore a welcome link with a tradition-rich past. That familiarity meant we were hardly innocents, recognizing sports’ wide reach and engaging, maddening and enduring complexities.
Yet, 20 years after The Independent was born, it’s difficult to say which has changed more profoundly, the Triangle’s landscape or the face of athletics. Few major figures remain from the sports scene of two decades ago, and an influx of money has shaped and often warped our priorities.
How long ago it seems that a joyous crowd jammed Reynolds Coliseum to celebrate the stunning triumph of Jim Valvano’s “Cardiac Pack,” a heavy underdog that magically won the 1983 NCAA men’s basketball championship.
Valvano, an outgoing New Yorker with a darting wit and a wonderful flair for strategy, brought State its second men’s title. Blazing new trails, he also turned his notoriety into a one-man business empire, sparking disdain in many quarters. Seven years later Valvano was gone amid scandal and acrimony. Three years after that he was dead at age 46, his dignified battle against bone cancer spawning a foundation that bears his name and works to fight the disease.
N.C. State’s title put it on an even competitive footing with North Carolina, at least for awhile. The Tar Heels had won their second NCAA championship, first under Dean Smith, on a late shot by young guard Michael Jordan in 1982.
Smith would coach until 1997, leaving his successors to struggle in his shadow after he won another NCAA title and more games than any coach in major-college history. Jordan would blossom into the greatest pro basketball player of all time.
Meanwhile, Duke men’s basketball, with no titles to its credit, endured its second consecutive 17-loss season in 1982-93 under a combative young coach with a name tough to pronounce and even tougher to spell.
Mike Krzyzewski soon had the Blue Devils in the Final Four, though the first Durham school to win an NCAA title was Division II N.C. Central in 1989. Two years later the Devils won the first of three national championships as Coach K’s program became the most prominent in the sport. Today Duke spends nearly $5 million annually merely to keep the wheels greased for its runs to basketball title contention.
Back in 1983, North Carolina doted on college sports and auto racing, the nearest pro teams hundreds of miles distant. Today, Panthers prowl a new pro football stadium in Charlotte and professional hockey’s Hurricanes roam Raleigh’s new RBC Center, a sprawl-inducing, $160-million boondoggle heavily funded by the public. Pro basketball’s Hornets came and went in Charlotte, with another franchise and yet another new arena on the way. (Over the years pro ventures failed to gain a foothold in the Triangle in indoor and outdoor football, team tennis, minor league basketball, and women’s softball.)
ESPN and Nike, just getting traction two decades ago, now lead TV and apparel manufacturers in dominating sports. Sneaker companies manipulate athletics departments and purchase coaches’ loyalties. TV networks set schedules and alter comportment. Shameless strutting for highlight telecasts and painstakingly displayed corporate logos are commonplaces of modern competition, pro and amateur.
Women’s collegiate programs, erratically funded and minimally recognized in the early ’80s, remain overshadowed and outspent by the men. But women have come to thrive at Triangle schools in basketball, golf, soccer, tennis and other sports.
Those who once despaired of winning a place for soccer in this country now regard the Triangle as a hotbed for the sport. The area boasts myriad recreational leagues, a women’s pro franchise, and a Chapel Hill program so successful under Anson Dorrance that Dean Smith famously called UNC “a women’s soccer school.”
Minor league baseball, nearly moribund, was resurrected in downtown Durham. The Class A Bulls played in ancient Durham Athletic Park, a charming, easygoing warm-weather crossroads. Then the 1988 film Bull Durham made the Bulls America’s most famous bush league club. Soon there was a new stadium and a leap to more mercenary Triple A status. Another club uses the old place, and there’s a third minor league team in Zebulon.
Updated facilities became common for college programs, too. UNC’s men played basketball at Carmichael Auditorium in 1983; now home is the Smith Center, twice as large. The Wolfpack men play on Raleigh’s outskirts at the RBC Center, named after a Canadian bank. And the area’s three Atlantic Coast Conference football programs poured tens of millions of dollars into facility upgrades to keep pace with Florida State, added in 1992 to boost the league’s football profile.
We still love sports for its drama and characters, for the sense of affiliation and vicarious achievement it provides. But we find ourselves wondering whether tradition and affection can survive the accelerating rush to embrace sports as the business of fun.
Barry Jacobs, The Independent‘s first sports editor, has covered sports since 1976. His most recent book is Golden Glory: The ACC’s First 50 Years.