Cutcliffe: Play Duke-UNC game before Thanksgiving

Jul. 23, 2013 @ 10:45 PM

This season, the Duke-North Carolina football game moves back to its traditional Thanksgiving weekend slot with the Tar Heels taking their turn as hosts.

Last season, when Duke was the site of the rivalry game, it was played in October.

Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe said Tuesday night that, if things go the way he likes, the game won’t be played on Thanksgiving weekend in future years.

“For us it’s much better somewhere during the season when it is our home game,” Cutcliffe said while attending the North Carolina Coaches for Charity banquet at the Hilton North Raleigh. “So I would not be in favor of it being that (Thanksgiving) weekend for that reason. We had the best crowd we’ve had since I’ve been at Duke when it wasn’t over Thanksgiving weekend. Our students really don’t have a chance to come over Thanksgiving weekend because our students aren’t really local like a state university.”

The ACC’s expansion this year to 14 football-playing schools, with Notre Dame’s independent football team agreeing to play five games against ACC teams each year beginning in 2014, has the league office mulling different scheduling scenarios.

Thanksgiving weekend, the final weekend of regular-season play prior to the ACC Championship game, gets particular attention because it’s traditionally been a rivalry weekend.

ACC teams Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech normally play their in-state rivals from the SEC (South Carolina, Florida and Georgia) that weekend.

From 1965 to 2008, the UNC-Duke game closed the regular season in all but two seasons – 1991 and 2001.

In 2009, Cutcliffe’s second season with the Blue Devils, the ACC moved the UNC-Duke game at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill to Nov. 7. Last season, Duke beat UNC 33-30 on Oct. 20 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.

In 2010 and 2011, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels closed the regular season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

But Cutcliffe has made it clear he’d rather that not be the case. As the ACC makes scheduling decisions with marketing and competitive balance in mind, he’d rather see the game played when Duke’s students are able to attend and create a raucous atmosphere like last October’s.

“I’ve been pushing it since I’ve been at Duke,” Cutcliffe said. “That may upset some Duke fans. It may upset some North Carolina fans. I understand that. But at the same time, as I see my job, it is to put it in the best circumstance I can to have a great home game. It was much better to have our students in attendance.”

Entering his second season with the Tar Heels, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora experienced his first Duke-UNC football game last year. On Tuesday night, while also appearing at the N.C. Coaches For Charity banquet, he said finding a weekend to play that game on every year would be best.

But he thinks it’s unlikely.

“I think if you have the opportunity to set it the same weekend every year, I think that’s a good thing to do,” Fedora said. “Unfortunately, with the way the schedule is set up, I don’t think that’s going to be able to happen. I know the ACC is talking about trying to be a part of rivalry week.”

On Sunday at the ACC’s Football Kickoff in Greensboro, league commissioner John Swofford said discussions are ongoing about what to do with the final weekend of regular-season play. He said a mix of non-conference and conference games, as is the current setup, remains an option.

Fedora said playing a rivalry game is nice, but who? The Tar Heels and N.C. State are arguably bigger football rivals than UNC and Duke are.

“We’ve got more than one rival,” Fedora said. “I don’t know that I get the choice to pick. We’ll line up and play whoever they tell us to play whenever they tell us to play.”

In 2009, Duke played Wake Forest in its final regular-season game. That allowed UNC and N.C. State to play the same day.

Cutcliffe said he was fine with that arrangement. He admits Swofford and ACC associate commissioner Michael Strickland have a difficult job working out all the logistics.

He’d like to see the Duke-UNC game played the same weekend every year, just not on Thanksgiving weekend.

“There are conflicts,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s why it’s really hard with us, in really a new-look ACC, to say we want to take a date and say that’s when we want to play the same team every year. That model works for the most part in the SEC. But for the flexibility of a television schedule, you can take what looks like a big game coming up and move it to where it’s not the same Saturday as what looks like another big conference game.

“It’s a nightmare what Michael Strickland takes on and the commissioner takes on. They are really diligent about it. I think they are trying to find a way to make it work. Do I think we can find a way to make it better? Yes.”