Tech’s Most Historic Rivalry* (emphasis on the asterisk)
After the odd deviation that was the 2020 season, Georgia Tech’s most played series without interruption became the Duke Blue Devils, a development I’m sure every Tech fan could predict off the top of their heads.
I could write plenty about how Duke has the sheer volume and depth of history that should make them one of the team the average Tech fan considers a rival. Heck, I’ve even written that in this very column over the years. Given that the topic has been a theme of the past two weeks of this column, with respect to both North Carolina and Pittsburgh, I elect not to. Anyone familiar with this column, this team, or this blog knows that Georgia Tech and Duke play every year. Most know that this is a series that long predates Tech’s ACC membership. Heck, Duke was Tech’s annual inter-conference game for thirty years of its SEC membership. Yes, the conference Tech left in 1964 — Tech and Duke have played in every season since 1933. Every single matchup between the Jackets and the Blue Devils has come annually since that first fateful meeting.
The line of thought to justify Duke as Tech’s longest active rival is, admittedly, somewhat pedantic. Almost every Tech fans knows that the school in Athens is our most played rival, occurring nearly annually since 1893, save for the notable exceptions of last year and the seven year long stalemate following some post-World War I related brouhaha over pre-baseball game parade floats. That, my friends, is a story for another column.
Most people, too, would name Clemson a more historic rival, despite Tech actually playing the Blue Devils one more time in total than the Tigers, even ignoring the NCAA-related nonsense surrounding the 2009 ACC Championship. There is a legitimate feeling behind the drive to still recognize the absence last year as an aberration, I say as a baseball fan first and foremost who was desperately hoping for a Cubs-Braves NLDS matchup last year to keep the longest continuously running series in professional sports alive. But that’s neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is, Duke and Tech have played each other every season since 1933
Of course, in those 88 past matchups with Duke, Tech has had the historic blessing of being relatively the better team, beating Duke about 20 more times than Tech has been beaten by the Blue Devils. However, the curse of this rivalry, which is still a generous word to use to describe the series, based on fan sentiment, is that, no matter the year, Tech fans always pencil Duke in as a win. There doesn’t really seem to be much emotion at all when it comes to the boys from Durham, at least on the gridiron. There’s a reason you play the games, after all.
At the moment, the 88 year series puts the Blue Devils in second on the all-time matchup ranking, behind the Athenians and Auburn, at 114 and 92 games, respectively. We’ll talk more about Auburn in four years, I presume. I’m sure this does very few favors to building the emotional stakes at hand between Tech and Duke, but, rather than lecture about why a fairly long series should be more of a big deal, I instead elect to talk about the Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl, the “grandaddy of them all,” may rightfully seem out of place in a column about the history of Duke football. Of course, looking to the sidebar, you may notice that Duke has actually competed in the Rose Bowl twice, in 1939 and 1942. Of course, those were the halcyon days of Duke Football under the legendary coaching of Wallace Wade and Bill Murray, with Eddie Coleman filling in during Wade’s time in service with the US Army during World War II. Long before Duke men’s basketball was Duke men’s basketball, their football team was one of the pride of the South, and led by one of its most gifted coaches.
As a matter of fact, when Duke first joined the Georgia Tech schedule, they were a team on the rise. In 1933, Wallace Wade was in his third year as coach of the Duke team, which has recently trended towards greater success after years of mediocrity and non-existence. Adding Tech to the schedule guaranteed them a game against a powerhouse team that had won two national titles in the previous 15 years and represented some of the first great power to come to the sport from south of Washington, D.C.
What Wade was doing at Duke worked, too. Within the decade, as noted, they had the first of their 14 bowl appearances, a 7-3 loss to the University of Southern California. It would be Duke’s only loss that season, and the fourth time in the decade that Wade led them to a one loss season. Following another one loss season in 1939 and a two loss season in 1940, they would finish the 1941 season undefeated again, and well on their way to another Rose Bowl appearance.
However, between the end of the 1941 regular season on November 22nd — Duke beat NC State 55-6 — when Duke accepted their bid to the 1942 Rose Bowl, the fundamental nature of life in the United States had shifted, that being in the form of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Of course, I would love to take the time to really break down what that attack meant for the United States and the world, but this is, after all, a column about the history of Duke football.
It is challenging to find direct and unbiased sources about how exactly the Duke Blue Devils wound up receiving a bid to play Oregon State in the Rose Bowl. At the time, Minnesota was considered the top team in the country, with Duke second. There’s plenty of hearsay about not wanting to consider Duke for the bid from the East Coast, but the long of the short was that they were the best option, and most other top 10 teams either summarily rejected bowls altogether or had already been accounted for heading to places like New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Thus, the only response became to invite Duke to play out in Pasadena.
However, on December 7, the entire world shifted.
When the US went to war, there was understandable fears of the Japanese attacking the West Coast. Though, in hindsight, the effect of Japanese attacks on American soil was very limited, at the time, it seemed like the West Coast could be next. With both the parade and game of the Tournament of Roses drawing immense crowds of people, the thought was that the Japanese could try to single them out as targets, were they to go on as scheduled. With the United States in such an early and uncertain phase of the war, General John DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, determined that the games should be cancelled, and the government followed suit by banning large gatherings on the West Coast. The Rose Bowl would be taken up by tents and encampments, and the game would be without a home for New Years’ Day 1942.
As events moved in rapid succession, Duke seized the opportunity to host the game on campus back in Durham. Though other sites were considered due to the limited capacity of Duke Stadium, eventually it was determined to be the most logical option, and, as legend goes, to seat the increased crowd — attendance was determined to be 58,000 (or 56,000, depending on the source) of the stadium’s 35,000 seats, a 166% capacity utilization figure — bleachers were carted in from rival stadiums in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. This attendance would be eclipsed just one other time, in the 1949 edition of the Victory Bell rivalry between UNC and Duke.
The game itself was fairly riveting. The visitors from Oregon State had to trek thousands of miles across the country right at the dawn of a strange new wartime era for the United States, but were still able to hold on for a narrow 20-16 win in a true road bowl game.
Up until this past year, that was just the remarkable oddity in the history of the game that, above all things, has stood the test of time as a beacon of continuity for America’s most tumultuous sport. The Grandaddy of Them All, reduced in 2020 to a shell of its usual self in the somewhat soulless corporate husk of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, far from its idyllic home nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, was a weird sign of both the times — the chaotic pandemic being an eery parallel to the uncertain mood at the American entry into World War II — and the life of the sport. The setting didn’t matter, the game was just the name “The Rose Bowl Game.” The show must go on, and the money must come in.
It was, above all, more than a little bit sad.
Before we conclude, it’s worth circling back on those golden years of Duke football. From 1930 to 1963, they had just two losing seasons. For the thirty three years after that, they would experience just 6 winning seasons. In total, since 1963, Duke has seen just 14 winning seasons.
There’s a lot of futility in college football, or at least it can seem that way.
Why did we we start playing Duke? We played them because, almost 90 years ago, they were fantastic, one of the best teams in the South, and that was what we had been and aspired to be once more. At the time it started, the Duke vs. Tech series made plenty of sense for both parties. The story of college football, the road every team is traveling, is long and winding.
Some time in the future, we’ll use this space to talk about homecoming — Duke has been the opponent 23 times in 72 years — and about the meaning of Duke inevitably passing Auburn for the title of Tech’s second most-played opponent, but for today, we can appreciate the strangeness of the past year or so of college football, and try to find some of those parallels in similarly weird history, like the Rose Bowl that took place in Durham, North Carolina.
My, how the stories have risen and fallen in the years since. But, after all, that’s why they play the games.
Saturday afternoon, Georgia Tech and Duke will meet in Durham to renew what is, against all odds, Tech’s longest running football series without interruption. Somehow. Tune in here at From the Rumble Seat tomorrow for coverage through the gameday thread and the postgame recap, along with live updates via @FTRSBlog on Twitter.