DURHAM, N.C. After spending Tuesday with the Blue Devils, I'm not sure whether I hate Duke more than ever or whether I want to quit my job and enroll immediately.
Begin with one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, a sprawling landscape filled with so many majestic towers, gothic stone walls and marvelous archways and courtyards that you expect to find Harry Potter racing off to Quidditch practice. Your IQ rises 10 points just walking around.
Then there are the perks. This year's freshmen were each given a free iPod. A student told me she walked onto the quad one day and found a hot air balloon available for rides. She swears that another night she walked into a dining hall and found a chocolate fountain. No, really a chocolate fountain, with the rich syrup flowing over three levels and into a reservoir for strawberries and marshmallows.
And get this: Students can use their meal cards to purchase beer and wine in the campus bar.
No wonder people resent Duke.
Everyone hates the local rival school, but Duke is one of the few basketball programs that inspires nationwide emotion. Many fans admire and root for Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski for running a clean, championship program in the manner that should serve as the college basketball standard. And many more fans simply want to strangle those sanctimonious rich SOBs until the eyes bug out on their Izod alligators.
"It's the whole aura we put out," said Bonnie Gregory, a freshman from Greensboro. "I understand that we give out a snobbish attitude, that we're better than you. But I feel like we can completely back it up. We really do have the best of both worlds."
See? This is what I'm talking about.
The Duke campus is just nine miles from the University of North Carolina and not much farther from North Carolina State but it occupies a completely different world. So much so that I swear there were species of trees blooming at Duke that still were barren with winter at Chapel Hill.
Another example. Duke senior Jon Wedrogowski mentioned in his offer to host me that this Sunday is a very big day on campus. Not only is it the day the Blue Devils could advance to the Final Four, he said it also is Seersucker Sunday, marking the first day of the seersucker season. "If you wear it out of season you'll get ridiculed," he told me when we met Wednesday ... and as soon as he said this, he stopped and turned to his friend, Cassie Young, with a worried look. "We're going to sound so obnoxious."
|BACK TO SCHOOL|
Jim Caple is turning back the clock and living the college life during the NCAA Tournament:
This week: Tobacco Road|
Day 1: Love and hate on Chapel Hill
Not to worry. Seersucker tastes aside, Jon and Cassie weren't obnoxious in the least. Instead, they took me on a great tour of the campus and went along good-naturedly with all the Duke stereotypes I mentioned (sure enough, much of Duke's student body does seem to come from New Jersey or New York), even laughing when I claimed that the students waiting at a bus stop were their maids and butlers. They also politely ignored my constant hacking and wheezing and sniffling (shaking my hand must have been a real treat). Then again, they could afford to be nice since they'll probably buy ESPN in a hostile takeover when they make it big in a couple years.
(By the way, I'm officially halfway through my own personal March Madness tour of college campuses and I have to admit I'm hurting. This cold has laid me so low that I walked around today feeling like my head was underwater the whole time. I finally had to break down and stay in a hotel so I could suffer in privacy. This is no reflection on my gracious hosts at Duke. It's just that I need to get a decent night's sleep and as soon as they began mixing a punch with Everclear ["Warning: contents may ignite or explode"], I knew I would never survive the night to visit N.C. State the next day. And now back to Duke ... )
North Carolina fans like to call Duke fans rich and spoiled but unlike at Chapel Hill, the Blue Devils give the best tickets to the students, thereby turning Cameron Indoor Stadium into one of the most hostile environments in sports. Think the Yankee Stadium bleachers, only with seersucker.
(That's a joke of course. There is no seersucker insider Cameron. The gym gets so crowded and so hot that the Dukies paint their bodies in team colors simply to lessen the amount of clothes they have to wear. The Dukies are more like Yankees fans who can spell.)
Going to a game at most schools is an event or even a ritual; going to a game at Duke is like climbing Mount Everest. Students camp out overnight for tickets at lots of schools. At Duke, they camp out for more than a month for the biggest games, filling the lawn outside Cameron with tents. And leave it to Duke to provide wireless Internet access while they wait.
K-ville is the perfect setting to forge the most passionate, united and crazed fans in sports. Either that, or a great breeding ground for cholera.
"It's like a shanty town for all of us who are paying $40,000 a year to go to school here,'' Gregory said "You're sick when you're there, you're sick after, you're sick the whole time.''
The tradition is absolutely insane. The Dukies camp there for weeks no matter the weather, shivering through the cold, the rain and the sleet. The only two things that make K-Ville tolerable is that 1.) Duke is located in North Carolina, not Minnesota; and 2.) the students can always send their manservant, Jeeves, to fill in for them.
Again, I'm joking. There are no manservants in the tents -- they're too busy planning seating assignments for the spring frolic. There is, however, an elaborate rotation system, apparently drawn up by the Department of Homeland Security, that allows fans to take a break as long as a minimum number remain in the tent. I had several students explain the tent system several times, but I still can't figure out how it works. All right, but this is the last time: During Orange Alert Tent, you have to have at least four students in the tent during the day and 18 alley cats in the tent at night and eight lumberjacks on weekends . . .
All I know is they don't get much sleep for a long stretch of time. True, most of the campers are freshmen, and freshmen will do just about anything if someone convinces them it's cool. But still . . . the tents are very impressive.
The man who inspired all this, of course, is Coach K, who (in addition to apparently endorsing every product on TV) runs such a frustratingly clean program that even Carolina fans have to respect him. The only scandal surrounding Krzyzewski is his hair. Asked whether he would rather never get a single job after graduation or have to live with Coach K's hairstyle, Wedrogowski replied, "That's a tough question."
Where the Dean Dome is cavernous and imposing, Cameron Indoor Stadium is small, cramped, old-fashioned and completely wonderful. There is so much polished wood everywhere that you can hear the squeak of sneakers even when it's empty. It is not an arena, it is a gym. If Krzyzewski had left to take the Lakers job, Norman Dale would have replaced him.
I met a recent graduate, Ben Edell, who has rooted for the Blue Devils his entire life. He was a ball boy on the 1991 and '92 championhip teams and went to school with Dean Smith's daughter. He was a freshman the year they won again in 2001. The Duke blue runs deeper than the T-shirt he wears. And he said something interesting about the school: "People choose this school over the Ivy Leagues because of the basketball team. When you think about it, the basketball program makes the academics better here."
Walking on the court, I could understand this feeling. A small, old gym ringed by passionate students cheering on their team this is the way college basketball ought to be. For a minute, I almost felt myself rooting for Duke.
But I'm happy to say I got over it quickly.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," was recently published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.