As much as any part of American culture, sports deal in absolutes. You’re safe or out. You score or miss. You win or lose (I know you can tie in soccer). There’s little, if any, middle ground. Why would there be?
There’s even less neutrality when it comes to fandom itself. Remember the Alabama fan who poisoned the Toomer’s Corner Oak Trees at Auburn? That dude was definitely not a centrist. But even the sane, restrained sports fan can list more teams they hate than love. There is euphoria in watching your most despised rival lose on the biggest of stages, after all.
Some rivalries, like Auburn/Alabama, Ohio State/Michigan, Bears/Packers or Yankees/Red Sox, are inspired by geography. But across the sports landscape, some teams are hated nationally. They inspire such acrimony simply because they win. They’re the haves. Major League Baseball has the Yankees. The NFL has the Patriots. College football has Notre Dame. And college basketball has Duke.
For a brief time during this Final Four, Duke found themselves in rather unfamiliar territory: They were only the second most hated team in the tournament. That was thanks almost entirely to the Kentucky Wildcats’ quest for perfection, and coach John Calipari’s brilliance in recruiting one-and-done talent (even thought it’s entirely a byproduct of the NBA’s draft eligibility rule). But when Wisconsin upset Kentucky in Saturday’s national semifinal, Duke moved back to its rightful place atop college basketball’s most hated list. And they’ll still be there when the Blue Devils battle the Badgers for the national championship Monday night.
The Duke haters couldn’t have scripted a better finale: Wisconsin represents the perfect paradox to the Blue Devils’ perceived elitism. Their coach, Bo Ryan, often recruits unknown players and molds them into championship-level performers. They have a guy whose primary contribution to the team is growing a mustache. With a workmanlike approach, Wisconsin seems to win with a humility that is beloved. Even Ryan journeyed from an unknown Division III coach to one of the best talent developers in the country. If anybody needed more reason to root against Duke on Monday night, the Badgers have provided it. They might be the slight favorites according to the oddsmakers, but spiritually, they’re the underdog that Americans love.
Duke has been here before. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski has won four of these national championships and equally as many gold medals as head coach of the USA Men’s National Team. Check out Krzyzewski’s bio on Duke’s website. It’s staggering. Ryan stands as a polar opposite – at least from the standpoint of accolades. He won four Division III national championships, which many seem to neglect, or deem inferior. He made his first Final Four last season. Now, people want to see Ryan recognized on the biggest stage. Though among coaches he’s revered, fans seem to put little stock in his designation as one of the nation’s best. There’s an overwhelming desire to see Ryan hoist a trophy.
It’s not as if Krzyzewski is supremely hated, unlike many of sports’ tenured coaches. To most, Krzyzewski actually comes across as likable – and his talents are undeniable. It’s the winning he has brought to Duke that is disliked. Why does he seem so likable? Maybe it’s because he gives fans a chance to hate.