Uncle Terry saves the day

When student behavior at basketball games got crazy, President Sanford wrote a note that helped pave the way for Crazie-ness.
October 30, 2017

As a former governor, Terry Sanford often used his political skills during his tenure as Duke president, from 1970 to 1985. One of his best-known missives, the “Avuncular Letter,” was sent to the undergraduate students in 1984. At once humorous and chiding, effective but gentle, the letter, signed “Uncle Terry,” is a triumph of Sanford’s acumen. The story behind the letter, however, tells the tale of the long-standing problem facing Sanford, as well as the path it set toward the creation of what we now know as “Cameron Crazies.”

Student rowdiness at basketball games didn’t begin in 1984. In fact, correspondence about the issue in Sanford’s presidential records dates back to 1973. Even then, opposing teams accused enthusiastic Duke fans of spitting on them in Cameron Indoor Stadium. A number of student cheers also contained words some alumni and other viewers felt were unfitting for a school of Duke’s caliber.

After a particularly nasty incident in 1979, in which the wife of the North Carolina State University coach was taunted, Duke fans were reviled in the press. A Richmond Times-Dispatch column by Mike Bevans suggested, “If ABC ever expands its Superstars competition to include collections of raving idiots, put your money on the Duke students who assemble behind press row for every game at Cameron Stadium.”

Sanford wrote a letter to the student body in February 1979, remarking on the volume of letters sent to his office—“more than I have received on any other issue since I have been at Duke.” He warned that the conduct was beginning to interfere with Duke’s reputation, as well as its fundraising. He concluded the letter by saying, “We can have plenty of fun, kid others to whatever degree we want to, but there is a line that decent people simply have to draw. I contend that a Duke student has enough sense to know where to draw the line. I am counting on you to draw it.” The following day, Sanford wrote a letter to all fraternity presidents, asking them to do what they could to keep their members in line.

The presidential caution didn’t curtail all bad behavior, however. At a game in February 1983, Virginia coach Terry Holland found himself with Duke students sitting immediately behind the visitors’ bench, and was on the receiving end of constant insults and enough noise that he had difficulty communicating with his players. “While I admit that I enjoy some of the ideas that Duke students come up with,” Holland wrote dryly to Duke Athletics Director Tom Butters, “the profanity and the personal attacks on coaches and their families really have no place in the college game.”

As the 1983-84 season approached, Sanford wrote, perhaps wearily, to Butters: “With the approaching basketball season, I turn once more to a favorite peeve of mine, and that is the ‘dehumanizing’ conduct of a number of our students at home games. I hope you can devise a plan to minimize this kind of conduct, and to improve the rather sorry reputation our student body has in this respect.” It didn’t take long, however, before the antics in Cameron earned the school renewed attention from the press.

At a game against Maryland in January 1984, a number of students threw underwear and contraceptives onto the court—a dig at a Maryland player who had been accused of sexual misconduct—and sang chants containing four-letter words, hurled personal insults against players and coaches, and created general mayhem. Clippings of critical articles were sent to Sanford, along with letters expressing shock and distaste at the behavior. One read, “To think that some of those same students might within just a few years be our doctors, dentists, lawyers, and legislators boggles one’s mind.” Many asked when the administration was going to step in.

Even his friend Peace Corps founder and politician Sargent Shriver wrote him, expressing sympathy: “What can be done? Short of evicting the ‘fans’ (if they’re worthy of that name) or fining the home team points for foul behavior by home team rooters, I can’t imagine what can or should be done. But I’m guessing you can. So, the purpose of this letter is solely to tell you that a lot of fathers & mothers would rally around a president with the courage to put an end to this kind of despicable conduct.”

It was in response to all of this outcry that Sanford penned his avuncular letter. In it, he implored the fans to be creative, but to keep it clean. “Think of something clever but clean, devastating but decent, mean but wholesome, witty and forceful but G-rated for television, and try it at the next game.” He concluded the letter with a single sentence: “I hate for us to have the reputation of being stupid.” Duke students demonstrated their new and improved behavior at the next home game, against the University of North Carolina. A group of students attempted to deliver a bouquet to UNC coach Dean Smith, and the crowd, many of who were wearing halos, shouted, “Hi Dean!” in greeting. The referees received a standing ovation when they walked onto the court, and when the fans objected to their calls, they shouted, “We beg to differ” rather than their previous favorite cry, which referred to barnyard droppings. Even the signs in the stands were cleaned up: “Welcome honored guests,” and “Sorry Uncle Terry. The devil made us do it.”

The new behavior received positive feedback from almost all, including from UNC. Dean Smith told The Durham Morning Herald, “I’m impressed with the Duke officials and Duke student body that they tried to do something about it.” Slyly, Smith continued, “Of course, I didn’t ever notice the other things.”

The Avuncular Letter didn’t end misbehavior, but it did usher in a new era for Duke men’s basketball fans and began some practices that continue, including line monitors. Within a couple of years, the remarkable fan base was bestowed with the “crazies” moniker. Sanford, with his typical finesse in working with students, alumni, administrators, and colleagues at other schools, helped make the Cameron Crazies into the creative and powerful force they are today.