North Carolina and NC State will host NCAA baseball regional tournaments this weekend. Had the selection committee paid more attention to RPI rankings and the eye test than Duke’s small, outdated home field, there would have been 3 regionals played within a 30-mile radius.

The region of central North Carolina that includes the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill is referred to as “the Triangle,” but it could be argued that it’s also the center of the college baseball universe.

It’s obviously even more of a college basketball hotbed, especially now that Kevin Keatts and his Wolfpack have earned a championship banner to raise to the PNC Arena rafters and joined the rival Tar Heels and Blue Devils as recent-vintage Final Four participants. All 3 basketball teams have won multiple NCAA championships and they rank 1, 2, 3 (Duke, UNC and State) in ACC Tournament titles.

Their success on the hardwood didn’t just put the ACC on the map as an elite conference, it also inspired the phrase Tobacco Road.

That’s a source of pride for everyone associated with all 3 schools.

Unfortunately, pride doesn’t pay the bills.

Football does. It’s the sport that generates a disproportionate share of an athletic department’s revenue and influences an even greater disproportion of the decisions that are made.

About television contracts, scheduling, conference affiliation, litigation.


And that’s a problem for ACC’s Triangle schools.

While football might be No. 1 in terms of importance, it consistently ranks 3rd out of the 3 major sports in results and national relevance.

UNC, NC State and Duke have traditionally been the equivalent of a cornerback who gets beat off the line and doesn’t have the recovery speed to keep up with the receiver he’s supposed to be covering. They’re always a step behind ACC rivals Clemson, Florida State and anyone else who moves the needle nationally.

It’s not that the Tar Heels, Wolfpack and Blue Devils have been terrible. They’re not. All 3 have spent time in the national polls and were bowl eligible in each of the past 2 seasons. UNC even played in the conference championship game in 2022. But Duke hasn’t finished a football season ranked in the top 10 since 1960. NC State never has. UNC has, a few times, but not since 1997.

It’s not as if they don’t have talented players. UNC quarterback Drake Maye was the 3rd overall selection in this year’s NFL Draft, and NC State linebacker Payton Wilson was the Bednarik Award winner as the nation’s top college defender.

And it’s not as if they aren’t trying.

All 3 programs have spent millions on upgrades to their facilities. They have strong NIL collectives. They’ve succeeded in hiring (in the case of Hall of Famer Mack Brown at UNC) or retaining (as State has with Dave Doeren) some of the best, most respected coaches in the business.

So what is it, then?

None of the 3 has won an ACC football championship since Steve Spurrier led the Blue Devils to a share of the title in 1989. The Tar Heels and Wolfpack have gone even longer since their most recent championship. UNC has been waiting since 1980. State since 1979.

How come they’ve have had so much trouble producing the same kind of results on the gridiron as they’ve enjoyed on the diamond and the court?

There are no concrete answers to that question. The only logical explanation is that it’s a matter of perception.

Specifically, it’s the perception that UNC, State and Duke are basketball and baseball schools. And that if you’re a high-level football prospect with designs on playing for championships, maximizing your value and improving your NFL Draft stock, the smart move is to go someplace else.

It’s a perception that’s based on reality, though it’s also perpetuated by media members who continue to portray the ACC in general and those schools in particular as inferior.

Consider that over the past 10 recruiting classes, the top-ranked high school player in North Carolina according to 247Sports has only stayed in-state 3 times.

Defensive lineman Travis Shaw chose UNC in 2022. Maye also became a Tar Heel the previous year after committing to Alabama, and running back Johnny Frasier picked NC State in 2015.

All the other top-rated players in the past decade landed at brand-name programs. It’s a list that includes Clemson (Dexter Lawrence in 2016 and Trenton Simpson in 2020), Georgia (Zamir White in 2018), Tennessee (Daevin Hobbs in 2023) and Notre Dame (Bryce Young this year).

It’s not as if the football talent pool in North Carolina is shallow. Or that it’s any less stocked than it is in other sports. The difference is that players in basketball and particularly baseball are more inclined to stay close to home because they don’t have to deal with a negative stigma attached to doing so.

That’s the dilemma the Tar Heels, Wolfpack and Blue Devils are facing.

The only way to remove the stigma is to break through, win an ACC championship and get into the 12-team College Football Playoff.

To do that, you need a roster full of blue-chip players. Not just a handful here and there. And the best way to do that is to start breaking through, winning championships and getting into the Playoff.

It’s a vicious cycle not unlike a young college graduate looking for a job and being told he or she needs experience before being considered.

Perhaps the transfer portal can become the equalizer that helps solve the problem.

Doeren, in particular, has bulked up his Wolfpack with the addition of a top-10 free-agent haul that includes Ohio State wide receiver Noah Rogers, the No. 2-rated prospect in North Carolina in 2023.  State will have an opportunity to start changing the perception of its program with a nationally televised showdown against Tennessee in Charlotte on Sept. 7.

Until then, there’s always baseball.