Ronnie McGill of North Carolina running against Wake Forest during a game in 2003. The Tar Heels won 42-34 in Chapel Hill in the programs' 100th meeting. They've met only six times since.

Wake Forest vs. North Carolina.

The rivalry that was. And then it wasn’t.

There was a time on Tobacco Road when this game was as big as any we’d watch all season. Two schools, once 30 miles apart, created their own quirky little rivalry that was unlike any other here in North Carolina.

And while the tenor rose and fell through the decades, the noise was always there. Muted but constant.

One side never really understanding the other, which is ironic because in many ways they are just alike.

Wake grads and UNC grads look the same, dress the same and sound the same despite one always being in the shadow of the other, a reality that rankled the Wake Forest alumni in the old days and it still resonates to now.

Wake and Carolina will play again Friday night in a non-conference football game that screams out something we all know deep down.

This is wrong.

Of all the developments since the expansion of the ACC and the decision to go to divisions and now morphing the league into a global network, the loss of the UNC-Wake rivalry is the worst.

When you lose something that dates to 1888, and you do it for the sake of progress, you’ve lost something you can never get back. And while the schools took it upon themselves to help right this wrong, there’s still a feeling deep down that we’ll never replace what was lost.

This was always a cool rivalry, a simmering feud among neighbors who seemed to have nothing in common. But the schools are alike in more ways than you’d think. Sure, one is private and small and the public and large with a total enrollment of almost 30,000 students.

But in Winston-Salem alone, the vast number of doctors, lawyers and business leaders went to either Carolina or Wake. That’s at the core of this rivalry.

“It was always the big game,” Bill Faircloth said this week. “And this Friday’s going to be a big game for both schools.”

He’s been a Deacon since 1960, when he went to Wake as a freshman and played for the team that had Norm Snead playing quarterback.

And like all Deacons, he wants this one badly.

“I’m going to be an usher in church this Sunday,” said Faircloth, still a part of Wake Forest athletics. “And I hope to have a smile on my face.”

The addition of Big East schools up and down the eastern seaboard didn’t add more rivals within the ACC. All it did was water down the existing rivalries, particularly the quaint little rivalry between Wake Forest and North Carolina

This game has traditionally meant more to the Wake fans than Carolina fans. And if the truth were known, the ACC’s decision to stop scheduling them every season is barely felt in Chapel Hill.

But in Winston-Salem, and in old Wake Forest, it’s a cruel and calculated result of a bad situation.

As UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham told the Newport News Daily Press this week, the other schools just don’t raise anyone’s blood pressure on Tobacco Road.

“I don’t care how many times we play some of the (more distant ACC) schools, they’re not going to become our rival, and we won’t be theirs,” Cunningham said. “You just don’t run into your friend at the country club or the grocery store and rib each other about the game. It just doesn’t happen.”

It will happen this weekend and all next week, at the water cooler, on the streets and in the churches. It’s a rivalry fought and argued outside of the two programs.

The two coaches struggled to describe the game or their opponents this week, Wake’s Dave Clawson saying he and his staff know more about Utah State than North Carolina.

UNC coach Mack Brown tried to explain the theory of scheduling, but he admitted he had nothing to do with this. He compared it to his time at Texas.

“We had somebody we could beat, we had a mid-major and then a national game and then our conference schedule,” Brown said.

Without mentioning where Wake falls in that explanation, he said schedules are set so far out, as many as 10 years in some cases, that it’s hard to undo what’s already been agreed to.

Faircloth lamented that in the past 11 years, Wake has played Carolina only twice. In that same period, the Deacs have played Vanderbilt, Army and Navy five times each.

“Doesn’t seem right,” he said.

It’s not right.

Good for UNC and Wake playing this game, non-conference or not. This is bigger than the schools, bigger than the ACC or its network.

This is for the fans and the alumni of two proud colleges with a history dating to 1888. From Peahead Walker and Carl Snavely to Bill Dooley and Jim Grobe, this is an old-school rivalry that demands respect from those who should know better.

This is way it used to be.

This is the way it ought to be.

Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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