It’s hard to go out on top. It’s even harder to imagine anything bringing Duke and UNC fans together. There have been too many heartbreaking loses, elbows thrown, trash talked and mutual hatred to imagine the two shades of blue ever teaming up.
But thanks to one man’s unparalleled legacy, a couple young entrepreneurs and the creativity of a Duke graduate, Tar Heels, Blue Devils and one Chapel Hill clothing store have come together to do both.
When Coach Smith died on February 7, the shockwaves could be felt far beyond Chapel Hill. People young and old, sports fans and non-sports fans, baby blue and royal blue, wanted to honor a man who was so inspirational and influential that President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
So shortly after Duke alumni and current UNC graduate student Aaron Kirschenfeld first put the idea and design up on his blog, it became obvious that he was on to something. He needed help with production so Kirschenfeld contacted Ryan Cocca, co-owner and creator of Thrill City, a UNC athletics and pop cultured inspired clothing store located at 422A W. Franklin St.
“That little post he wrote got really widely circulated. It got picked up by the WRAL website, I saw it on Twitter and Reddit, but no one was actually acting on it,” Cocca said. “ Eventually Aaron called me and asked if we were serious about doing this. I was completely unsure of what would happen and what sales would be like, but we knew if we could sell 30 shirts then we could make our money back.”
So Cocca put the shirt up for sale online and waited. It didn’t take long for them to sell their 30-shirt minimum.
“We made over that and more the first night,” Cocca said. “Then four or five days later it was in the News & Observer and I was being interviewed by Yahoo and stuff. It’s funny how things can take off like that.”
When Kirschenfeld originally approached Cocca with the idea, he wanted part of the shirts’ proceeds to go towards a charity that meant something special to Coach Smith. After Smith’s, his family asked other family members, friends and fans to donate to charity in lieu of flowers. The two charities: The Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund, and the Interfaith Council (IFC) for Social Service, which helps shelter and feed those in need in Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
Cocca, a Chapel Hill native and 2013 UNC graduate, says he grew up volunteering with the IFC.
“I trust IFC and think they’re a great charity for our area,” Cocca said. “I was familiar with their work already, so when I saw that they were one of the charities on (Coach Smith’s) list, it was a perfect fit.
The influx of orders and requests for interviews threw Cocca and his partner and Thrill City co-owner Rohan Smith into a shipping and emailing frenzy. They were receiving more requests and orders than ever before, but the rewards have been more than worth it. More than 2,100 shirts have been sold thus far, raising over $20,000 for IFC.
“We really didn’t do anything. They approached us and we were honored to be one of the charities that Coach Smith asked people to donate to,” said IFC Executive Assistant Elizabeth Garfunkel. “If you read into who he was as a person, you see just how much he cared about people, civil rights and needs. We provide people with food and shelter, the two most basic needs.”
UNC junior Andrew Gianuzzi of Charlotte is one of the more than 2,100 people who ordered a shirt, sighting a mixture of Duke and UNC that he had never seen before.
“Growing up, I was a big Duke fan because of my parents – obviously I have the utmost respect for Coach Smith,” Gianuzzi said. “So when I saw the DEAN shirt written in Duke font on Twitter, I immediately knew I’d have to get one. I think people are going to wish they would have gotten one while they still can.”
With national news coverage online, on television and in newspapers, one would imagine that Thrill City is booming like never before. But Cocca said he and Smith are shutting Thrill City’s doors in May.
“Rohan’s visa expires in July, so he needs to go back (to London) because it takes a lot of money to apply for a visa, and after that you’re not even guaranteed to get accepted,” Cocca said. “At the same time I’ve been working on a new project for about a year and was kind of ready to make the switch to something different. The timing actually worked out really conveniently.”
Smith and Cocca thought about trying to find a buyer for Thrill City, but weren’t willing to risk it sputtering and dying out once they’re no longer involved. Cocca is content with what they’ve done and says hes pleased that they can go out after quite possibly their biggest success to date.
“At this point in time I feel content with the idea that when we close in May, Thrill City is closed for good,” Cocca said.
As of publication date, Thrill City’s door are still open and the “DEAN” shirts are in stock.