There’s these oblong-shaped balls that are utilized in the late summer and fall at Durham, North Carolina. Their history can be traced to the 19th century, though there’s no definitive word as to when their use was authorized in this part of the country. Players wear bulky equipment, including helmets, but the degree of physical contact remains inexplicable
Yes, Virginia, they do play football at Duke. The players know of Mike Krzyzewski, but few — if any — are permitted to either confirm or deny they’ve ever been permitted to meet him. And Saturday the Blue Devils will find themselves at Michie Stadium, where they will play Army. Football! At Duke? The mystery continues.
And, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the players need not skulk around campus, doing their best to be neither seen nor heard. That might have been the case prior to the now-beatified entrance of Dave Cutcliffe. In the eight seasons of Duke football that proceeded him, the Blue Devils had won a total of 10 games; those mangled seasons included three that were winless. Duke had once won 20 games in three seasons under Steve Spurrier, but when Spurrier left following the 1989 season for far greener (read: lots more money) pastures, Duke football fell off a cliff. In the next 23 seasons, the Blue Devils had one winning season, an 8-4 finish in 1994. And when Cutcliffe took over in 2008, there was scant evidence to believe changes were inevitable.
The Blue Devils did finish 4-8 Cutcliffe’s first season, which certainly represented a nice jump from Ted Roof’s final season as coach, when Duke finished 1-11. Under the heading of everything is relative, the Blue Devils were positively airborne. But things didn’t progress with any great haste thereafter. Four straight losing seasons followed, including a 3-9 finish in 2011. Any adrenalin that Cutcliffe had managed to inject into the program had obviously evaporated. Or not.
In 2012, Duke finished the season 6-7, including a loss in the Belk Bowl, a game played between ACC and SEC teams. The following season Duke finished 10-4, was ACC Coastal Division champions, finished the season ranked 23nd nationally, and Cutcliffe was named National Coach of the Year. Its eight-game winning streak was the team’s longest since 1941.
In case there was any reason to believe this was a fluke, Duke finished 9-4 last season and played in its third straight bowl game. It was the first time the team won nine or more games in back-to-back seasons. Cutcliffe’s all-time record at Duke is 44-49, but few are making any allusions to those first four seasons. The Blue Devils have started this season 4-1, including two conference victories, against Georgia Tech and Boston College. People have noticed.
“The thing that is most impressive about how he has built it, is the patience that he has had and that everyone involved in that program has had a hand in developing them into a consistent winner,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “His first four years there they didn’t have a winning record and finally his fifth year they went 6-6 and went to a bowl game. They didn’t win the bowl game but just to build it, I won’t count that as a losing season, going to a bowl game. They did a nice job. And then the next year they’re playing in the ACC Championship. It takes a lot of patience to do that. Everyone wants to win right away. Coaches, players, everyone, there’s that feeling of responsibility and a sense of urgency ‘Let’s get this thing turned around right now.’
“Same feelings I have right now and our players have right now. He’s built it with guys that they’ve recruited and developed and brought up through their program and now they’ve got a roster full of guys that they believe are the right kinds of guys for their program and their institution and they do a whale of a job coaching those guys. They are really a well-coached football team. They’re disciplined and athletic. It’s not happening by chance. They built the program and they’ve got an ACC football team that can play with anyone in that league.”
Cutcliffe started in 1982 as an assistant at Tennessee. He was the assistant head coach and quarterback coach for four years – during which time he worked with Peyton Manning – before leaving to become the head coach at Ole Miss in 1998, where he worked with another Manning – Eli. Following his seventh season there he was fired by Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone in December 2004 after his only losing season. Boone had asked Cutcliffe to fire some assistant coaches and provide a detailed plan for improving the program, specifically the defense and recruiting. Cutcliffe refused to fire any staff members, and was subsequently fired along with his assistants.
After his stint at Ole Miss, Cutcliffe was hired as the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame, but health problems forced him to resign before his first season there. In 2005, he underwent successful triple-bypass surgery to correct a 99-percent blocked artery. After taking a year off he returned to Knoxville to become assistant head coach at Tennessee. He remained for two seasons before Duke called.
When he was hired following the 2007 season, Cutcliffe was modest in his goals. No references to New Year’s Day bowl games or Top 10 rankings.
“I came here to stay; I came here to make this home and I’d like to be here a long time,” he said. “I try to stay away from ego but I am a believer in legacy. The most important lesson to me is to leave a place better than you found and I’m about that. I really want to be a part of that. I want to leave Duke football far beyond what we found it and when you hand the ball off to the next group – whenever that is years down the road – that you’ve done something special. I have a sense of satisfaction that way. I love this opportunity. Years from now I want to look back and say, ‘Look at what we did; we did make a difference.’ That’s what we came here to do.”
Consider it done.