Cutcliffe has brought Duke a long way
Posted October 22, 2013
In the 92-year history of Duke football, the Blue Devils have never reached the post season in consecutive years.
In truth, that shouldn't be all that surprising on a number of fronts. For one, the explosion of the bowl schedule has really taken flight over the last 20 years. After the 1994 season, in which Duke went 8-3 and landed in the Hall of Fame Bowl (today, called the Outback Bowl), there were just 19 post season games. Last year the Blue Devils snapped that 18-year drought with a spot in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, but it was one of 70 post season opportunities (35 games) and, in the end, Duke still finished the year with a sub-.500 record.
Still, with the departure of the ACC's all-time leading receiver in Conner Vernon, a 3-year starter at quarterback in Sean Renfree and 75 percent of a starting secondary that was the best part of a porous defense a year ago, that the Blue Devils sit one win away from a second consecutive bowl berth is somewhat surprising. Then, throw in the injury that cost starting quarterback Anthony Boone three and a half games and a defense that still isn't nearly as good as it needs to be to compete in the upper division of the ACC and you understand that being 5-2 with two months of the season left is a dramatic shift in the culture of Duke football.
Thank you, David Cutcliffe.
In the 13 seasons prior to Cutcliffe arriving as head coach, starting with the follow-up to Fred Goldsmith's 8-win season, the Blue Devils won a grand total of nine ACC games. NINE! Nine wins and 95 losses in ACC play from the 1995 season until Cutcliffe landed at RDU prior to 2008. Granted, Duke is still just 10-33 in the league since that time, but a conference winning percentage of .233 is gargantuan in relation to the .087 clip of coaches from Goldsmith to Barry Wilson to Carl Franks to Ted Roof.
Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville, with the Devils staring at a 22-0 deficit just a few minutes before halftime, the comeback began. Boone finished off a drive with a short scoring pass to receiver Jamison Crowder -- arguably the best athlete in the Duke program in 20 years -- triggering a 35-zip scoring binge that saw a complete turnaround from a dismal start. When it was over, Duke turned a demoralizing, blowout loss into an exhilarating, statement win and put themselves in position to continue rewriting the perception of what football means on the Durham campus.
Make no mistake, Virginia isn't very good, but over the last 35 minutes of that game, on the road, the Blue Devils dominated the Cavaliers. From the late-second quarter touchdown drive through the final Duke score of the day, the Devils out gained Virginia 357 yards to 61.
Even Duke's defense, not a strength by any means, was dominant. Over a five possession stretch in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, Duke held the Wahoos without a first down and to a total of minus-14 yards in offense. By anyone's standards that is a quality stretch of work. For Duke? Jaw-dropping.
As Cutcliffe has repeatedly said, "Duke was out of the football business for a long time." And who could argue the point? Football was as much of an afterthought as field hockey, or tennis, or fencing, or just about anything else at Duke other than basketball for the decade and a half prior to Cutcliffe coming to town. Noted author and giver of opinions (whether you like them or not) John Feinstein offered that Duke should leave the ACC and create a league with other "academics" because that's where their football program belonged. And, the results proved Feinstein's theory credible.
During this time, fans stayed away from Wallace Wade Stadium in droves. Students, who never need a reason to gather together and properly "prepare" for football games, somehow managed to avoid taking their "bottled up" enthusiasm into the actual stadium. The facilities were laughable. From a visitors locker room that was almost a quarter mile from the playing field, to a practice field that was almost 50 yards short of regulation, to a stadium that still is about two scores behind the times, Duke needed a lot of work to just reach pathetic. Then there's the lack of overall talent on the field. It's been nine years since the Blue Devils have had a single player selected anywhere in the NFL draft. Not a long snapper, not a punter, not an offensive guard, NO-BAH-DEE! It's been more than 25 years since a Duke player had his name announced in the first round of the draft. Not since linebacker Trey Junkin was selected by the Cleveland Browns 5th overall in 1987 has Duke been featured on draft day.
And, while many of those elements have not changed yet, you can see the shifts starting to take place. Wallace Wade Stadium is scheduled to be renovated following this season. The concourse of the stadium is scheduled for a major overhaul, but more importantly, the track is being removed, the field lowered, and a ring of lower level seats will help bring the stadium closer to the action and maybe, just maybe, create a real intimate setting and a home field advantage that basketball enjoys inside cozy Cameron Indoor. Luxury boxes, suites and a new press box -- one that doesn't have to be shared with the medical center -- are all part of the plan, as was a world-class indoor facility that serves as the summer home for the Manning family of quarterbacks during those informal-yet-rigorous "Camp Cutcliffe" sessions enjoyed by former pupils Peyton and Eli and their wide receivers.
Oh, did I fail to mention that the Manning brothers -- especially Peyton -- have made Duke University somewhat of a second home thanks to David Cutcliffe? Yes, it was at Duke where Peyton spent the preponderance of his time rehabilitating from his multiple neck surgeries. Just as it is Cutcliffe who serves as sort of a QB-coach-for-life for both of the brothers. Think Cutcliffe uses that in recruiting?
Could another coach, another man, have helped usher in this new era of football good feelings? Could another coach have set a different course for football earlier, before the money in the sport exaggerated the massive differences in culture and exposure? Had the right coach been in place a decade earlier, might Duke football not have been tantamount to the rundown and vacant buildings in Detroit? Maybe. But, apart from a 1-year blip on the radar screen of college football, this program has largely been irrelevant in every single quantifiable metric since 1990. In truth, there are serious limits on the potential of the Blue Devils program. It's a stretch to think that they'll ever seriously compete for the Coastal Division, let alone a conference championship, but they'd be less than honest if they said that those were the program's legitimate goals.
There was a time when Duke football was slightly less challenging than the bye week. On the grand spectrum of college programs with that as zero and a national championship contender on the other end, creating something in the middle, about where Wake Forest has been for the most part under Jim Grobe should be the target. No one really expects the planets to align like they did in 2006 and have Duke land in the Orange Bowl as the conference champions. However, if Cutcliffe is as good as he appears through 5-plus seasons, Duke will continue to be another thorn on the conference schedule and reaching the post season in consecutive years won't be cause for a a banner headline in the Sunday papers.
And that, in and of itself, is a seismic shift for a sport at Duke that had gone dormant for almost a quarter of a century.