A Football Resurgence at a Basketball School
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. --Galatians 6:9
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has quoted Galatians so often since first arriving in Durham that many of his players know select verses by heart. And why not? It's become a sort of mantra around the program that encapsulates what it means to be a Blue Devil gridder these days.
“Here at Duke, we’re always hunting for great players, but they have to have great integrity and work ethics as well,” said Cutcliffe. “We want kids who fit what we’re trying to do. Leadership is complex. Above all else, though, you have to gain the players’ trust. You have to care. Really care. In my case, I charge my battery off the energy of our young players. I actually get better as a coach just by being around our guys.”
Fans around the Duke campus live for hoops each winter. Coach K owns the town. Cutcliffe knew full well the magnitude of the challenge he was accepting when he agreed to become the head football coach at one of the country's most prestigious basketball schools. Even worse, he assumed the reins of a school that had won just four games in the four years before he arrived. But Coach Cut had stared down challenges before, both personally and professionally, and he knew what patience and hard work could produce.
"Coach Cutcliffe is one of the hardest working men I've ever been around," said David Morris, who played quarterback for the coach at Ole Miss. "He's one of those guys who believes in his soul that if you do things the right way, good things are going to happen. Cut is an old-school disciplinarian, but he's also a player's coach who knows how to have fun."
Cutcliffe has been molding young men for well over half his life, really breaking through in the SEC, first as an assistant at Tennessee and then as the Ole Miss head coach. For many years, his claim to fame was playing an instrumental role in the development of the Manning boys, Peyton in Knoxville and Eli in Oxford. But Cutcliffe's legacy is far from finished being written. In fact, by the time he's done on the sidelines, he'll likely be known predominantly as the coach who helped put Duke on the college football map.
“Cut is a great teacher,” said Morris. “He helps quarterbacks understand the position at a granular level. He actually opens up to you new depths of the position that you didn’t know previously existed. I’ve never been around a QB guy as skilled or as wise as Cut.”
The Blue Devils have not been an overnight success story; they have arduously laid a foundation drenched in sweat, patience and an unwavering belief in a righteous man who has shot straight with them from the moment he stepped foot on campus. Duke took their usual lumps in Cut's first five seasons in Durham, finishing below .500 and no higher than fifth in the ACC Coastal Division each year. Progress, though, was constant, even if it had to be measured by an unconventional ruler. The Devils were more competitive and less error-prone, reaching a milestone in 2012 with the school's first bowl game in 17 years. For Cutcliffe and his budding program, it would be the spark that set off a football explosion last fall.
Duke began the 2013 season much like it had the previous few, pegged in the preseason to finish in last place in the seven-team Coastal Division. If the Blue Devils had gained any respect, the rest of the ACC sure wasn't prepared to admit it. Plucky bunch that was well-coached? Okay. But a serious threat to stand toe-to-toe in the division with the likes of Virginia Tech and Miami? You bet.
After years in Cutcliffe’s classroom, learning the finer points of football, conditioning and life, the Blue Devils finally began to turn theory into production. After a rocky start in September, which included back-to-back losses to Georgia Tech and Pitt, Duke did not lose another regular season game. The Devils went on a hellacious eight-game tear, beating the Hokies for the first time since 1981 and the ‘Canes three weeks later. The balance of power was suddenly shifting beneath the Coastal Division foundation like a blue and white tectonic plate.
For Duke, 2013 represented an improbable season of firsts; first 10-win campaign, first back-to-back bowl appearances and first Coastal Division crown in school history. The results last season spoke for themselves. The unspoken truth about Cutcliffe, though, is that he’s not just winning in Durham and refacing the image of a program. He’s also doing it the right way by graduating his kids and making sure that they leave Duke prepared for whatever endeavor follows.
“Coach Cut cares about so much more than just football,” offered current Blue Devil LB Kelby Brown. “He truly has the best interest of his players in mind, and the guys in the locker room know that. The culture of this program had to change years ago, but Coach was never going to take any shortcuts to get to that point.”
Duke as a 10-win team seemed to be a farfetched fantasy in the minds of anyone who witnessed this school going nearly two decades without even qualifying for a bowl game. Cutcliffe has been nothing short of masterful in his ability to incite a sea change at a program that had become accustomed to losing. The coach, preaching discipline, hard work and sound fundamentals, has succeeded in altering the way his players think and changing how fans celebrate in the fall at Wallace Wade Stadium. There has been no smoke, no mirrors and no quick fixes. Don’t need ‘em. A simple adherence to a time-tested model for success will do just fine.
“Coach has such incredible knowledge and passion for the game, and he’ll never run from a challenge,” added former record-setting Duke WR Conner Vernon. “He stayed in Durham when he had offers to leave. He knew it wasn’t an overnight fix, but he just stuck with the plan. Any team is a reflection of its coach. And Duke is now tough and diligent and prepared because that’s exactly what we get in return from Coach. He’s now the ambassador of Duke football, and for good reason.”
Duke football doesn’t plan on challenging Duke basketball for top billing in Durham. That was never on the to-do list anyway. Instead, the Blue Devils are perfectly content to strive toward becoming the East Coast’s Stanford, an esteemed school capable producing student-athletes who excel both on the field and in the classroom. Cutcliffe has been a seminal figure in the evolution of Duke football, which not only learned how to win in 2013, but won at a level not seen in these parts in more than half a century.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.