Wake Forest offers Duke blueprint in how to build bowl contender

2006 AP FILE PHOTOSeptember 29, 2012 

There is a section of Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe’s L-shaped office that is hidden from the view of someone standing in the door. In that nook is his TV, where he can watch video undetected and undisturbed.

The visible part of his office, with tones of the school’s Old Gold as its primary color, is dotted with highlights from his 12-year tenure: a plaque from the 2007 Meineke Car Care Bowl victory, the Bobby Dodd coach of the year trophy and, of course, a few mementos from Demon Deacons 2006 ACC championship season, including an Orange Bowl ball cap and commemorative book titled “Time to Dream.”

Much like Grobe in the back of his office, the potential in the Demon Deacons initially was hard to see. Not many would have predicted that the smallest school in the BCS would ever be able to beat a historically great conference foe nearly 10 times its size – Florida State – three years in a row. And, of course, no one predicted the magical ACC championship run, as the Demon Deacons were picked that year to finish last.

“Most of my friends thought I was not making a real good move here,” Grobe said of his decision to come from Ohio to Wake Forest in December 2000. “They thought the school was too small, the academics were too tough, the schedule was too tough, and, in reality, those are some of the positives. And that’s the way we treated it, we treated it as positives rather than problems.”

Wake shows it’s possible

If fixing long-suffering programs were easy, well, there wouldn’t be long-suffering programs.

There is no linear checklist. Instead, it’s more cyclical, with one critical element directly affecting and connecting to the next. Still, it must start somewhere.

At Duke, the fix started in December 2007, when, in his last act as athletic director, Joe Alleva hired David Cutcliffe. Immediately, Cutcliffe went to work on facilities and building his staff. Numbers grew to the point where Duke had to add more lockers.

The quality of players filling that space has improved as well. In 2008, Cutcliffe’s first recruiting class was ranked last in the ACC. Last February, Duke had the eighth-ranked recruiting class in the ACC — ahead of N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest.

This year’s team is 3-1, already matching win totals of the two previous seasons, and there is reason to believe Duke won’t regress next season, when quarterback Anthony Boone and receiver Jamison Crowder replace Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon.

For Cutcliffe, signing day has become a yearly reminder that the program is on track.

“We’ve had nice big parties here, and the other part is we’ve been able to hire so many of our recent former players that want to come back be part of the program,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re proud to be Duke football players. They tell me that prior to us coming, that wasn’t the case. That’s probably the most rewarding thing to me is that our former players like being part of the program and are proud of our program.”

The program building started seven years earlier at Wake Forest.

Grobe and his staff already executed one turnaround before arriving at Wake Forest, which had enjoyed just six winning seasons from 1972-2000. At his first head coaching job at Ohio Unversity, Grobe inherited an 0-11 team that had won 17 games in the previous 10 years. The Bobcats had three different 12-game losing streaks during that stretch. But after six seasons, Grobe left for Winston-Salem with a 33-33-1 record.

His first tailback, Steve Hookfin, set a school rushing record, and his quarterback Kareem Wilson, collected the seventh-most career rushing yards by a quarterback in NCAA history.

“Had we been able to redshirt those guys, they would have been coming back for another year,” Grobe said. “That’s the lesson we learned. We looked at our football team when we left Ohio, and we thought, ‘wow, if we could have just been a little more patient and not played all these true freshmen.’ So, when we came to Wake Forest, that kind of became our gameplan, to try to redshirt as many kids as possible.”

Wake Forest, which has been to five bowl games under Grobe, has largely stuck to that plan. Only one true freshman played in 2011, and just three (including starting quarterback Tanner Price) played in 2010.

Cutcliffe changing culture

An hour and a half east on I-40, Cutcliffe is in year five of his rebuilding job at Duke. Saturday, his team gets another chance to measure itself against Wake Forest, which has won 12 consecutive in the series.

Like Grobe has his Bobby Dodd trophy, Cutcliffe has the Frank Boyles Award from 1998, given to the best assistant coach in college football. Before he took the Duke job, he called a few people who knew the school well.

One was former Duke coach Steve Spurrier, whom Cutcliffe had known since his older brother, Paige, had played with him at Florida.

“He told me, ‘You will enjoy it more than you ever imagined. So many great people,’” Cutcliffe said. ’He said, ‘knowing you, I believe you’re a good fit and you can get it done there.’ Well, I hope he’s right. We’ll see.”

As an Alabama graduate, longtime Tennessee assistant coach and former head coach at Ole Miss, Cutcliffe was raised on football programs with long, proud histories. Still, he drew from the lessons he learned from the Hall of Fame coaches with whom he worked previously: Bear Bryant, Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer.

And he remembered a piece of advice given to him by a longtime Birmingham, Ala., high school coach, which Cutcliffe calls the best he’s ever received: There’s no bigger fool on earth than one that thinks they can fool a young person.

“Just applying those values, those program values, which, that’s to me, you hire great assistant coaches, try to keep your people, take care of your people, and then you have great organization,” Cutcliffe said. “Great organization comes through great communication. That’s what’s in place here to build a program.”

At Duke, there are the four Fs. Faith. Family. Future. Football. In that order.

“That was maybe the most unique challenge here, was the football in front of fun and friends and foolishness,” Cutcliffe said. “Understood quickly was the fact that football was going to be important to you or you weren’t going to be a part of the Duke football program.”

Re’quan Boyette, now a graduate assistant at Duke, was a player when Cutcliffe took over. He remembers their first meeting. It was early January 2008, around 6 a.m. as the team commenced for its first workout after winter break.

“Coach Cut and the whole rest of the coaching staff popped up, and immediately we all perked up and started trying to do everything we could to show them what we were,” Boyette said. “But he just completely stopped the entire workout. Told us to stop, and he started yelling at us about how we were the saddest football team he had ever seen.

“He didn’t know us, and we didn’t know him, so that demanded our attention.”

“Awful,” Cutcliffe said when reminded of that story. “I had never been a part of anything like the level to where Duke football had fallen to.”

Attracting greatness

In the 10 years before Cutcliffe arrived, Duke went 17-97, and other parts of the program were in similar disrepair. Much like Grobe immediately improved facilities at Wake Forest, Cutcliffe quickly addressed several issues at Duke. The first step was to build a full-sized practice field.

“We were a Division I, BCS conference team without a 100-yard practice field,” he said. “I mean, what else needed to be said. That’s not OK. Our practice facilities were in ill repair. That’s not OK. That’s where the team is built.”

In recent years, there have been large-scale changes, most visibly the indoor practice facility built in 2011.

Right now, in Cutcliffe’s eyes, the program is ahead of the team, but the gap is closing.

“My statement was that anything and every one that touches a Duke football player has to be excellent,” Cutcliffe said. “Equipment room, training room, weight room, academic support, and, you know what, we’re there. That’s what a program is. I will put our people up against anybody’s people, including my alma mater, the University of Alabama, any program in the Pac-12, the Big 12, our people, person to person, against anybody in the country. That’s a program.

“When you have great people, guess what you attract: Great people that are hopefully great players. And then once you start putting together more and more players that are really great people, they attract others like them. That’s how you build a program. And we try to do that every day.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556

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