With Duke's win over Tar Heels, Cutcliffe’s football vision unfolds

lkeeley@newsobserver.comOctober 22, 2012 

— It was dark when David Cutcliffe first stepped foot on Duke’s campus. He had driven through the night from Tennessee and arrived in Durham before sunrise. There wasn’t much light, but there was plenty to be seen.

“There’s a lot of tradition here,” Cutcliffe said. “Wallace Wade (stadium), I’d never seen it. It just impressed me sitting there very quiet. I kind of knew, because I had read as fast and furiously as I could about the history of it. And you could tell that there hadn’t been much done to it at that time. I just got a good feeling when I was there.”

Cutcliffe left Wallace Wade and walked across campus. He met members of the housekeeping staff before his official interview schedule began. He came away impressed with university president Dick Brodhead and then-sophomore Vinny Rey, who Cutcliffe would develop into an NFL linebacker. Before he left, though, Cutcliffe requested an additional meeting that wasn’t on the itinerary. He wanted to meet with Mike Krzyzewski.

“Why am I not going to come here and talk to the most successful coach in the country?” Cutcliffe said, recalling the story after Duke beat UNC 33-30 to clinch the program’s first bowl berth in 17 years. “We talked about Duke and how you win at Duke, how he went about his business when he first came. It was very interesting to me.”

After his day was done, Cutcliffe called his wife, Karen, and told her he thought he was going to take the Duke job. She asked whether the administration offered it to him.

“I said, ‘No, but they’re going to,’ ” Cutcliffe recalled. “She said don’t be so arrogant, and I said, ‘I’m just telling you they’re going to.’ And that’s a true story.”

Transformations on, off field

Five years later, the story read like a fairytale Saturday night as the Blue Devils, in front of a sold-out stadium, beat their rivals from North Carolina and reclaimed the Victory Bell for only the second time in 23 seasons. The program that won 10 games in the eight years before Cutcliffe’s arrival has won six games this season, which will send Duke to its first bowl game since 1994.

Many of these same players won six games in the 2010 and 2011 seasons combined.

“There’s been so many frustrating times in my career here,” quarterback Sean Renfree said. “Things have been tough. For us to come together as a team like this and do something special, I’m just lucky to be a part of this.”

The progress Cutcliffe made in the first few years didn’t show up in the win column. It did, however, sprout up around the campus. Some projects were smaller in scale – for example, Cutcliffe had the rotted, moldy carpet removed from the tunnel that led to the playing field and replaced with a clean synthetic floor – while others were quite large. During Cutcliffe’s tenure, Duke has built a full-size practice field and a 120-yard indoor practice facility, an amenity powerhouse programs such as Florida State don’t necessarily have.

On the field, Duke began to transform from the “softest, baddest football team” the old-time SEC coach had ever seen into a respectable FBS outfit. One of Cutcliffe’s first major recruiting wins came within his first few weeks on the job, when Renfree, a PARADE All-American quarterback, decommitted from Georgia Tech and chose Duke instead. Renfree didn’t fit the triple-option offense new coach Paul Johnson, who had turned down the Duke job, would bring to Atlanta.

“I’ve always been a pretty optimistic person, but I’m not an idiot. I’ve done this for a long time, and our team is getting better,” Duke athletic director Kevin White said. “We could tell that we were making progress, we were getting better, the trajectory was really positive. At some point and time, you need to do it.”

Saturday night, it was Renfree, now a redshirt senior, that led Duke on the last-second, game-winning drive, capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder on fourth down with 13 seconds remaining.

“It’s means so much to be here in my fifth year,” Renfree said. “To be so patient, to wait for Coach Cut to recruit guys, get the guys that he needs and just develop those guys, he’s done a phenomenal job with that. We have a great team this year.”

“This is a great institution, and when you go into someone’s home, you’re automatically in the recruiting process,” offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. “So as we just keep building and getting better, we feel like we can keep recruiting good football players and be successful here.”

‘That was a sight to see’

The crowd at the suddenly vibrant Wallace Wade stadium had reason to be worried with about 5 minutes remaining. After dominating North Carolina for three quarters, the Blue Devils had given up two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and the Tar Heels were set to drive again.

Clinging to a 26-23 lead, Duke appeared in position to make a game-saving play. Bryn Renner, out of sorts all night, hit Erik Highsmith with a 36-yard pass, but Jordon Byas knocked the ball free at the Duke 24-yard line. Duke’s Ross Cockrell, whose personal progress has mirrored the team’s, appeared to be in position to corral the ball.

Instead of falling on it, though, he attempted to time the bounces. It squirted out from his grasp and into the hands of UNC running back Gio Bernard at the 4, and Bernard took it into the end zone. With that, the Tar Heels capped a 21-0 fourth-quarter run to take a 30-26 lead with 2:55 remaining.

“I was just like, ‘Come on, can we get a break?’ ” Renfree said of watching the result of the fumble.

Meanwhile, Cockrell had other thoughts.

“Please, offense, please.”

Renfree didn’t need any breaks. Like a fifth-year senior, he led Duke on that 14-play, 87-yard, game-winning drive. On that decisive fourth-down throw, Renfree found his fourth option, Crowder, right before he was hammered by two UNC defenders in the end zone.

Crowder held onto the ball. And Duke won the game, the bowl berth and the Victory Bell back from the Tar Heels.

When the clock read 0:00, Crowder led the race to the UNC sideline to reclaim the bell. Seniors Desmond Scott and Kenny Anunike joined him, and they rang it and rang it as they wheeled it across the field. Spray paint cans provided by the equipment staff ensured the bell was Duke blue before it reached the Blue Devils’ sideline.

There, it awaited a swarm of Blue Devils and their fans, who had jumped down from the stands and stormed the field. Conner Vernon, who will go down as the ACC’s most prolific receiver, remained seated on the bench before he joined into the mob.

“That was a sight to see,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I just took it all in and was thankful. That’s why I came to Duke, to see Coach Cut’s vision finally unfold, and for me to be a part of it, it’s all I can ask for.”

Meanwhile, Cutcliffe was soaked in Gatorade and spray paint fumes. And after he was done with his media obligations and coaching duties for the night, he broke the silence in Wallace Wade, the same place he sat as he contemplated the job five years earlier.

He rang the bell.

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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