1994: 'A really fun ride' for Duke football

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 24, 2012 

— The last time Duke played in a bowl, Spence Fischer was a redshirt junior quarterback. Now, 18 years later, Fischer lives in Chicago, works in private wealth management, and he will be a spectator in Charlotte when Duke plays Cincinnati on Thursday in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte.

“Hopefully we can get our seventh win of the season,” Fischer said.

Like many Duke football alumni, Fischer has followed the team through the tough times and is delighted that coach David Cutcliffe and his squad are finally experiencing success.

That Fischer uses “we” when he talks about the current team isn’t surprising; many alumni worked actively on helping restore the program to respectability by serving on strategic committees and attending events like the January 2007 Duke football summit, when more than 200 alumni laid the groundwork for resurrecting the program.

“At times, it’s exciting to be the last team that had gone to a bowl, but it’s also, at times, bittersweet,” said Zaid Abdul-Aleem, a captain from the 1994 team. “Because it’s been a long time.”

Even though many years have passed – some of the current players were born during the 1994 season – there are undeniable parallels between the two bowl-bound squads. Both had to overcome a culture of losing.

Both were picked to finish last in the ACC. And, with work that began in the spring and summer, both teams were able to exceed expectations and make the community pay attention to Duke football.

“It was just a really fun ride,” Fischer said. “It was just really a fun time to be a part of Duke football.”

Post-Spurrier era

Even in 1994, the recent football history at Duke was abysmal. Steve Spurrier took Duke to its first bowl since the 1960 season in 1989, but he left for Florida before the next year. Excitement and success faded quickly under his replacement, Barry Wilson, who went 13-30-1 during the next four seasons.

Before the 1994 season, Fred Goldsmith was hired from Rice, and he brought his reputation as a program rebuilder with him.

“We were 3-8 the previous year, and there weren’t a lot of good feelings about Duke University at the time, specifically in football,” said Ray Farmer, a rising junior at the time who went on to the NFL. “But it was funny, Fred Goldsmith came in and had a whole different take on who and what we could be.”

Goldsmith wore a camouflage hat to his first meeting with the players and told them to prepare to battle. He estimates that he went to 37 alumni group meetings in the spring of 1994, telling whoever would listen to get their season tickets now while they had the chance.

“They all laughed,” Goldsmith said. “But, shoot, they couldn’t get into some of those games at the end.”

When Goldsmith wasn’t out selling his program, he was busy installing a new offense and defense, evaluating Duke’s entire roster for any underutilized speed and recruiting a few players back to the team.

While Spurrier was long gone from Durham in 1994, he had left the program with 12 fifth-year seniors he recruited in his final year, when the Blue Devils were co-ACC champions and Hall of Fame Bowl bound. Several of those players were major – and surprise – contributors in Goldsmith’s first year.

Robert Baldwin had been used as a blocking fullback for three years before Goldsmith made him the featured back of his West Coast offense. It featured a zone running scheme. Duke’s offensive coordinator, the late Mike Heimerdinger, had developed his offense philosophy with his college roommate, current Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.

The move paid off, as Baldwin led the ACC with 1,187 rushing yards and was named a third-team All-American and ACC Player of the Year.

Damon Wallace, a scout team center for three years, was moved to starting right tackle, where he paved the way for Baldwin. Matt Williams, another offensive lineman, was a third-team all-American recruited by Spurrier. Jon Jensen had been a backup quarterback until Goldsmith moved him to receiver, and he was second on the team with 45 receptions.

Two other major contributors were convinced by Goldsmith to return to the team. Jon Merrill, an offensive tackle, and Jamal Ellis, a cornerback, were academically ineligible in 1993, but Goldsmith helped both return in 1994.

Ellis was Duke’s best cover corner, and Merrill went on to play for the Denver Broncos. Merrill was one of four players – Fischer, Farmer and Patrick Mannelly were the others – drafted from that team.

“I credit coach Goldsmith and his assistants, coming into our situation with a clean slate and just looking at all the players on their own individual talents and merits,” said Abdul-Aleem, a Spurrier-recruited defensive back. “And figuring out a way to put everyone’s talents into his scheme in order to win.”

And win, they did

Duke opened the season with a surprise 49-16 victory against Maryland, a result that had Williams, the all-American linemen, in tears after the game. A late field goal gave the Blue Devils a 13-10 victory against East Carolina, and wins against Army, Georgia Tech and Navy followed.

Suddenly, Duke was 5-0 and ranked No. 25, the first time the Blue Devils had been ranked since the final week of the 1989 season. Clemson was next on the schedule.

“We’re playing a better team, and there were questions about whether we could beat Clemson,” Farmer said.

It was Farmer who blocked a Clemson punt with 3 minutes, 37 seconds left in the game, and he recovered the ball in the end zone for the go-ahead score.

On fourth down during Clemson’s ensuing drive, Adbul-Aleem knocked Tigers quarterback Nealon Greene off balance, and David Hawkins completed the game-ending sack as Duke won 19-13.

The 7-0 and No. 16 Blue Devils finally met their match in Tallahassee, where No. 6 Florida State blew them out 59-20.

“We were quickly brought back down to Earth,” Fischer said.

Still, Duke rallied the next week from a 10-point deficit to upset No. 13 Virginia 28-25. That was the Blue Devils’ final win of the year, as N.C. State and North Carolina beat Duke by one point in the final two weeks of the regular season.

Instead of the Cotton Bowl birth Goldsmith and his players had hoped for, Duke accepted a bid to the Jan. 1 Hall of Fame bowl in Tampa, Fla.

“We chose that one because it was a fun deal down in Florida, our kids could go to the beach, all those fun things,” Goldsmith said. “That was a heck of a bowl down in Tampa.”

Duke fought back from a 13-0 early deficit to tie the game at 13 in the third, but Wisconsin’s running game was overpowering in a 34-20 win.

“Our team, which was emblematic of the season, never quit,” Fischer said. “I remember the Wisconsin players, if they didn’t have respect for us at the beginning of the game, they certainly did afterwards. We proved to be physical and resilient.”

Duke finished the year 8-4. Goldsmith was named the national coach of the year.

Success not sustained

The biggest disappointment of the 1994 season wasn’t any of the losses – it was that the success didn’t lay the foundation for years to come.

Both of Goldsmith’s coordinators left, as Heimerdinger went to coach wide receivers for the Denver Broncos and Craig Bohl went to coach linebackers at his alma mater, Nebraska. Rod Broadway, the defensive line coach, took the same position at Florida with Spurrier, his old boss.

Goldsmith could have left, too, but he chose to stay at Duke. He actually canceled a scheduled interview with the Miami Hurricanes, who were looking for a replacement for Dennis Erickson.

“Gosh, LSU, Oklahoma and Miami all called, and I decided to stay at Duke,” Goldsmith said. “A lot of people thought I was crazy, but from a worldly standpoint, I guess I was, but I’ve had a good life anyway.”

Goldsmith wasn’t able to replicate his initial success at Duke. While he was pleased with his recruiting class in the aftermath of the 1994 season, he was dismissed before their fifth year.

The low point of his tenure was an 0-11 season in 1996, and his next-best year, other than 1994, came in his final year, 4-7 in 1998.

Goldsmith is retired from coaching today. He won’t be in Charlotte – his daughter is celebrating her 40th birthday in Atlanta on the same day as the Belk Bowl – but he returned to Duke this fall with several members of his 1994 team and saw Duke beat Memphis on homecoming.

“That year was very, very special,” Goldsmith said of 1994. “To relive it this fall with some of those people down there was really, really nice.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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