David Cutcliffe finds his comfort zone at Duke

lkeeley@newsobserver.comSeptember 13, 2013 

David Cutcliffe has a point to make. So, as he sits in his fourth-floor office overlooking Wallace Wade Stadium, he starts to tell a story.

“Maybe the best thing we’ve done here is we’ve stayed upbeat,” he said, reflecting on his Duke football revival project, now in its sixth year. “Why hang your head? That’s what I call a dirt kicker. Let me tell you what a dirt kicker is.

“That kid, and I played with some of them, that makes an error, or that pitcher that can’t throw a strike and gets the ball back and kicks the mound on the way back,” he continues in his Alabama-tinged drawl. “We all know you don’t like it. So what have you got to kick the mound for? Why do you have to let everybody know that you’re frustrated you can’t throw a strike? Either you do or you don’t, just step up there and throw a strike. Throw a strike, get the ball back, and throw another one. I love that mentality. I don’t want dirt kickers.”

Front-porch wisdom is what Cutcliffe calls his stories and catch phrases, his own Yogi-isms that are more colorful than clichés. Either you do or you don’t. Always leave a place better than you found it. Are you a worm or a snake? There’s always somebody willing to grab the bench when the piano needs moving. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Cutcliffe turns 59 Monday, and the simple-yet-powerful ideas he learned while listening to his momma, dad, aunts, uncles and cousins talk on the porch on those hot summer nights in Birmingham have guided him throughout his life, and, most recently, have kept him at Duke when conventional thinking might have led him to chase bigger and better opportunities.

In addition to his no dirt-kicking policy, Cutcliffe doesn’t want to hear “I’m working on it” from anyone on staff – “That’s just one of the phrases of saying I haven’t done it,” he said – and he doesn’t understand why “de-commiting” is now an accepted term.

“That doesn’t exist, does it?” he asked, rhetorically, in his season-opening press conference. “You were never committed if you de-commit. It’s kind of like getting engaged. Any of us that are married, if we told our fiancée, you know, we’re going to date a little bit,” he said as the press corps laughed.

“Let’s work on the words we accept. Soft verbal? Honey, I love you, but this is just a soft verbal.”

That’s how Cutcliffe always talks, as if he were among friends on the front porch.

“You’ve got people, the flash-bang, come in with all the bling-bling stuff. That wasn’t our style,” said Phillip Fulmer, who coached with Cutcliffe for 19 years at Tennessee. “Fast-talking, you’re the beginning and the end of the world kind of thing. That’s usually not true. We both, just by personality, managed ourselves that way, certainly David did.”

Front-porch wisdom at work

Through stops at Tennessee and Ole Miss, a triple-bypass surgery and now at Duke, Cutcliffe has remained, well, David Cutcliffe, the son of Raymond and Frances who has become a husband to Karen and father to Chris, Marcus, Katie, Emily and hundreds of Volunteers, Rebels and Blue Devils.

“He’s well grounded, he knows where he wants to go, he knows how he wants to get there, and he knows the values that he has to keep to reach it and be the man he wants to be,” said Mike MacIntyre, the head coach at Colorado who worked with Cutcliffe at Ole Miss and Duke. “And when he’s coaching kids, he wants them to become men. Not just great football players. And there’s a difference there. Not many people do it that way.”

There’s one other obvious thing that makes Cutcliffe different from most of his peers.

Said Fulmer: “He certainly sees the big picture as well as anybody that I know.”

Not a day goes by without Cutcliffe talking to the Blue Devils about something other than football.

“He finds an application for a real-life situation all the time,” said Ross Cockrell, Duke’s two-year captain and all-ACC cornerback. “He talks about the people our age that are going out to Afghanistan and Iraq that are dying, that are coming back with legs and arms missing, stuff like that. So he always keeps football in perspective. It’s a game, it’s a sport, but it’s something we love to do.

“So you go out there, you play football, you work hard, you grind through it and that’s just preparing you for the grind of life.”

Hard work, Cutcliffe said, is the most important thing one gets out of life. He was taught that early by his father, who took him to the park and made him pick up trash. “When a Cutcliffe goes somewhere, he better leave a place better than he found it. That’s what a Cutcliffe does.” When his father died suddenly in 1970, when Cutcliffe was in the ninth grade, he learned about hard work by watching his mother.

When he left home to attend Alabama and work as a student assistant under Paul “Bear” Bryant, that’s when some of that front-porch wisdom began to sink in.

“It hit me,” he said. “My dad wasn’t around, my mother, things weren’t easy, but everything that I heard started coming true.”

Chasing dreams in Tennessee

After college, Cutcliffe moved back home to Birmingham, where he taught and coached football for six years at his alma mater, Banks High. Fulmer, then at Vanderbilt, met Cutcliffe while recruiting one of his players. And when Fulmer went back to Tennessee in 1980, he helped arrange for Cutcliffe to come on as a part-time assistant in 1982.

“I cried driving away because of my momma,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how old I was, I was the head high school coach and living with my mother. No shame in it, I don’t care who knows that because that’s where I should have been. I never looked for a place, had no need for a place because I lived at Banks High School and slept at my mother’s house. That’s how I did things. It was an interesting ride up the road to Knoxville. ... I mean real tears, coming down my cheek.”

Cutcliffe cried again when he left Knoxville before the 1998 BCS national championship game. He was going to be the head coach at Ole Miss.

“I haven’t cried a lot in my life,” he said. “I cried when I left those kids at Tennessee. God, it hurt. I can still feel that pain. I went into a team meeting, offense, defense, all of them, and I couldn’t hardly tell them that I was taking the Ole Miss job. I was thrilled getting an SEC head coaching job, but, awful. And I said goodbye to them after the SEC championship game and went and coached, and those guys at Ole Miss, that was a tough way that Tommy Tuberville left. Those kids were lost. They were homeless, basically.

Fulmer asked him to come back for the championship game, one more ride. But he said no.

“I just didn’t think David Cutcliffe belonged there for two reasons,” Cutcliffe said. “Tennessee kids, distraction, and then this Ole Miss family that I had just adopted, and they had adopted me without any reservation. So I made the right decision. I never regretted it. Ever. Not one time. And that’s hard to believe.”

Cutcliffe’s final return to Knoxville was not a happy one. After getting dismissed at Ole Miss in 2004, after his first losing season, he joined Charlie Weis’ staff at Notre Dame as the quarterbacks coach. He had chest pains there, and came back to Oxford in March 2005, where he saw a doctor he knew for a stress test. The next day, he had triple-bypass surgery. That June, he was still a shadow of his former self because of complications. But it was time to move back home, to Knoxville, so his daughter, Katie, could re-join friends she left in fourth grade for her final two years of high school.

“Probably one of the lowest moments, the lowest moment I have, is once we got to Knoxville,” he said. “We had hardwood floors in that house we bought, and I fell down the steps about halfway, down those steps, forward, landed on that ground. I’ve always been the guy. I’m the guy, I can shoot a basket, I can do anything. I was my son’s hero. And there I laid on the floor. A stumbling, bumbling weak fool and couldn’t get up. And that was tough for me.”

Building a home at Duke

He calls to mind these memories after saying he can’t say a lot for the story, others could say it better. But there’s one more story that needs told, and no one can tell Cutcliffe stories better than David Cutcliffe.

It was 2009, and Cutcliffe had won nine games in two years at Duke, a program that had won only eight games in the five years before he arrived. He could go back to Knoxville and become the head coach at Tennessee.

“Shoot, it was concerning for a lot of us,” said senior captain Dave Harding, a freshman at the time. “I thought he was gone, to be honest. He could go back, be home and be where his family is. He always speaks highly of Tennessee. What a great opportunity, that’s elite football.”

But, just as he had quickly adopted his team at Ole Miss, he couldn’t bring himself to leave his players at Duke.

“I felt like my heart wasn’t there, it was here,” Cutcliffe said. “My mother told me, ‘you know what to do. You do the right thing.’ And she said, ‘the right thing is what your heart says and what you believe is ethically also right.’ And, in both cases, it was to be here. My heart was here. A lot of people don’t believe that, but it was.

“I’d been in these guys’ homes. I hadn’t been here very long. I hadn’t shaped anything here. I hadn’t even begun here, really. It was not an easy takeoff, and we weren’t even off the launching pad yet. My heart was here. I’m not going to walk out on people ... when your heart’s into something, be true to yourself.”

All that front-porch wisdom has fully sunk in now.

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service