Football coaching is the family business for Duke’s Kurt and Zac Roper

lkeeley@newsobserver.comSeptember 19, 2013 

— While Pittsburgh is making its inaugural ACC road trip and visiting Duke this Saturday, the Blue Devils and the Panthers have a shared history.

The two teams played the first game in what is now called Wallace Wade Stadium back in 1929 (Pitt won 52-7). The 1938 Iron Dukes ended their undefeated, untied and unscored upon regular season with a 7-0 win against the Panthers. And the 1976 Duke team has the distinction of scoring more points (31) than any other opponent that faced Pitt in its undefeated national championship season.

“We couldn’t even slow them down that day. If it was a tight football game, we might have gotten beat,” said Bobby Roper, the defensive coordinator on the 1976 Pitt team and father of two current Duke assistants – Kurt, the offensive coordinator, and Zac, the special teams coordinator.

Kurt Roper has been the quarterbacks coach on every staff current Duke coach David Cutcliffe has ever had. But he has the toughness typically found on the defensive side of the ball, thanks to his dad.

“A lot of quarterback coaches seem cerebral, easy going, mild mannered and soft on players. I have more of my dad’s defensive mentality with how I try to coach,” Kurt said with a smile. It’s just the Roper coming out in me I guess. Everything that I do on a football field comes from my dad.”

Bobby Roper was a first-year coordinator in 1976. Johnny Majors was the head coach at Pitt, and the 1-10 team he inherited in 1973 made steady progress in his first three years thanks to an initial recruiting class that included, most notably, Tony Dorsett.

“We’re getting ready to go into spring practice, and there was a team meeting,” Bobby said of his first season. “Somebody popped up and said, ‘We want to win a national championship.’ I nearly fell out of my seat. I wasn’t even thinking about a national championship. Good Lord, I was hoping we would win seven or eight games.”

Pitt opened up the 1976 season ranked No.9 and at Notre Dame. Roper’s defense gave up a touchdown on the opening drive, and he started to worry he would get fired. But Dorsett broke free for a 61-yard run on the Panthers’ first play from scrimmage, and everyone relaxed.

“Tony Dorsett, he was my hero,” said Kurt, who was 4 years old that year. “I loved him. Shoot, I used to make my parents call me Tony. I wouldn’t answer to anything but Tony. To this day, he is still one of my childhood heroes.”

Pitt was so good that season that not even injuries to their top two quarterbacks slowed them down. Starter Robert Haygood, a senior, had a season-ending knee injury in the second game. Matt Cavanaugh, who went on to win three Super Bowls as a player and coach, took over, and it was he, not Dorsett, who scorched the Duke defense for 339 yards and five touchdowns passes in a 44-31 victory on Oct.2.

“The student section was chanting ‘who is Tony Dorsett, who is Tony Dorsett?’” Majors said of the trip to Duke. “He still ended up with over 100 yards (129) and Cavanaugh threw five touchdowns.”

Pitt was 11-0 and set to face Georgia in the Jan.1 Sugar Bowl. For the Ropers, that meant Christmas in New Orleans.

“We had to write Santa a letter and say we were going to be in New Orleans so he knew where to find us and brought our Christmas presents,” Kurt said. “I remember that year I got an Evel Knievel motorcycle that you could wind up, and it had a ramp, so you could run it up the ramp.”

The Panthers, too, had a good time in New Orleans, as Majors didn’t give them a curfew the first few days of their trip (“When I was in college I liked to have a good time,” he said). Bobby Roper had voted against that decision, but he went along with it, giving his players a caveat.

“I don’t know what they told them on offense, but I told them on defense, ‘Look, we don’t have a curfew, we don’t have any rules, so you go out and you get knee-walking drunk if you want to,” he said. “But when we come to practice, we’re going to beat the (expletive) out of each other. We’re not going to let up.

“Don’t ask to get out, don’t give us any excuses, don’t do anything but just play your butt off.”

That’s exactly what the Panthers did, as they actually caught more Georgia passes (four interceptions) than the Bulldogs did (three completions on 22 attempts). Pitt won 27-3, capping one of the greatest seasons in college football history.

The Ropers were seated in a pro-Georgia section, but Kurt, with the help of his mother, held up his index finger, making the No.1 sign, the entire game.

Majors and Roper left for Tennessee the next year (where he would eventually give Cutcliffe his first college coaching job), and Roper later coached at Oregon State and Texas A&M. Kurt went to another Southwest Conference school, Rice, and played quarterback. When he decided he wanted to go into coaching, he called his dad, Bobby, then a Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealer in Oklahoma.

“They were having the (American Football Coaches Association) convention in Dallas,” Bobby said. “So, I said ‘Let’s go down there, and I’ll introduce you to people and try to help you get started. So we went down there, and I saw all my old buddies, and I don’t think I even talked to Kurt the whole time I was down there. I talked to everybody else. I was trying to catch up on the news.”

Kurt graduated in 1995 and was on the Tennessee staff starting in 1996. And when he and Cutcliffe went to Ole Miss, Zac Roper joined the staff there. Both brothers trace their start back to their dad, who got his big break back in Pittsburgh in 1976.

“When you run into older coaches that we haven’t worked with, invariably all of them say, ‘... Your dad was the toughest football coach I’ve ever known,’ Kurt said. “That’s awesome. ‘Your dad was a . . . good football coach.’

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

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