When the freshman from the New York suburbs arrived at Duke University in 1968, watching Blue Devils football eased his sometimes-acute sense of cultural dislocation. Back then, Durham more or less closed at 9 p.m. The Ivy Room restaurant on West Main Street had a sign at the door that read: “No shirt, No shoes, No service,” hinting at uncommonly casual dining. The basement of Duke’s student union hosted the suggestively named “Dope Shop,” which turned out to be a soda fountain.
But one aspect of Duke life – its football team – was soothingly familiar.
In those days, baseball’s New York Mets, a 1962 expansion club, were regarded as lovable losers. They lost 120 games in their inaugural National League season, still a modern record, and for years suffered copious losses with rare and endlessly entertaining creativity. For many fans, the taste of victory was no sweeter than savoring the manner in which the Mets courted defeat.
So it was with Duke football. When not simply overmatched, the hapless Blue Devils were masters of the inopportune stumble, the botched hold on an extra point, the dropped pass behind the defense, the victory-negating penalty. There was enough talent to be competitive and periodically spectacular on offense, but the roster had insufficient athleticism, size and depth to withstand the rigors of a full season.
Duke’s sinking feeling
Duke had been a national power when the ACC began play in 1954, a status that evaporated within a decade, more or less coincident with the advent of two-platoon football. From 1963 through 1987, a quarter-century, the Blue Devils never won more than six games in a season. A brief flurry of 7- and 8-win seasons followed under Steve Spurrier and Fred Goldsmith.
The program truly nosedived not long after Florida State joined the ACC in 1992. Sold as a sure way to lift all boats, FSU’s presence raised expectations and athletic budgets at a number of league schools. Not at Duke, where tepid institutional support – reflected in unattractive facilities and non-competitive coaching salaries – amplified the Devils’ on-field weaknesses. “Duke just hasn’t been behind football,” says Johnny Moore, a visiting associate professor and former marketing director at the school. “They haven’t cared.”
By 1996 a Goldsmith squad went 0-11, the first winless overall record by a league team since Maryland in 1967. The predictably painful parade of losses at Wallace Wade Stadium lost its charm. Some observers called for Duke to drop to a lower level of Division I football. When the school’s alumni magazine commissioned an article on the subject, Tom Butters, then the athletics director, had the story killed.
The $22 million Yoh Football Center was built in 2002 on the heels of consecutive 0-11 seasons. Little else changed until David Cutcliffe, a Tennessee offensive coordinator, was hired as coach in 2008. Cutcliffe had done well (44-29) – but somehow not well enough – directing the program at Mississippi from 1998-2004.
Jim Grobe, the former Wake Forest coach, says Cutcliffe is “the perfect fit” for Duke. “I think the best thing that happened to Duke is that they got a football coach with an SEC background,” notes Grobe, now a TV analyst for Fox and Raycom. “We all know how aggressive the SEC is in terms of football. But he fits into the model that the university has for themselves. David believes that that model – the model of the student-athlete – is the way it should be.”
A different culture
Duke lately has spent handsomely on the sport, to visible effect. “If you want to play with the big boys, then you have to make a commitment,” says Grobe, whose Deacons surprisingly won an ACC title in 2006. “If you don’t make a commitment, it’s unfair to the players.” Kevin White, the Duke AD, is quick to acknowledge that, in contemporary college sports, investment in football is essential for a power-conference member. One notable result: a major revamp of 85-year-old Wade Stadium – including lowering the playing surface, removing the field-level running track and adding club seating – is scheduled following this season.
“We’re fighting like hell,” White said. For a laggard like Duke, football is a rich area for generating additional revenue. Over the 17 years from 1991 through 2007, even with generous estimates the team attracted only 15 home crowds of 30,000 or more at its 33,941-seat stadium. During Cutcliffe’s first six seasons the Devils matched that total.
Asked last week about the culture of the program he inherited at Duke, Cutcliffe mentioned showing this year’s team a video of the old practice field, which was neither regulation size nor protected from unwelcome distraction. “That just blew their mind,” says the coach. “We had an asphalt road that ran right through the middle of our practice (field) and we’d wave at the guys in the trucks as they drove through, you understand? The first spring. After that, nobody used the road anymore. We got that squared away.
“I think culture is an interesting thing. I’m serious about what I just said, but I’m smiling. Take the smile off of it, and say what had to be done was (to inculcate) a collective group of habits. That’s what culture is. Everybody doesn’t have to look alike to be a part of a culture. They act alike. And so our collective habits had to go from being in some areas poor, in some areas average, and in a very few of them exceptional (We’re) trying to build exceptional habits, and that’s still a work in progress. We’re not where we want to be.”
A pivotal moment in affirming the desired approach, and banishing the ghosts of past failure, came on Oct. 20, 2012 when North Carolina came to Durham.
Needing a win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 1994, Duke largely controlled the game. But late in the fourth quarter, in a twist familiar to longtime connoisseurs of Blue Devils football, UNC running back Gio Bernard picked up a fumble and took it in for the go-ahead touchdown. Only instead of folding, Duke responded with an 87-yard scoring drive, capped by wide receiver Jamison Crowder’s catch in the end zone as he was hit by two defenders.
That finish was a stunning break with precedent.
“Most definitely it’s a shift,” says Crowder, an All-ACC senior from Monroe. “I’ve heard that from a lot of people, the point of Duke being right on the edge of success and just pretty much not being able to capitalize. I think the attitude now is definitely changed. We go out to compete with anybody and expect to win.”
Last season’s 10-4 record and Coastal Division title, securing a school-best second consecutive bowl appearance, made the point emphatically. This year, facing an easy schedule and returning 17 starters, the Blue Devils again are talking championships, including a bowl win that would be the school’s first since January 1961.
Unfortunately, long before Duke beat Elon 52-13 in Saturday’s opener, All-ACC linebacker Kelby Brown and third team All-ACC tight end Braxton Deaver were lost for the season with injuries. That sort of ill fortune sank many a Duke squad in the past, which makes this year a true test of how far the newly competitive program has come.