The cacophony of construction noise at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium might be disconcerting to some, but not for David Cutcliffe.
As Cutcliffe enters his ninth year as Blue Devils football coach, it has been the undeniable sound of progress. The remake and renovation of the stadium is tangible evidence of a program that’s still building, a program that Cutcliffe revived, a program that all but flat-lined in the years after Steve Spurrier left for Florida.
“I feel like we’ve gotten better as a program every year,” Cutcliffe said.
Duke football is relevant again — in the Triangle and ACC, and nationally. The Blue Devils have had three straight winning seasons, won an ACC Coastal Division title, won a bowl game, been ranked.
“There were some rocky years, but the sky’s the limit for this program now,” Duke running back Shaun Wilson said.
Joe Alleva hired Cutcliffe, who turns 62 in September. Now the athletic director at LSU, Alleva was Duke’s AD when head coach Ted Roof was fired in 2007 after a 1-11 season.
“When I interviewed David, we talked a long time, but after the first 10 minutes I knew I would hire him,” Alleva said. “He was so well-organized. Smart, bright, articulate.
“He had the experience of being in winning programs. He had been the Southeastern Conference coach of the year. He had the knowledge of what it takes to win. I thought he would be the perfect fit for Duke.”
Cutcliffe was the offensive mentor for quarterback Peyton Manning at Tennessee, then for brother Eli Manning while head coach at Ole Miss. He’s still the Mannings’ mentor, which is not lost on potential Duke recruits.
“He can go into any house in recruiting these days and have that name recognition,” Alleva said.
Given time to win, Cutcliffe has. The Blue Devils won 27 games in the past three seasons. Their bowl victory last year was the first for Duke since 1961.
And as Cutcliffe put it, “In recruiting, people love a winner.”
Duke’s recruiting class was ranked 70th nationally in 2013 by 247Sports.com. Duke was 60th in 2014, then ranked 51st in 2015.
The Blue Devils were ranked 33rd for its 2016 class by 247Sports, bringing in two four-star players — wide receiver Scott Bracey and safety Dylan Singleton — and 19 three-star signees. Duke finished ahead of North Carolina (No. 36) and N.C. State (No. 50) in the recruiting rankings.
Coach Cut is recruiting the type of players who can compete at the national championship level.
Duke already has a good start on 2017. The Blue Devils recently received a commitment from quarterback Jack Sears, a four-star recruit from San Clemente (Calif.) High, moving Duke to 25th in the 247Sports rankings.
The question often arises if Duke can sustain its recent success. Winning and recruiting can do it.
“Coach Cut is recruiting the type of players who can compete at the national championship level,” Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk said.
The Blue Devils last won an ACC championship in 1989, when it shared the title with Virginia in Spurrier’s last season at Duke. The Devils reached the ACC championship game in 2013, but were outmatched and beaten 45-7 by then top-ranked Florida State.
The Blue Devils have scheduled wisely, facing such nonconference opponents as Tulane, Army, Navy, Kansas and Memphis the past three years. It also helped that neither FSU nor Clemson were on their ACC schedules in those seasons.
Having built a winning program, Cutcliffe would like to take the next step. The challenge, he said, is no different.
“I think hunger and passion and great habits and taking care of the little things continue to grow a program,” he said.
The biggest obstacle?
“Complacency,” Cutcliffe quickly said. “If you let that happen … I hope no one here ever feels complacent.”
After going 10-4 in 2013, losing to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Duke was 9-4 in 2014.
Duke was 6-1 last season and ranked No. 22 when it hosted Miami on Halloween night. A fourth-quarter rally by the Blue Devils was bamboozled by the Hurricanes on a last-gasp kickoff return, a wacky, backyard-football play with eight laterals that gave Miami a 30-27 victory and sent the Blue Devils into four-game losing spiral.
Duke edged Wake Forest in the last regular-season game 27-21. The Blue Devils then outlasted Indiana 44-41 in overtime to win the new Pinstripe Bowl in New York’s Yankee Stadium, finishing 8-5.
Cutcliffe said the impact of a bowl win — after three straight bowl losses — was significant, ticking off the reasons.
“A lot of people watch and love those close games, so it impacts recruiting,” he said. “It continues to impact our university, where for the most part football was a little dormant, so there are people, who because we won a bowl game, can raise their heads up a little more. And your own squad, that’s kind of a monkey off your back. There is value in it with your players.”
Key Duke donors and supporters believe in Cutcliffe and the program. K.D. Kennedy Jr., a major Duke donor, said that under former athletic director Tom Butters, football wasn’t deemed to be important.
“He told me he thought we could go to a bowl about every 10 years, that it would be hard to compete in football in our league,” said Kennedy, a 1964 Duke graduate and an Iron Duke Lifetime Member.
His teams play exciting football. I’ve been in the locker room many times through the years, and the players now are faster, bigger, stronger. He has built a program.
K.D. Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy said the hiring of Cutcliffe, and support from Duke president Richard Brodhead and athletic director Kevin White, have made for the right combination at the right time. Duke, he said, began budgeting more money for football, but the catalyst has been Cutcliffe.
“He’s diligent, an incredibly organized worker who hires good people and keeps them,” Kennedy said. “His teams play exciting football. I’ve been in the locker room many times through the years, and the players now are faster, bigger, stronger. He has built a program.”
Renovating the stadium
In September 2014, White announced trustees had approved renovations to the football stadium.
Funded by the Duke Forward fundraising campaign, the renovations are part of a $100 million upgrade to the school’s athletic facilities. Changes to Wade Stadium include Blue Devil Tower — with suites and press box — and new seating areas. A track that circled the playing field has been removed and the playing field lowered. The stadium’s seating capacity was increased by about 6,000 to 40,004.
The playing field in the Pascal Field House is named the “Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy Jr. Field,” and other major donors have stepped up. Steve and Eileen Brooks donated $13 million to the Duke athletic department in 2015, and the football playing field was named Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium.
After the 2016 season, there are plans to add new ticket booths and upgrade restrooms and concessions.
In January 2007, a Duke Football Summit was held, as more than 200 former players returned to discuss the state of the program. Alleva called it “uncharted territory in the world of college athletics,” and it was beneficial. Almost 10 years later, so much has changed.
“We had all those stadium plans drawn up when I was there — tearing out the track, an indoor facility, all those things,” Alleva said. “We didn’t have the money.
“They have it now. As long as (Cutcliffe) is there, if there’s consistency and recruiting goes well, he can keep it going. And there’s the chance to take the next step.”
Sept. 3 vs. N.C. Central
Sept. 10 vs. Wake Forest
Sept. 17 at Northwestern
Sept. 24 at Notre Dame
Oct. 1 vs. Virginia
Oct. 8 vs. Army
Oct. 14 at Louisville
Oct. 29 at Georgia Tech
Nov. 5 vs. Virginia Tech
Nov. 10 vs. North Carolina
Nov. 19 at Pittsburgh
Nov. 26 at Miami