Until I came to college in North Carolina, my father was the only person I knew who drank iced tea at meals. This strange affectation apparently traced to his time as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, where he also developed an affinity for college football. Given my father’s interest, and my school’s victorious season opener at South Carolina, I proudly invited him to join me for the first home football game of my freshman year.
But the proceedings were quickly drained of suspense once Michigan began handing the ball to running back Ron Johnson, an eventual pro. Johnson rushed for 189 yards in the first half alone, 205 yards overall, as the Wolverines dominated the so-called intersectional tilt, 31-10. After that, my father never expressed an interest in attending another Duke football game, having seen heavyweight football in the SEC.
I persisted, and when I visit Wallace Wade Stadium later this month, it will mark my 50th straight season attending at least one Duke home football game. Quite frankly, some years one look sufficed. But curiosity, work obligations and the entertainment value of watching Blue Devils squads strive mightily, often to exquisitely self-destruct at the last, kept me coming back. I’m not being gratuitously critical – 73 percent of those regular seasons (36 of 49 prior to this one) ended with a losing record.
Recently, the arrival of David Cutcliffe and a rich application of funds have transformed the program. The Blue Devils are competitive against most everyone. The bar for bowl qualification is admittedly lower nowadays, yet it’s worth noting Duke has been to as many bowls in this decade (four) as in the preceding 56 seasons combined. An atmosphere where winning is a familiar possibility has its charms. But as a spectator, it helps that amid on-field success, game-day traffic remains minimal for all but the biggest opponents.
There were a few notable outbursts of prosperity prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival. Twice, under Hall of Famer Steve Spurrier in 1989 and Fred Goldsmith in 1994, the Blue Devils managed eight wins and a bowl appearance. This was accomplished despite squads generally smaller, thinner and slower than their opponents, and apt to run out of steam late in games. Sometimes a single key injury doomed a season; there was scant margin for error, particularly on defense.
A number of pass-happy interludes kept things lively, most notably with Spurrier as offensive coordinator in the early ’80s under coach Shirley “Red” Wilson (marketing slogan: “Red Means Go”) and brash Ben Bennett as quarterback. An N.C. State visit in an annual series sadly sacrificed on the altar of expansion invariably meant flat-out fun: Both teams scored at least 31 points in five of 13 Wade meetings between 1977 and 2001. Often the longtime rivals went to the final gun to settle the score wherever they played.
Frankly, though, as a professional neutral I didn’t care who won or lost. But I did become fond of extending my attendance streak once I realized I had one. So I dutifully endured cold rain blowing through the open sides of the old press box. I came for three 0-11 seasons and an 0-12. I came when I lived on a farm, plowing with a mule and getting by without running water, and had to sneak into a dorm to take a shower to make myself presentable. I came as an undergrad even though an alienating team star stood on the quad on weekend nights and drunkenly serenaded my dorm with racial and anti-Semitic slurs. His insults did broaden my vocabulary, though, when he shouted that people like me “didn’t have a scintilla worth of intelligence.”
I sat through a deadly dull 3-0 victory over Wake Forest in 1978 in which seemingly every play called by head coach and former All-American lineman Mike McGee was an off-tackle plunge.
I watched disorganization so pronounced that, after coach Barry Wilson called timeout and gathered the squad on the sidelines for instruction, the confused players trotted back to the line of scrimmage and called timeout again.
I saw Steve Sloan, an SEC refugee, misguidedly play the odds in the final minute of his 1983 Duke home debut. Clearly not recognizing where he was coaching, Sloan had the Devils punt to South Carolina on fourth and two at Duke’s 49, relying on his defense to hold. With 32 seconds left, the Gamecocks strutted 92 yards in seven plays, all on the ground, to seize a 31-24 win.
I saw games blown on missed field goals as time expired, on muffed snaps, shanked punts, extravagantly blown pass coverages, dropped or misdirected throws, whiffed tackles, untimely fumbles and penalties. After one weekly press conference I covered for a Greensboro newspaper recounting a somber coach’s post-defeat analysis, an editor inserted in my story, in italics no less: “Another moral victory for Duke.”
That insertion proved less problematic than the story I sold the Duke alumni magazine about the future of Duke football. During the stretch when the team posted losing records in 17 of 18 seasons, including four without any victories at all, it seemed appropriate to ask whether the time had come to consider dropping to a lower level of competition with the likes of schools such as William & Mary and Davidson. Surely the ACC would accommodate Duke – as it did Notre Dame football later on – rather than lose one of the nation’s great men’s basketball programs. But before I started writing, I learned athletic director Tom Butters had killed the story. The football program’s trajectory didn’t improve until long after Butters retired.
Butters’ peremptory dismissal was no less abrupt than the way Duke’s seasons usually ended. From shortly before I arrived at Durham through Cutcliffe’s first year at the helm, the Blue Devils traditionally finished against North Carolina. At one point Duke lost 21 of 22 of these games, making it something less than a rivalry.
Meanwhile, UNC once proudly boasted many 1,000-yard rushers, 24 in 30 years through 1997. If a running back was close to that mark, the Tar Heels repeatedly fed him the ball during the season finale, expecting the Devils, despite being steeled and ready, to yield the requisite yardage. And they did.
Balances shift eventually. Now the teams meet well before season’s end (this Sept. 23 at Chapel Hill), 1,000-yard rushers at Carolina are uncommon, and I saw Duke win two of the last three at Durham, its best home showing in the series in more than 40 years.