How the hiring of David Cutcliffe led to a dramatic turnaround for Duke football

The conversation happened so frequently from 2005 to 2007 it is difficult for Joe Alleva and Tallman Trask to pinpoint a specific game or date that directly turned their attention to salvaging the sunken ship that was Duke football.

In all likelihood, the tipping point came in late October of 2005 with the athletic director and the school’s executive vice-president/fiscal officer sitting in Alleva’s suite at Wallace Wade Stadium. They were watching a Wake Forest team that would finish the season with a 4-7 record lay a 44-6 spanking on their hapless Blue Devils before an announced crowd of 15,347.

“This has got to stop,” Trask recalls telling Alleva.

No one who follows college football would argue that Duke’s program was the worst in the sport. Over eight seasons from 2000 through 2007, Duke won 10 football games and lost 82. That record included three winless seasons and three victories in 64 games against ACC competition.

“We were a Monday morning joke around every watercooler in America,” Trask says today.

“Duke takes a lot of pride in doing things with excellence, and obviously the football team was not doing that,” says Alleva, who left Duke in 2008 to be the athletic director at LSU. “It was a situation where it was, no question, the team was not performing to the standards the rest of the university was living up to.

“So, everyone kind of figured it was time, let’s go, let’s make a commitment here and let’s get this thing going.”

A decade later, that commitment from the Duke administration to its athletic department, and in turn, to the football program, has resulted in one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college sports history. Over the past 10 seasons, including the current one, Duke has won an ACC Coastal Division championship, produced one 10-win season and two more nine-win seasons, won five games against nationally ranked opponents, and won a bowl game for the first time since 1961.

On Tuesday, the Blue Devils play Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl, Duke’s fifth bowl in six years.

The transformation from laughingstock to rising stock in the program did not happen overnight. Yet most associated with the program recognize the turning point: The hiring of then 53-year-old David Cutcliffe in December 2007.

The program shift from darkness to light began when Cutcliffe drove his 2006 white Chevrolet pickup truck that December from Knoxville, Tenn., through the Smoky Mountains to Durham, arriving at the Washington Duke Inn around 2 a.m. Cutcliffe carried in his head a checklist of questions he wanted answered while interviewing later that day for the head coaching position. The overriding mission for Cutcliffe was to find out if Duke truly was ready to commit necessary resources to the football program.

Before the interviews, Cutcliffe first attempted to sleep, to no avail. So, he drove his truck across Cameron Boulevard to get a first-hand look, albeit at 3 in the morning, at the football facilities. He laughed at the idea of being able to park his truck within the stadium gates (“Can you imagine doing that at Alabama?” he asked himself, “You’d be jailed”).

Duke President Richard Brodhead, left, introduces David Cutcliffe, middle, as the Blue Devils’ football coach on Dec. 15, 2007. At right is Joe Alleva. CHUCK LIDDY CHUCK LIDDY

Then Cutcliffe strolled across campus believing that an academic institution can be best judged by the happiness of its employees.

“How long have you been here?” he asked several Duke workers who were preparing for the day ahead.

“Twenty years. Twenty-four years,” they all responded.

“Do you like it here?”

“Yes. Yes.”

Finally, Cutcliffe was ready for a day of interviews. As Alleva arrived at his Cameron Indoor Stadium office 30 minutes early for the 8 a.m. meeting with Cutcliffe, the prospective coach was waiting outside the door.

Alleva had previously hired first-time head coaches Carl Franks and Ted Roof to turn Duke’s fortunes. He was determined this time to find a coach with experience at the highest level, and one with a plan for how winning could be accomplished at Duke.

Cutcliffe was an assistant coach for 19 seasons in two stops at Tennessee and another seven mostly successful seasons at Mississippi. His experiences in the Southeastern Conference gave him unusual insight into areas such as facilities, staffing, budget, marketing and even dealing with the media. On the field, Cutcliffe believed Duke athletes could never match others in girth, but they could in speed. If hired, he would immediately challenge his team to lose 1,000 collective pounds before the next season.

Fifteen minutes in, Alleva had heard enough. He knew he had his next coach.

“He was just so articulate and experienced in what it would take to win,” Alleva says. “It came across very quickly. . . . He just knew what it takes to win.”

Alleva conveyed to Cutcliffe that Duke was committed to football out of necessity, since the ACC was negotiating further expansion to solidify its football standing among Power 5 conferences. The league eventually took in Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

“When the bus is moving, you’ve got to get on the bus or get off the bus,” Alleva says. “Duke decided it would make a commitment and compete (in football).”

Cutcliffe then met with Richard Brodhead, Duke’s president at the time. Cutcliffe was struck by the conversational manner of the interview and that Brodhead almost exclusively listened to the coach’s plan for winning. Cutcliffe said games are won on the practice field, and Duke’s practice facilities were not conducive to winning.

“He listened to that,” Cutcliffe said, “and I believed football was important to him.”

Next on the agenda was a meeting with Trask, who since 1995 has been tasked with overseeing Duke’s budgeting and finances. At the time, Trask was in the beginning stages of setting a $250 million fund-raising goal for athletics with $100 million going to facilities, an equal amount to operations and $50 million towards an endowment.

Trask promised Cutcliffe that he could hire and pay an assistant coaching staff more in line with staffs of fellow ACC members. That meant doubling some assistants’ salaries to the $150,000-$180,000 range.

“This is what we’ve been looking for, for decades,” Trask said of his gut feeling when he met Cutcliffe. “I thought to myself, this is the only guy I know who could actually do this.”

Duke head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, second from left, laughs as newly appointed football coach David Cutcliffe makes a joke about trying out for the basketball team on Dec. 15, 2007. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Before heading out on a tour of campus, Cutcliffe made an unusual request of Alleva. He wanted a one-on-one meeting with Mike Krzyzewski. The get-together was hastily arranged in Krzyzewski’s Schwartz Butters Center office.

“He had a belief that you could win at football, and I felt that was sincere,” Cutcliffe said of the meeting. “I felt his support would be sincere.”

Then Cutcliffe toured the campus where he bumped into two football players in the Bryan University Center. He met linebacker Vincent Rey and cornerback Chris Rwabukamba, both of whom made an immediate impression. Rey, who now plays in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, represented the kind of player Cutcliffe said he wanted to coach. Rwabukamba, who now plays in the Canadian Football League, was working behind the counter at the student bookstore, even as a full-scholarship player.

“Meeting them became the last check marks for me,” Cutcliffe said.

Before the day was complete, Cutcliffe phoned his wife, Karen, in Tennessee to say he was confident they would soon be moving to Durham. As he drove his pickup truck back to Tennessee following the interviews, Cutcliffe had every belief that he could change the culture and return Duke football to respectability.

He did not foresee that six months down the road Alleva would leave Duke, to be replaced by Kevin White, who was an even bigger Cutcliffe fan due to a friendship formed first in Mississippi and developed when they both worked at Notre Dame.

White has overseen the construction of Pascal Field House, an indoor practice facility that opened in 2011, and the renovations to Wallace Wade Stadium that began in 2014 and will conclude next year.

“I really believed in the commodity of David Cutcliffe,” White says of when he arrived at Duke. “I believed if anyone could flip this thing, he could.”

Ten years later, Cutcliffe and Duke have done just that. 

Duke vs. Northern Illinois

Quick Lane Bowl

When: 5:15 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Ford Field, Detroit


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