Duke

After a childhood in segregated Birmingham, Duke's Cutcliffe learned to find magic in people

Duke's Cutcliffe on Sirk working out as a tight end for NFL scouts

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses helping his former quarterback, Thomas Sirk, as he transitions to tight end in an attempt to make the NFL.
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Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses helping his former quarterback, Thomas Sirk, as he transitions to tight end in an attempt to make the NFL.

Neither the shadows of intimidation nor mean-spirited mores could tarnish the “magic” for David Cutcliffe. Not then and certainly not now, when the coach regularly conjures a bit of the old enchantment to share with his Duke football squads.

“Every one of us are a combination of all the people we’ve been around, all the circumstances we lived,” says Cutcliffe, who just finished presiding over the 43rd spring practice of his career. “I’m very thankful that I grew up in the fifties and sixties in the Birmingham, Alabama, area.”

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That grateful declaration might seem strange considering Cutcliffe’s hometown was nicknamed “Bombingham” after a favorite white supremacist terror tactic that left one section so devastated it was called “Dynamite Hill.” Many of us might lament ties to a city marked by a bombing that killed four black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church the day before Cutcliffe’s ninth birthday, wall off in our minds the constant danger of living near the city’s most prominent African-American businessman, a lightning rod for harassment.

“My mother used to hide us when the Klan was marching,” Cutcliffe recalls of the robed and violent bullies of the Ku Klux Klan. “All hands on deck!”

Martin Luther King Jr. called Birmingham “the most segregated city in the South” during Cutcliffe’s childhood as civil rights battles roiled the country. It was an era when, as former vice president and U.S. Senator Walter F. Mondale wrote recently, “white and black citizens were kept apart to confirm and reinforce the idea of white supremacy.”

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But not where Cutcliffe lived. There, modest financial means led to the racial mingling denied elsewhere.

“The commonality was, we weren’t worthy. We were Catholic in the deep South, so that put us on the same list that the Klan had black folks on,” he recalls of his parents and siblings. “We weren’t viewed as quality people. So I identified with some of the (integration) struggles myself.”

The Cutcliffes knew, as many have since forgotten, that the prejudice exalted by the KKK did not stop at skin color, much as the viciousness of Hitler’s Holocaust extended to more than Jews. Hate and fear can always find targets, as contemporary politics attests .

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But within Cutcliffe’s neighborhood -- where his father, Raymond, ran Hill’s Grocery Store until he died in a heart attack-induced car crash – blacks and whites found easy equality on and off the playing field. Frances Cutcliffe, a “progressive thinker” according to the fourth of her six children, gave no thought to hosting African-American neighbors in her kitchen at a time when the races dined separately under threat of public censure or worse.

And down the street, near a Five-Mile Creek fishing hole, a boy with a love of sports found uncommon freedom through imagination.

“I tell our players quite often, I grew up next to a magic pasture,” says the 11-year Duke coach, tied with Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson for the ACC’s longest ongoing tenure. “I’d go out there by myself and I’d look and it had turned into an NFL stadium. The crowd was loud. It was incredible. And then, I might go back in and get a drink of Kool-Aid, and come back out, lo and behold, it was a damn Major League ballpark. All you need growing up is a magic pasture.”

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Cutcliffe, 63, contrasts his self-starting with the formative experiences of today’s youngsters, who too quickly gravitate to a single, highly-organized sport and otherwise limit extracurricular competition to a video console. His aim is to share the magic of his youth, which he rediscovered on a very real football field at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, working on scholarship as a student assistant (intern) under Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Bryant – who got his nickname as a teen by wrestling a bear for $1 per minute at a time when chopping cotton all day earned 50 cents – was the greatest football coach of his era, and arguably remains the best of all time. In 38 seasons at four schools, including a quarter-century at Alabama from 1958 through 1982, his teams were 323-85-17. Six of Bryant’s Crimson Tide squads won national championships.

“He made practice like a game,” Cutcliffe says. “And what I just said about the magic pasture is the magic practice field. The best coaches can create a game in practice – the accountability, the energy, the focus, the motivation – because (Bryant) knew that if you could do that, if you’re execution was going to be incredible in practice, guess what it was going to be in a ballgame?”

Bryant taught winning not as an end, but as a value, Cutcliffe says. A sign in the Crimson Tide locker room echoed Vince Lombardi, stating: “Winning Isn’t Everything, But It Beats Anything That Comes in Second.” Bryant cautioned that if you weren’t in the game to win, “you’re in the wrong business,” Cutcliffe recalls.

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The Duke football program was among the top 10 percent nationally in Academic Progress Rate. Allison Lee Isley AP

When his on-field approach grew less effective, Bryant shocked outsiders by quietly debuting a wishbone offense – and kept on winning.

“People think strategy is Xs and Os,” Cutcliffe says. “I thought, when it comes to Xs and Os, the best thing Coach Bryant did was he was willing to change, willing to adjust with the times.”

Upon agreeing to resuscitate a near-moribund Duke program, Cutcliffe told the media he intended to recruit speed – at the height of its power Alabama was noted for employing smaller, quicker linemen to great effect. Cutcliffe also talked about the kicking game, of all things, as key to any turnaround. That emphasis came from Bryant as well.

After Southern Cal won decisively at Tuscaloosa in 1970 led by African-American running back Sam Cunningham, Bryant embarked on integrating the South’s dominant football program. Bryant had his flaws in embracing racial equality, Cutcliffe readily concedes. But as a much-ridiculed “pure country poor boy” from Arkansas early in life, he “understood a lot of things people talked about in their struggles.”

So it was that, when 1969-70 freshman Wendell Hudson, the Tide’s first African-American basketball player, sat alone to eat a snack in the dining hall named for Bryant, Alabama’s revered football coach signaled acceptance by pointedly sitting by his side. That, too, was magic.

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