Bring it on: Cutcliffe savors a decisive Blue Devil win over Virginia in 2008, breaking Duke’s twenty-five-game losing streak in the ACC. Jon Gardiner
Bring it on: Cutcliffe savors a decisive Blue Devil win over Virginia in 2008, breaking Duke’s twenty-five-game losing streak in the ACC. Jon Gardiner

Making the Cut

Now in his second year at Duke, football coach David Cutcliffe is aiming to turn his Blue Devils into an ACC powerhouse, drawing on wisdom, experience, and inspiration from icons like Bear Bryant, Wallace Wade, and the 1938 Iron Dukes.
Writer: 
November 30, 2009

It's not yet 8 on a sweltering July morning, and David Cutcliffe is in his oak-paneled office on the third floor of Duke's Yoh Football Center, looking for a story. Not just any story—a Paul "Bear" Bryant story. The legendary coach in the houndstooth hat was Cutcliffe's first boss, at the University of Alabama back in the early 1970s. Cutcliffe, then a student assistant in the Crimson Tide's football office, was already compiling the sayings and clippings and tenets of coaching that now spill out of the thick pile of manila folders he keeps stashed in a cabinet behind his desk

"Excuse the mess," says Cutcliffe, a meticulous fifty-five-year-old who mandated a clean-up of the Duke football program in the spring of 2008, shortly after he accepted what much of the college football world viewed as an impossible job. The clean-up was literal, as well as metaphorical: The new head coach excavated closets, threw out junk, renovated offices and hung pictures of some of the famous quarterbacks he has mentored. You may have heard of two of them: Super Bowl MVPs Peyton Manning and his little brother, Eli.

"I should have this," Cutcliffe says, talking and humming a little as he flips through his files. "I've got lots of stuff that I wrote down that Coach Bryant said. Lots of other things, too. Great quotes, notes I've taken at clinics, stuff I want to go back and re-read. I've learned to listen very well through the years, and I rarely forget something that I feel is important enough to remember."

Cutcliffe pulls out a piece of paper with the distinctive orange letterhead of the University of Tennessee. That reminds him of a different story. It was the first game of the 1982 season—his first game as a part-time assistant coach for Johnny Majors—and an upset-minded bunch of Duke Blue Devils, led by quarterback Ben Bennett '84 and offensive coordinator Steve Spurrier, came into jam-packed Neyland Stadium and knocked off the Volunteers, 25-24. The next day it seemed as if all of Tennessee was in mourning.

"That was a really devastating loss," Cutcliffe says. "Coach Majors was extremely upset. But I think there's a lesson in it. It's like in the backyard. You get some guys that are playmakers, and you put 'em in a position to have a chance to win. Don't overcomplicate it—that was Steve's approach. That's part of what we're trying to do."

The thing is, while Spurrier led Duke to some modest success as a high-powered offensive coordinator and later as head coach in the 1980s—including an Atlantic Coast Conference co-championship, in 1989—it never felt permanent. Duke last won more football games than it lost in 1994, and what followed was a rapid descent into the muck. Four winless seasons. A record of 4 wins and 42 losses from 2004 to 2007 under the youthful and enthusiastic Ted Roof. An ACC losing streak that had reached twenty-five games by the time Cutcliffe got to Durham. "We weren't down. We were basically out," Cutcliffe says. "We were without a pulse."

He ruffles more papers. "Here's something from Coach Bryant, right here," Cutcliffe says, handing over a list of ten bits of wisdom he'd typed up years ago. Among them: "Never be guilty of setting your goals too low"; "have a plan for everything"; "sell them on the values of pride and confidence."

It's not what he was looking for, but it helps account for some of the fundamental moves he's made. "A complete culture change," says receivers coach Scottie Montgomery '00. The former Duke player was the only holdover from Roof's staff to participate in last year's 4-8 season, which was hailed as the beginning of a renaissance. "It wasn't luck, it was a plan—a well-executed plan. We're not striving to be perfect. We're striving to be excellent. We're not just trying to win a game. In the past we did that, and yeah, we won a game. We won one game. We're trying to do more than that."

Cutcliffe began the makeover with his personal space. "You have no idea what this office looked like previously," he says. "I came in here, and this was ancient shelving, and over there was an old TV that was deeper than it was wide." Now, on a sleek shelf to his right, there's a wide-screen hooked up to a state-of-the-art video system.

"I don't want to have a prospect come in here and see anything other than the ultimate in facilities and character and class," he says. "I don't think anybody would expect anything different from us. We're going to have the cleanest, nicest locker room in the Atlantic Coast Conference. We're going to ultimately have the finest playing surface, the best practice facility. We're not thinking in terms of mediocrity as we grow Duke football. That's the difference between now and in how Steve did it. He came in, threw the ball around, and went on to a job at his alma mater. We're not trying to come in and be a flash in the pan and go on to something else. We're trying to commit to this thing, and to make it a way of life. That's how you build a program."

In an alcove across from his desk, next to a big picture window overlooking Wallace Wade Stadium, Cutcliffe has installed a shrine to Duke football history. There is a pair of plush leather chairs, which he uses when he talks to recruits. There's a bust of Wade, an idol of the Bear's (and not just for his hats), who arrived from Alabama in 1931 and coached Duke to six Southern Conference championships. A plaque commemorating the 1938 Iron Dukes—"UNDEFEATED/UNTIED/UNSCORED UPON"—rescued from a closet, hangs at eye level. "How proud is that?" Cutcliffe asks. "I am a little crazy about football. I think that's a sacred place out there. I think Coach Wade deserves respect."

It's nice to talk about 1938, but even 1988 (7-3-1 under Spurrier) is a distant memory for Duke fans. The years of losing prompted some reflection on campus as to why, exactly, a world-class university must strive to compete in big-time football. Putting aside the ACC's requirement that every member participate in all the major sports, Cutcliffe considers the question. "I haven't declared sports important," he says. "Our society has declared sports important. You can run from it, you can disagree with it, you can hide from it if you like. But if I'm doing the numbers from a business end, I'm going to attract better and brighter students—and more positive value comes to this university in curb appeal—if a very high-profile sport, college football, presents itself as excellent. Almost every aspect of this university was presented as excellent, except football."

Bring it on: Cutcliffe at a football practice.

Bring it on: Cutcliffe at a football practice. Jon Gardiner

His voice rises as he fires himself up. "We're an Atlantic Coast Conference university," he says. "You either get in, or you get out, right? You talk about winning, but, last year, I said the first thing we've got to do to win in the ACC is join the league. We're IN the league now! We're IN the ACC now, and everybody knows it."

Simply to be competitive—as Duke was, to some extent, last season (1-7 in the ACC, with two near-misses)—takes money. Cutcliffe, with his pedigree as a longtime assistant at Tennessee and six mostly successful seasons as a head coach at the University of Mississippi, reportedly has a $1.5 million-a-year contract.

 It's the thirty-fourth-highest annual compensation among major college football coaches, tied with Penn State icon Joe Paterno's and far beyond what Roof or any of Cutcliffe's predecessors were paid. His assistant coaches are also being compensated at Southeastern Conference rates, which helped Cutcliffe bring most of his former Ole Miss staff along with him. Such financial largess pleases Bob Pascal '55, a Duke football All-American who went on to make a fortune in the energy business and real estate in Maryland. "A good football program is an expensive investment with an extremely profitable return," Pascal says. "I'm all in on this one. The coach needs it. It'll help."

Pascal and a friend, Steve Brooks '66, capped Cutcliffe's first full year on the job by donating a combined $10 million for an indoor practice facility within sight of the Hart House. The current resident, Richard H. Brodhead, has been known to stop by the adjacent fields to watch practice. "I've been disappointed in Duke football, like everyone else," Pascal says. "But his administration has made the commitment. I asked Brodhead this: Are you apprehensive about winning? Because when you start winning, there's going to be criticism."

Duke, really, should have such problems.

The man Cutcliffe has charged with bringing in the type of players who can win without blowback is a pleasant thirty-two-year-old named Kent McLeod, whose title, director of football relations, belies the fact that he organizes and executes recruiting, the lifeblood of any program. "At Ole Miss, a big part of my job was putting together an academic plan to get a kid eligible," McLeod says. "I don't have to do that here, because we wouldn't be signing 'em if they didn't have the grades."

Cutcliffe and McLeod decided that Duke should focus much of its recruiting regionally, rather than nationally, building relationships with area high-school coaches to help identify under-the-radar prospects. The Blue Devils' assistants were instructed to scout players they believe can develop into stars, rather than targeting only high-school All-Americans. While they've scored some key national signings—in late summer, they got a verbal commitment from Laken Williamson, a six-foot-five, 300-pound offensive tackle and aspiring premed from Chicago, who chose Duke over Ohio State—McLeod points with pride to the seventeen players on the current roster who hail from North Carolina.

"I don't think it's that hard to recruit to Duke," says McLeod. "The two negatives we get are, 'Don't go there, they won't win, or, if you do go there and they win, that whole staff is gonna leave.' Well, our answer to that would be, number one, we're gonna win, because nobody on our staff has ever been a loser. And the second thing is, why would you want to leave Duke, where the fans just want to win six or seven games right now—obviously, when you win seven or eight, they're gonna want nine, but we'll cross that bridge when we get there—to go somewhere you could be fired in a year for not winning?"

That's basically what happened to Cutcliffe at Ole Miss. He was the SEC Coach of the Year in 2003, and after a 4-7 season in 2004, he was gone—in part for refusing to fire some of his assistant coaches to appease the athletics department. He and his wife, Karen, didn't have much time to regroup. After accepting an assignment to coach quarterbacks for Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, Cutcliffe was diagnosed with a 99 percent blockage in a coronary artery. He underwent an emergency triple bypass and missed the 2005 season.

"Everybody said it'll make you appreciate every day, but I don't think it took me there," says Cutcliffe, who lost forty pounds through diet and exercise and takes Lipitor and blood-pressure medicine daily. "What it did was, it made me appreciate every quality day, and that every day can be a quality day."

When Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer offered him his old job back, as offensive coordinator and quarterback guru, Cutcliffe returned to Knoxville. It was an unusual move, but it allowed him to rebuild his health and enhance his reputation with two more bowl bids, increasing his career total as an assistant and head coach to twenty-three postseason appearances. His teams have won sixteen of those games, including a national title with Tennessee in 1998. (He wears his diamond-encrusted championship ring and displays an autographed photo of the quarterback on that team, Tee Martin, on a wall in his dressing room. It reads, "To Coach Cut: Thank you for making me a man.")

In December 2007, after firing Roof, then-athletic director Joe Alleva invited Cutcliffe to Durham for a visit. Determined to investigate the opportunity thoroughly, he drove overnight from Knoxville to Durham, arriving shortly after first light. "I enjoyed more than you can imagine an early-morning walk on this campus," Cutcliffe says. "I never had seen it. Seeing the chapel, walking through the quad when no one was there. I came to Wallace Wade Stadium, and I liked the way it looked, sitting there. I have never been more right about a decision in my life. Duke was ready for us. It was time."

Cutcliffe has been a coaching junkie as long as he can remember. His father, Raymond, who ran a grocery store in Roebuck, a racially mixed neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama, died when David was fourteen, and the young man gravitated toward his football coaches at Banks High School. Cutcliffe was good enough to start at linebacker for the all-white school, and, in 1969, when he was a sophomore, his team faced all-black Parker High School in the first integrated football game in Alabama history. Banks won, 55-6.

Cutcliffe was an eyewitness to tremendous social changes in Birmingham and the rest of the South. His father's grocery store had separate bathrooms and water fountains for blacks and whites, as was required by state law. Earlier this year, Cutcliffe told senior Ben Cohen of The Chronicle that when he was a boy, his mother made him hide in the basement when the Ku Klux Klan marched past their house. The Cutcliffes are Catholic, and his mother, Frances Cutcliffe, knew that Catholics were potential targets for the men in white sheets.

"My mother, who is eighty-eight, is a phenom," he says. "She probably went to school till she was twelve years old, and she is the most educated person I know. She understood the value of people and of diversity before diversity was a word."

As a young boy, David played pickup games in the streets against black kids he barely knew. "We weren't buddies," he says. "We just played ball. You gotta remember now, it was a different era. But I knew more about black kids than any of the guys I went to high school with. When we went in to play games against these guys, many of my teammates had never touched a person of another race."

Banks High was integrated by Cutcliffe's senior year, but not without incident. A football pep rally erupted into what he remembers as a full-blown race riot. "A couple of the older guys in the stands pulled out a Confederate flag," he says, " 'Dixie' was the fight song—you gotta remember the era. Some African-American young men took offense to it, and a fight broke out. It basically just erupted into a war. We had a running back who was a friend of mine get stabbed in the arm, and I remember running around there trying to get girls out the door. And there was pushing and shoving, and people were panicking. And when there's hate involved….

"Like I told you," he continues, "I wasn't raised that way. I had a girlfriend then, and I helped get her to safety, and then I was back in there trying to stop it. But no one could. It spread through the halls of the school. It was absolutely ugly."

With all that as his personal backdrop, Cutcliffe has spent years thinking about the evolution of race relations in America. "What I've learned from watching and being on both sides of the street," he says, "is that when you're unfamiliar with people, it's easy to let yourself dislike or hate. The problem that exists is being unfamiliar with each other."

Cutcliffe and his wife have an adopted son, Marcus Hilliard, who is black. He's one of four children who beam at visitors from a family photo that hangs on the wall of his office—daughters Katie and Emily, and their other son Chris.

Cutcliffe's sense of perspective probably would have eluded Bear Bryant, who didn't integrate Alabama's football program until 1971 and died in 1983. But Cutcliffe still looks to the Bear for insight into football's place on a college campus. That's the story he's been searching for, unsuccessfully, in the files on his desk. "What it's basically about is this," Cutcliffe says, paraphrasing. " 'Why is football important in this date and time?' Now you gotta remember, it's the 1970s when he's saying this.

"And he goes on to say, 'Well, I'll tell you why: When you get out between those white lines, everything is fair. Everything is equal. It doesn't matter what your last name is. It doesn't matter how much money your daddy makes. It doesn't matter what kind of house you came from. All that matters is what's inside you, and maybe this is the only place left where that really can happen anymore."

Cutcliffe looks up and smiles. "It's pretty dynamic," he says.

Saturday, August 14, is a quality day on Duke's new 100-yard outdoor practice field, which has been resurfaced with the latest in cushy fake grass, FieldTurf. (Before Cutcliffe arrived, the field was only seventy-five yards long. "No wonder we had trouble in the red zone," he cracks.) Never mind the H1N1 flu that's swept through much of the roster, forcing everyone to slather sanitizer on his skin and making Cutcliffe think twice about shaking the hands of a nine-year-old fan on the sidelines. It's the Blue Devils' first scrimmage, a 10 a.m. special, and Cutcliffe wanders the field shouting encouragement as the players stretch. If they're going to be able to lure students from the festive pregame tailgate, attract fans to enjoy the new bathrooms and high-tech video scoreboard, make good on senior defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase's preseason pronouncement that "being a Duke football player is now cool," it's all going to start right here.

"Gotta learn to focus!" Cutcliffe yells. "Every one of 'em counts. The circumstances are what they are. Get on that damn horse and ride!"

Three weeks later, his team will fail spectacularly in its 2009 opener against Richmond, missing field goals and botching punts and helping John Feinstein '77 make his point in a Washington Post column headlined, "ACC Football Leads the Nation in Irrelevance." It won't be pretty, but Cutcliffe will accept the blame, and it will be clear that Duke is in for a long haul to where he's hoping to take it. (Mike Krzyzewski had that sort of experience in January of his third year on the job, when the basketball Blue Devils lost to Wagner College of Staten Island, N.Y.)

But on this Saturday, with the Blue Devils playing only each other, everybody wins. The veterans, such as Oghobaase and senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, look ready for prime time. The thirty-eight freshmen seem mostly capable. A junior named Jeremy Ringfield, moved to defensive end from receiver, intercepts a pass and earns praise from his coach. Kent McLeod is over on the sidelines, chatting up the parents of some Durham-area prospects. The punt coverage team chases one down and stops it from bouncing at the five-yard line, preventing it from going into the end zone for a touchback.

As Coach Bryant always said, "Winners take care of the little things," and in a post-scrimmage talk to his team on the field, Cutcliffe is clearly elated. "The games are hard," he says. "Practice is hard. It's not much fun out there right now. But we're going to have a lot more fun than most folks do on Saturdays."

That remains to be seen. Cutcliffe, though, has made plenty of believers. "Look at him," says Bob Pascal, watching from the sidelines. "He's ready to take the hill, baby."

It's an apt metaphor, because it will take a relentless struggle for Cutcliffe to do the impossible, to get this program bowl-eligible. "We're going to bring respect back to Duke football," he says more than once, "and anything that gets in our way, we're going to roll over it."

Presumably, at least a little bit like the Tide.

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