Peyton Manning, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, still telephones David Cutcliffe, Duke's head football coach, to talk about how to beat a defense. Eli Manning, quarterback for the New York Giants, praises Cutcliffe's passion. Tee Martin, who led the University of Tennessee to a national title in 1998, believes Cutcliffe helped him become a man.
"We know what we're doing when it comes to quarterbacks," Cutcliffe said in 2008, when he announced that Sean Renfree, one of the nation's top quarterback recruits, would be attending Duke. "That's not arrogance. That's fact."
Acclaimed as a quarterback guru, Cutcliffe has taken an unconventional path to enlightenment. He was a linebacker at Banks High School in Birmingham, Alabama, and he didn't play college football. Instead, he worked in the football office at the University of Alabama, watching closely as Paul "Bear" Bryant kept players and coaches going at an up-tempo pace in both practices and games.
Cutcliffe clipped pages from the Alabama playbook and took them back to Banks High, where he worked as an assistant coach for four seasons, and then as head coach for two. During that time, a Tennessee assistant named Philip Fulmer got to know Cutcliffe while recruiting one of his players. In 1982, Fulmer hired the young coach as a part-time aide for $8,000 a year. Cutcliffe moved on to a succession of full-time gigs at Tennessee, coaching linemen, tight ends, and running backs, and then in 1990, head coach Johnny Majors put him in charge of the quarterbacks.
Cutcliffe did his homework, studying the philosophies of some of the best minds in the business, pass-happy coaches such as Bill Walsh and Don "Air" Coryell. He built a record for success and, in 1993, convinced Peyton Manning to spurn his father's alma mater, Ole Miss, in favor of Tennessee. Manning became a first-team All-American in 1997, leading the Vols to a Southeastern Conference championship and setting the stage for the national title that followed.
A visitor caught up with the quarterback guru as he was breaking down an unfortunate performance by Renfree in a preseason practice. The video showed Renfree throwing the ball away under pressure. "This is the kind of stuff, when Peyton and Eli come, we talk about all day—managing your protection," Cutcliffe says.
The coach is happy to describe what he saw in some of his earlier protégés—one of whom became famous for hitting a ball instead of throwing it.
Now: Indianapolis Colts, 2007 Super Bowl MVP
Now: New York Giants, 2008 Super Bowl MVP
Now: University of New Mexico, quarterbacks coach
Now: First baseman, Colorado Rockies, 2000 National League batting champion
The Quarterback Guru
November 30, 2009