Jon Gardiner
Jon Gardiner

Why Football Matters

Duke is choosing to follow the model of Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and, yes, Notre Dame, all of which have gone bowling in the past decade.
September 12, 2013


CORRECTION: There are several factual errors in the story “Why Football Matters.” Specifically, the story states that Duke reported $20.5 million in football revenue in fiscal year 2011-12, and $25.4 million in expenses. The story further states that Duke spends more than any current or incoming conference school on football, and is the only ACC program to “operate in the red.”

                In fact, the publicly available reports from the Department of Education that are cited as the source note that Duke football had $25.4 million in revenue, and $20.5 million in expenses, for a surplus of $4.9 million. Using just those numbers, Duke ranks sixth out of fifteen ACC programs (including Notre Dame) in football expenses. Those numbers are further distorted because they also include $3.5 million of “Indirect Facilities & Administrative Support” added to both the revenue and expense. This is a form of depreciation that the university had historically added to the totals based on an interpretation of the NCAA Agreed Upon Procedures.  Very few schools use this interpretation because it artificially overstates revenue and expense.   

              When the amount for Indirect Facilities & Administrative Support is eliminated from the fiscal year 2011-12 numbers, the total football expense and revenue would be $17 million and $21.9 million respectively.  The $17 million expense figure places Duke eleventh out of fifteen in the ACC.

               Duke Magazine regrets these errors.


In past years, Jamison Crowder '15 would have dropped the ball. Or Sean Renfree '12 would have thrown it into the hands of a North Carolina defender. Or, let's face it, the Duke football team wouldn't have had a chance to win the game at all.

But this wasn’t past years. This was 2012. This was different. So when Renfree zipped a five-yard pass into an impossibly tight space with seconds remaining on the clock, Crowder caught it—and held on, flipping upside down and crashing to the Wallace Wade Stadium turf for a touchdown. A few moments later, more than 33,000 fans, including some 4,000 students, were reveling in a wild on-field celebration to the sound of the Victory Bell. "It was maniacal,” said head football coach David Cutcliffe, who’s spent five seasons trying to replicate a semblance of Cameron Indoor Stadium’s atmosphere outdoors. “It was crazy. I was loving it.”

As turning points go, that 33-30 win over the Tar Heels last October is a pretty good one. It was Duke’s first triumph over UNC in nearly a decade, elevated the Blue Devils to 6-2 for the season and 3-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and assured Duke of a bowl bid for the first time since 1994. (Never mind that the Devils lost their next five games, including the Belk Bowl in Charlotte; by all appearances, the program is now trending in a positive direction.)

Fun, right? But Duke’s rising competitiveness on the football field isn’t just a matter of school pride, or better execution on the part of Cutcliffe and his staff, or the university’s willingness to pour big bucks into the effort. For all the talk of strategic plans and multi-million-dollar gifts from wealthy alumni, there’s one overarching reason for the increasing emphasis on football: Duke believes it has no other choice.

The landscape of college sports in the twenty-first century has been riven by tectonic shifts, with traditionally regional conferences crashing together and increasingly breaking apart under pressure from an irresistible flow of football money. “This is a pretty critical moment in the history of college athletics,” says Duke vice president and director of athletics Kevin White. “There’s a lot at stake.”

Tackling tough athletic issues: The 2010 home game against Virginia. Jon Gardiner

White came to Duke in 2008 from Notre Dame, which, with its exclusive NBC television deal, pioneered the primacy of college football as a multi-billion-dollar revenue driver for networks and for the upper echelon of institutions participating in intercollegiate athletics. “About a decade ago, college-sports television was influenced about 50 percent by football and 50 percent by basketball," he says. "And now it's more like 80-20. Football is the absolute financial engine."

Not so at Duke, where basketball has been the primary driver of athletic and financial success for more than thirty years. Since 1980, when Mike Krzyzewski set to building a program that’s won four national titles, Duke football has suffered through seven coaching changes and twenty-eight losing seasons (four of them winless).

More than spectacle: Duke officials see a strengthened football program as an imperative. 

Duke wasn’t just bad. Duke was the worst—a situation that put the university in an intolerable position. “Take a look at Swarthmore’s traditional fight song, which goes something like, 'Though the day is bleak and the other team is beating the crap out of us, we’ll still all cheer for old Swarthmore,’ ” says Paul Haagen, a Duke law professor (and former Haverford lacrosse player) who is codirector of Duke’s Center for Sports Law and Policy. “That’s not a generally accepted American experience of sport, and in today’s world anybody who tried to embrace it would find themselves the butt of jokes. And one thing Duke is not much interested in is being a joke.”

Duke’s ACC rivals weren’t laughing, either. Conference members share revenue from those increasingly lucrative TV contracts, and schools perceived as takers, not trying hard enough to compete in football and simply cashing the checks, were finding themselves increasingly unwelcome at the table. Just five conferences currently participate in college football’s Bowl Championship Series, and with the much-anticipated postseason playoffs scheduled to begin in 2014, the elite sports programs are intent on keeping their skin in the game—even if that means breaking up once-beloved partnerships and rivalries.

“It’s like in kindergarten when you played musical chairs,” says White. “When the music stops, your ass better find a seat. And the first time it doesn’t, you’re gonna wish it did. That’s the kind of game we’re playing.”

In the summer of 2010, the Big 12—one of the five BCS conferences—teetered on the brink of collapse when Nebraska left for the Big Ten and the Pac-10 poached Colorado and nearly picked off Texas and Oklahoma, among others. In that scenario the Big 12 schools best known for basketball success would have been big losers.

It was a lesson not lost on Duke’s leadership. “I don’t know if we were worried, but we were thinking, ‘What if conference realignment goes the wrong way?’ ” says Chris Kennedy Ph.D. ’79, Duke’s deputy director of athletics and a longtime athletics administrator at the university. “Duke basketball is very desirable, but how desirable is Duke football? We were thinking that football is our ticket into whatever’s going to happen with conference realignment. Maybe the next step is there’s going to be four superconferences in their own organization, keeping all the revenue for themselves. Football was the ticket.”

On the road to a bowl: Duke’s 33-30 win, a year ago, against Carolina. Jon Gardiner

To the Duke decision makers, this wasn’t just conjecture. They saw what the Big 12’s near-death experience might have meant to a kindred college basketball powerhouse. “Kansas almost wound up in Conference USA,” Kennedy says. “We were looking at that and thinking, ‘That can’t be us.’ We need to anticipate. We don’t want to wind up in Conference USA. I don’t want to insult Conference USA, but we want to be in the in crowd.”

Can anyone envision the ACC schools that have been more successful in football over the past thirty years—that is to say, everyone, including Wake Forest—telling Duke to take a hike? Probably not, but what if there were no ACC? Maryland’s recent defection to the Big Ten shocked the membership and sparked rumors of the Big Ten’s interest in Virginia, Georgia Tech, and UNC. If any additional movement had occurred, it would be less of a stretch to imagine traditional football powers Florida State, Miami, and Clemson decamping to the Southeastern Conference.

Leaving...what? “I thought the ACC was in a lot of trouble,” Krzyzewski told the New York Post in July. “Like a number of conferences, we were very vulnerable.”

“This is a pretty critical moment in the history of college athletics. There’s a lot at stake.” — Kevin White, director of athletics 

Was last April’s league meeting, in the shadow of Maryland’s decision and the spinning rumor mill, an existential moment for the sixty-year-old league? White doesn’t go that far. But: “If you were going to enlarge the Big Ten, or if you were going to enlarge the SEC, where were you going to look for prospective members? The only place you could look would be the ACC. We had institutions and markets that were attractive commodities to other entities. And so, in fact, if we didn’t have ourselves in a position of extreme solidarity, a deal could be presented that would be pretty hard not to look at seriously.”

The ACC already had admitted Syracuse and Pittsburgh, refugees from the fracturing Big East, as new members, and Notre Dame—traditionally an independent but geographically located in Big Ten territory—as a full member in all sports but football (though the Fighting Irish agreed to play five games a year against ACC schools). To replace Maryland the league tapped Louisville, a third former Big East member, spurning advances from another basketball-first school, Connecticut.

Then, in an even more important move, commissioner John Swofford secured a “grant of rights” from every member, effectively putting an end to the chances of defection or breakup: Even if a school were to leave the conference, the ACC would still control its media rights for the next fourteen years. White won’t discuss his role in the arm-twisting that led to that coup, but Krzyzewski wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion. “Behind the scenes, I think our league should be eternally grateful to Kevin White,” he said on a regional radio show.

While other factors—such as high admissions standards and bad play-calling—contributed to Duke’s legacy of football failure, White’s predecessor, Joe Alleva, decided to address the problem with something he could control: money. When Ted Roof was fired after a 1-11 season in 2007, Alleva hired Cutcliffe, who with his SEC pedigree and résumé as guru to Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, did not come cheaply. Cutcliffe’s starting salary was reportedly $1.2 million per year.

In 2008, the same year White arrived, Duke issued a strategic plan calling for excellence in all sports. "there was an understanding of all that had to be done in football, beyond finding the right guy and getting some skill players," Kennedy says. "We went over and looked very carefully at what Wake Forest had done, to step back and take a more global look at where football fits Duke, where Duke fits in the ACC, what are other people doing to succeed that we haven't done, how much of it is infrastructure, how much of it is admissions, how much of it is training/academic support, and then how much of it is having the right guy to run the program. ...Kevin is a phenomenal big-picture guy. He kind of pared down the stuff that was in the 2008 report to say, let’s make football the linchpin of everything, make generating revenue from football the priority, accomplish that, and then look at some of the non-football things we thought we were going to do.”

White and Cutcliffe favor a beached-whale metaphor when discussing the football program they found. Five seasons later, Duke is much more competitive regionally. “We can see the Gulf Stream from here,” says White, who signed Cutcliffe to a seven-year extension last fall. (Duke did not disclose the terms of the extension, but according to USA Today, Cutcliffe’s most recent base salary was $1.8 million.) At the same time, the athletics department announced plans for a $125 million facilities upgrade as part of the Duke Forward campaign; much of the capital will go toward renovating Wallace Wade Stadium—adding new skyboxes, lowering the field, and, eventually, enclosing the open end of the bowl to bring seating capacity to 44,000.

By the 2011-12 school year, according to self-disclosed data collected in the U.S. Department of Education’s annual Equity in Athletics report, Duke was spending $25.4 million in football—more than any current or incoming ACC school— against $20.5 million in revenue. It’s the only ACC football program that operates in the red, according to the same report, which does not include capital expenditures or money each institution allocates toward maintaining its facilities. (By contrast, Duke told the DOE that men’s basketball cleared nearly $9.8 million in profit during 2011-12.)

Shifting the attitude: “A fire in our belly and a vengeance about winning”. Jon Gardiner

The increasing cost of football has not sparked much outrage on campus, aside from a few stentorian voices among the faculty. Administrators cite rising attendance at games, the raucous student turnout for the Carolina win, and the 20,000 Duke fans who made the pilgrimage to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl loss to Cincinnati—Duke sold 11,000 of those tickets directly to fans, the most tickets sold by any ACC school to a bowl game last year, White says—as justification for the effort and expense.

At its heart, this comes down to a startling realization, one Krzyzewski certainly grasps. “There are two questions here,” says Charles Clotfelter ’69, a public policy professor and the author of Big-Time Sports in American Universities. “The bigger question is: How necessary is it for Duke University to have big-time basketball? If you assume it is necessary, then you have to start talking about how important is football for the basketball. I don’t think anybody’s asking the first question.”

“If entertainment is one thing we do, we ought to do a better job of saying, ‘This is the reason we do it, and it makes sense.’ ” — Charles Clotfelter ’69, public policy professor 

Clotfelter has spent years studying how universities justify being in what boils down to the entertainment business, a phenomenon that is unique to higher education in the U.S. A strong athletics program helps immeasurably with branding and fundraising, advocates say, and creates a lifelong connection with alumni. Clotfelter takes no issue with that assumption, but calls on schools to be more transparent about buying into it.

“Universities say one thing, and they do another thing,” he says. “I think they ought to stand up and be straightforward. If entertainment is one thing we do, we ought to do a better job of saying, ‘This is the reason we do it, and it makes sense,’ rather than pretend we don’t do it.”

Decades after the late Dick DeVenzio ’71, a former Duke basketball player turned crusading reformer, began protesting against the hypocrisies, excesses, and inequities in big-time college sports, the causes he argued are gathering momentum. The NCAA is embroiled in a battle for its own survival as a national governing body on several fronts, fending off efforts to provide monthly stipends to scholarship athletes, to allow schools to reimburse athletes for the “full cost of attendance” including a cash allowance, or even to pay salaries. Meanwhile, a lawsuit by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon seeks to allow players to benefit from the licensing of their images for merchandise and products such as video games and may morph into a class action potentially requiring schools to share TV revenue with student-athletes.

Paying athletes is where White draws the line. “I have an appetite for considering full cost of attendance,” he says. “But when you start talking about paying college athletes, I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon.”

“Lurking behind all this is, as you professionalize the activity, the reasons for treating it as an amateur activity get weaker and weaker and weaker,” says Haagen, the law professor. “Many, many, many things are uncertain as we go forward.”

John Gerdy, a former Davidson basketball star and SEC deputy commissioner, scratches his head over what Duke is doing in the context of these national trends. “I was always under the impression that Duke fashioned itself as a leader,” he says. “By doubling down on football, they’re just following the pack.

“Will the extra money and time and effort allow you to close the gap between Duke football and Alabama and Florida State and Ohio State and Michigan and Stanford? Is it worth it for a school like Duke to crank in a boatload more resources to try to close that gap? That’s a pretty tall order, particularly considering the trend lines for football: increasingly expensive, increasingly divorced from the academic life and mission of the institution, particularly at the major college level. And then on top of that you’ve got increasing issues with concussions. It’s increasingly viewed as a barbaric sport. It’s going to be increasingly harder to justify.”

“For a variety of reasons it is important institutionally to be at the table. And once you’re at the table, you have to follow the logic of competition.” — Paul Haagen, law professor 

Gerdy expects football’s costs to continue to soar and disputes the notion that Duke can’t have a nationally renowned basketball program without paying the price in football. “If the expenses become so great, and the investment you have to make so high, that it winnows down to sixty-four or seventy football teams nationally, and Duke is not one of those, is that going to destroy the basketball program? Absolutely not. Duke will find a conference that it can play in with schools that want to compete nationally in basketball. It will be perfectly viable.”

It’s clear from their actions as well as their words that Duke officials don’t agree. They are determined to remain involved in intercollegiate athletics at the highest level, ideally as a member of the ACC, and subscribe to the notion that for Duke to continue to thrive in basketball, Duke football must be competitive, or better than that. “We’re relevant right now,” White says. “People are having to recruit against us and prepare for us, and if you don’t, we will beat you.... Next we need to move from relevant to pretty darn good. And we can do that.”

Is there an alternate universe in which Duke gets off the big-time football luxury cruise and embraces basketball as its flagship sport? This is the model being followed by Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova, and the rest of the “Catholic 7,” which broke off from their football-playing brethren and joined three other schools to create a new Big East. The new consortium’s TV contract is worth nearly $42 million a year; that’s roughly a third of what the old conference reportedly would have earned if the football and basketball schools had stayed united.

“If you want to see how important being part of a football conference is to the overall success of [an athletics] department, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens to the Catholic 7,” says Kennedy. “When all this stuff started, we were looking at each other saying, ‘Boy, the Georgetowns and the Providences and the Villanovas are screwed.’ ”

Instead, Duke is choosing to follow the model of Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and, yes, Notre Dame, all of which have gone bowling in the past decade.

“Why not ratchet down the level?” asks Haagen, playing devil’s—not the Devils’— advocate. “Why do you want to be one of the sixty-four teams? If you are competing with the sixty-four, and you are at least moderately successful, then this becomes a proposition that actually pays for itself. Risks are high—you’re putting money into facilities, you’re running the risk of scandal—the risks are not trivial. But trying to compete at a level other than the top is extremely expensive, because people don’t watch, there is no national media attention, and then we get beyond that to the practical question: Is there another group of like-minded schools that wants to operate [a football team] at this reduced, controlled-competition level, and is the controlled competition stable?

“For a variety of reasons it is important institutionally to be at the table. And once you’re at the table, you have to follow the logic of competition.”

Back on the football field, Cutcliffe has set an ambitious goal for this year’s team: Go to a second consecutive bowl game, something Duke has never done. Despite losing Renfree and All-ACC wide receiver Conner Vernon ’12 to graduation, Duke has a friendly enough schedule and Cutcliffe’s recruiting pipeline is prolific enough that another six-win season or better is a possibility.

“We’ve had so much done for us, and so many people have contributed to what we’re doing here with Duke football, the least we can do is come back with a fire in our belly and a vengeance about winning,” Cutcliffe says in what amounts to a stump speech. “That’s what I’m selling our players. The first five years are gone. A lot of people have been involved in helping this thing get off the ground. Now it’s on us.”

The Blue Devils may not win an ACC title anytime soon, but for the first time in a long time, they’re good enough.

Still, the question remains: Is that good enough for Duke?

Scher ’84 is an editor at and a member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board. He still has a piece of the goalpost from Duke’s 23-17 win over UNC in Red Wilson’s final game as head coach.