“We’re going to learn from it, we’ll see some great things, but it’s going to be a great opportunity for us to get better as a team,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said with his smooth, Alabama drawl, one so befitting of a football coach that it seems like he was born for the profession.
His Blue Devils had just won, 52-13, in a romp against an overmatched Elon team that saw star quarterback Anthony Boone throw four touchdown passes and wideout Jamison Crowder pull in seven receptions. But there were no high-fives or hype, because Cutcliffe still had his eyes on improvement.
The Duke coach made major strides in turning the program around in 2012 and 2013, leading the perennial losers to consecutive bowl games for the first time. On the heels of the winningest season in the program’s 92-year history, one filled with winless campaigns and last-place finishes, Cutcliffe looks to continue to change the culture in Durham, N.C.
Cutcliffe came to Duke in 2008 with an impressive resume. He recruited Peyton Manning to play at the University of Tennessee, where Cutcliffe was the offensive coordinator. He found quarterback gold again after taking over the head coaching reins at Mississippi in 1998, luring Eli Manning to play in his system a year later. Cutcliffe lead the Rebels to four bowl games in six seasons and posted a 44-26 record.
When Eli moved on to the NFL in 2004, though, the team slumped through a 4-8 season, Cutcliffe’s first losing campaign as a head coach. When he allegedly refused to fire any assistants after the dreadful season, Ole Miss dropped him instead.
It took him three years to get offered to coach another program, but he faced a tough task ahead of him at Duke.
The Blue Devils won 13 games from 1999 to 2007, the nine full seasons between Cutcliffe’s start at Ole Miss and his first day at Duke. When he arrived, they practiced on a 75-yard long football field outdoors and didn’t have an indoor facility. The university agreed to upgrade the facilities when they hired Cutcliffe, leading to the Pascal Field House—a $6 million, state-of-the-art practice facility (with a regulation-size field) that opened in 2011. Renovations to 85-year-old Wallace Wade Stadium are on track to be completed for 2015.
Duke floundered in Cutcliffe’s first four years, but he continued to preach confidence. He’d tell recruits that the Blue Devils would contend for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship—and he’d be serious. His squad bought into the system, and broke through in 2012, earning their first bowl bid since 1994. The team followed up in 2013 with a 10-2 regular season record, their first winning season since 1994, and clinched their first ACC Coastal Division title thanks to a fast-paced offense. Quarterback Anthony Boone completed 64 percent of his passes. Wideout Jamison Crowder led the ACC with 108 receptions, seven more than Clemson star Sammy Watkins. Running back Josh Snead averaged 6.1 yards per carry.
Even the defense, a notable weakness for Cutcliffe’s squad, improved from Swiss cheese—ranked 111 in the nation in 2012—to mild cheddar—ranked 65 in 2013.
It’s a critical year for the program, with expectations higher than ever. But they’re poised to build on last season’s success, with 15 starters, including seniors Boone, Crowder, and Snead, returning to prove that Duke isn’t a fluke.
It’s a daunting undertaking for a squad that hopes to return to the ACC Championship game, but Cutcliffe keeps them grounded, reminding his team that there’s always room for improvement and not to rest on their laurels.
Despite the immediate success—be it two bowl appearances or a blowout against Elon—Cutcliffe looks to the future. When he first came to Durham, Dec. 15, 2007, he wanted to forge a new legacy. “Years from now I want to look back and say, look at what we did; we did make a difference,” he said in an introductory press conference. “That’s what we came here to do.”
His Blue Devils are right on track.