I direct those words first and foremost to Duke football Coach David Cutcliffe and to his players. Never, for one moment, did I imagine that Duke could find itself with an 8-2 record in mid-November and a chance to play in the ACC championship game.
But that’s exactly where Duke is after beating Miami, 48-30 , in Durham, N.C., on Saturday. Read those words again: “DUKE BEAT MIAMI IN FOOTBALL.” This is no less shocking than reading the words, “DAN SNYDER ADMITTED HE WAS WRONG.” Or, taking it a step further: “THE WIZARDS COMPLETED A FOUR-GAME PLAYOFF SWEEP OF THE MIAMI HEAT.”
Can’t happen. But it did.
I also direct my mea culpa to those at Duke — and, honestly, there aren’t many of them — who insisted that Duke could return to football respectability while playing in the ACC. Sadly, the person who was most insistent that I was wrong, my late, great friend, Bill Brill, isn’t here to accept my apology. Brill graduated from Duke in 1954, covered the ACC for almost 50 years and never gave up the notion that Duke could compete in football until the day he died in 2011.
I have no doubt though that he’s somewhere, telling people, “I told Fein Coach Cut would get it done, and he didn’t believe me.”
No, I didn’t.
That was no knock on Cutcliffe, who long ago proved himself as a molder of quarterbacks — see the Manning brothers, for starters, who he coached at Tennessee (offensive coordinator when Peyton was there) and at Mississippi (head coach when Eli was there).
I simply didn’t believe that Duke could compete in the ACC anymore and, as a graduate, I thought the school was doing a disservice to those it recruited to play football by throwing players who had no chance to compete to the ACC wolves simply to cash in on the TV and bowl dollars it collected yearly for finishing last in the ACC.
I’m not exaggerating about how bad Duke was prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival in 2008 . In the four seasons that Ted Roof was the head coach, Duke was 4-42. It had not won a game against an ACC opponent since 2004. From 1995 through 2007, Duke went winless four times and won one game twice more. Overall, it was 22-125 and most of the ACC losses were blowouts.
Fred Goldsmith had managed to go 8-4 in 1994. Steve Spurrier did the same five years earlier and was 7-3-1 the previous season. Those were Duke’s only winning seasons in 25 years. Its record against alleged archrival North Carolina since Spurrier’s departure in 1989 until last season was 1-21.
Most of those in charge at Duke didn’t care much about football. The joke became that the most important fall sport at Duke was basketball recruiting — and, even now, that’s probably still the case. The football team had no chance to compete: It didn’t pay coaches nearly enough; the new facility it built was outdated about 15 minutes after it opened; Wallace Wade Stadium had fallen into complete disrepair and the school’s leadership was content to simply let the basketball team fund the athletic department.
My solution in those days was to flee: If you don’t want to do what it takes to compete in the ACC, get out. Soon after Duke went 0-11 in both 2000 and 2001 , I suggested that Duke take the lead in forming what I half-jokingly called Conference SAT, along with schools like Wake Forest, Tulane, Vanderbilt, Army, Navy, SMU, Villanova and Richmond (the latter two are Football Championship Subdivision schools but had shown interest in the Football Bowl Subdivision).
My thinking was that those schools would never reach a BCS bowl, so why not play in a conference where they had a chance to compete?
I was shouted down by Duke people — notably, Brill — not on the basis of competition but (surprise) on the basis of money. Duke couldn’t afford to leave the ACC, and schools in the league were required to compete in both football and basketball. I didn’t buy it. No way would the ACC kick out Duke basketball. It could simply recruit East Carolina to replace Duke football — if it even needed to replace it.
There was, however, the issue of the BCS money and the TV money Duke was receiving each season as an ACC member. I didn’t have an answer for that, although part of my suggestion included a rule that the Conference SAT schools would only fund 65 scholarships, not 85. This would mean playing a less-challenging non-conference schedule, but that’s what most of those schools have done in recent years, anyway.
Duke’s nonconference schedule this season: North Carolina Central; Memphis; Troy and Navy.
So, I wasn’t completely wrong.
My mistake was that I underestimated the difference a great coach can make. There are plenty of examples of this: Jim Grobe turned Wake Forest from almost as much of a doormat as Duke into a competitive program that peaked with the Orange Bowl bid but has been solid most seasons since he arrived. Paul Johnson took over a Navy team that had gone 0-10 in 2001 and was in a bowl in his second season. Ken Niumatalolo has picked up the mantle and, on Saturday, Navy qualified for its 10th bowl in 11 seasons— which is remarkable at a school with Navy’s academic and military requirements, even in this era of bowl glut. James Franklin (sorry, Maryland fans) is about to take Vanderbilt to a third straight bowl. The Commodores had been to four bowls in history — and just one in 29 years — before his arrival.
What Cutcliffe has done is at least as remarkable. Duke has been aided greatly this season by not playing Florida State or Clemson, the ACC’s two legitimate teams. But for the Blue Devils to win at Virginia Tech and to beat Miami for the first time since 1976 is stunning. Duke has never been to back-to-back bowls. It has never won 10 games in a season, but now has a chance — if it can win at Wake Forest and at North Carolina (or in a bowl game) — to do so.
No one is claiming Duke could come within 50 points of Florida State should it somehow make the ACC championship game, but no matter what the Blue Devils do the rest of the season, nothing can change this fact: Cutcliffe has done one of the greatest coaching jobs anyplace at any level in recent memory.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.