All that, though, couldn’t prepare Cutcliffe for when he finally got a look at his new team in January 2008, a story he still prefaces with: “You’re not gonna believe this.”
“I thought we were the softest, fattest football team I’d ever seen,” Cutcliffe said this week. “Collectively, that team . . . lost 497 pounds.”
Five years later, Cutcliffe, 58, can joke about those meatier days on campus with Duke off to its best start (5-1) since 1994, one win away from ending an 18-year bowl drought when it visits Virginia Tech on Saturday.
He is just 20-34 during his stay in Durham, N.C., but even that doesn’t obscure the unfamiliar territory in which this long-downtrodden program — one that’s usually an afterthought by the time Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s men’s basketball team begins practice — now finds itself. The Blue Devils went 6-45 under Cutcliffe’s predecessor, Ted Roof, and haven’t authored back-to-back winning seasons since Steve Spurrier was coach in 1988 and 1989.
“Right now around campus, it’s just electric,” senior defensive lineman Kenny Anunike said. “The tide has truly turned and we’re finishing games now.”
Cutcliffe, who had previously been the offensive coordinator at Tennessee and compiled a 44-29 record in seven seasons as head coach at Mississippi, immediately embraced the challenges at a school where the football team had long been a punch line.
Known as a quarterback guru who groomed both Manning brothers in college, Cutcliffe built this program on discipline and conditioning, knowing well that recruiting would be tough at a school where basketball and academics will always be the focus. Hence, the nearly 500-pound weight loss.
But he also sold players on a vision that foresaw Duke as something more than a perennial bottom feeder, and received a renewed commitment from the administration. Just last week, Duke announced it would provide $250 million for athletic facility upgrades, most of which will go toward renovating Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils’ home since 1929.
“We all came into this knowing the situation, knowing the status of Duke football. We all had the same goals in mind. We wanted to change the culture here,” said redshirt junior cornerback Ross Cockerell, who currently leads the ACC in pass break-ups.
Added wide receiver Conner Vernon, who became the ACC’s all-time leading receiver last week: “I bought into what Coach Cut was telling me, and what he told me four years ago, to see it come to life has been great.”
What’s remarkable about this fast start is that Duke has done it despite several key injuries. After five years of Cutcliffe’s recruiting classes, depth within the program is much stronger than before. Just last week, backup quarterback Anthony Boone threw four touchdown passes in a 42-17 thrashing of Virginia with starter Sean Renfree nursing an elbow injury.
Considering Duke hadn’t won a home game in nearly three years when Cutcliffe took the job, its 5-1 record is certainly evidence of progress. But the Blue Devils are wary of declaring this gridiron renaissance complete.
Back in 2009, Duke was also one win away from a bowl, sporting a 5-3 record in Cutcliffe’s second campaign. But it finished the season with four straight losses. Last year the Blue Devils were 3-2 before losing seven consecutive games to close the year.
Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech is the first of four in a row against bowl teams from a year ago. Duke’s five wins have come over teams with a combined record of 10-18.
Cutcliffe says his team is “starved” for postseason play, and he hasn’t made the topic off limits this week. After all, players like Cockerell, Vernon and Anunike were just three or four years old the last time Duke was this good.
“It’s on our minds. It’s no secret. This is the closest we’ve ever been towards that goal,” Cockerell said. “But we haven’t arrived yet. We’re not there yet. We haven’t jumped that hurdle. We understand how quickly the season can change.”