DURHAM, NC — Conner Vernon didn’t want to join in the celebratory scrum rapidly mushrooming in the middle of the football field at Wallace Wade Stadium late Saturday night.
He wanted to take it in. He wanted to soak in the euphoria that filled this old place that once played host to a Rose Bowl.
Why? The senior wide receiver and his Duke teammates just pulled off a thrilling 33-30 victory over arch-rival North Carolina.
But the win was more than finally beating the Tar Heels, who had taken 21 of the past 22 meetings in the series. It was a lot more. It was the Blue Devils’ sixth victory of the season — against two defeats — and for the first time since 1994, Duke is bowl eligible.
“It was a sight to see,” Vernon said of the sea of students, older fans and players dancing, high-fiving, and hugging.
The victory was in part a culmination of a process that began when David Cutcliffe was hired five years ago to restore Duke’s program to respectability. Many men have been charged with that responsibility, though few have come close to accomplishing the mission.
Cutcliffe, however, is different. He came from a football world that wasn’t the same as many of the coaches before him. He’s an SEC guy: Played for Bear Bryant at Alabama; offensive coordinator at Tennessee; head coach at Ole Miss. The man is southern football through and through.
But he’s also a people person. In fact, if ranking Cut’s attributes, that comes long before his football qualities. He’s a good man, and he’s a good salesman.
When Cutcliffe arrived at Duke, the program was an absolute mess. It had won two games over the previous three seasons, and 10 over its previous eight campaigns. From 1994 to 2007, Duke went winless four times overall and eight times in the ACC.
Cutcliffe believed in Duke, though. Unable to sleep the night before his interview, Cutcliffe drove over night from Tennessee and arrived on campus long before the morning light. So he walked around taking in everything and thinking about his future.
“When you walk Duke’s campus in the dark in the wee hours of the morning, there’s a lot to see, there’s a lot of tradition here,” Cutcliffe said. “Wallace Wade, I’d never seen it, just impressed me sitting there quietly. … I just had a good feeling when I was there.”
He called his wife following the interview telling her he would take the job. She reminded him it hadn’t been offered.
“It will,” he replied.
But a coach needs players in order to win. And Cutcliffe secured a couple of skill guys who could have gone just about anywhere, but quarterback Sean Renfree and Vernon believed in him. They bought in. …
… Which brings us back to Vernon and why he delayed his personal celebration following the emotional victory.
“I took it all in and was thankful,” said Vernon, the ACC’s all-time leading receiver with 243 catches in his career. “That’s why I came to Duke to see coach Cutliffe’s vision finally unfold. For me to be a part of it is incredible.”
The ride wasn’t so incredible.
Duke went 4-8 in Cutcliffe’s first season and 5-7 in Year 2 but fell to 3-9 each of the last two campaigns. Yet, while it wasn’t showing up in the standings, Duke was making progress. Its losses were by narrower margins and it was building depth. Quality recruiting will do that.
Even in a season that has included a plethora of injuries, the Blue Devils have managed to persevere and march on. They did that after UNC scored three consecutive touchdowns in the final quarter to take a 30-26 lead on a crazy play with 3:12 left on the clock.
But Duke didn’t wilt like it had so many times to so many teams. Cutcliffe told his troops the Tar Heels had left too much time on the clock.
“We have them right where we want them,” the coach barked.
Jamison Crowder’s 5-yard touchdown reception from Renfree with 13 seconds left sealed the deal, making Blue Devil history, as Duke is headed to just its third bowl game since 1961.
“It’s impossible for me to describe,” Renfree said. “There’s been so many frustrating times in my career here and things have been tough. For us to come together as a team like this and do something special, I’m just lucky to be a part of this.”
Duke actually has plenty more to play for. It could still represent the Coastal Division in the ACC title game, but first things first.
This program, university and community are allowed to soak this in any way they can, just like Vernon did. It’s been a long time coming.