Duke enjoying rare success under Cutcliffe

The last time Duke played in a bowl game, Seinfeld edged ER as the top-rated television show in America.

“Creep” by TLC was the top-charting song, “Dumb and Dumber” was the highest-grossing movie at the box office, gas was $1.09 per gallon and the optical disc storage media format, otherwise known as a DVD, was introduced.

That was Jan. 1, 1995. That afternoon, Duke lost to Wisconsin, 34-20, in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa. The defeat ended Fred Goldsmith’s first season at the helm at Duke, and expectations soared that postseason trips would become the norm. 

But the standard instead turned into a heap of winless seasons and apathy so damaging that radio talk shows hosts sometimes joked Duke would have been better off dumping the program altogether.

When David Cutcliffe took the job five years ago, however, he saw it as an opportunity. And in one of the most impressive building jobs done in recent memory, Cutcliffe has the Blue Devils heading to Charlotte to take on Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 27.

This is a monumental accomplishment for Cutcliffe, but he sees it as the beginning, not a culmination of any kind. And that his team is playing in its home state is also important.

Previous Duke coaches didn’t recruit North Carolina much for various reasons, but not Cutcliffe. As a former assistant at Tennessee, he knew the state had plenty of talent, particularly the western part, which the Volunteers hit pretty hard. At Duke, Cutcliffe has done the same thing.

There were only eight in-state scholarship players at Duke when he took over, yet 28 will dot the roster when the Blue Devils suit up against the Bearcats at Bank of America Stadium. Cutcliffe didn’t shun in-state talent, he embraced it.

“We’re proud of our home state,” he said earlier this week. 

Playing in Charlotte also brings back an interesting note in Duke’s once-proud football history: The Blue Devils were a respected national program finishing in 10 final national rankings from 1936-47. And on Jan. 1, 1942, Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium hosted the Rose Bowl, the only time the game has been played outside of Pasadena, Calif. Just a month after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, fear that the large crowd and noteworthiness of the game could be a target, officials moved the game to Durham. 

The Devils lost to Oregon State that day, 20-16.

The Belk Bowl is Duke’s first postseason game in North Carolina since that historic Rose Bowl. 

Cutcliffe would like for this opportunity to signify a different moment in time, though. Duke will have only 27 juniors and seniors next season, so the rest of the players will be freshmen and sophomores, most of whom will learn from this month’s experience. 

“That makes you turn backflips if you’re an old coach,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s significant this battle toward bowl eligibility because you’ve got to take this step to take the next one, particularly when you’ve been where we’ve been for so long.”

Duke (6-6) is an underdog to Cincinnati (9-3), which is dealing with losing former coach Butch Jones to Tennessee, a job Cutcliffe would have been a strong candidate for if interested, but he alerted the folks in Knoxville as soon as the job opened he wasn’t interested. He made the decision for various reasons. Perhaps quality of life in central North Carolina is tough to part from. Maybe coaching with little pressure, especially at age 58, also had something to do with it. 

But Cutcliffe genuinely loves Duke. 

He appreciates the school’s mission, its commitment to football and he embraces what basketball does for football by giving the school national identity. Most of all, Cutcliffe is immensely proud of what he’s built.

Mississippi ran off Cutcliffe despite a 44-29 record and overall winning percentage in the SEC. So taking Duke to a bowl game is vindication to a degree, but how he’s done it is what fuels the coach. 

Cutcliffe recently said this Duke bunch is the “most self-motivated” team he’s ever coached. And for them to have that disposition despite two decades of losing speaks volumes about the resiliency of the program – and just how much of Cutcliffe’s DNA is imbedded. 

No matter what happens against the Bearcats, Cutcliffe has already achieved a great deal in bringing the program this far.