Last season, Duke went to its first bowl game since 1994, and the program is virtually unrecognizable from the one head coach David Cutcliffe took over in 2007.
Even with Duke returning 16 starters and 46 lettermen from last year, the Blue Devils still were picked to finish last by the media at ACC Kickoff a few weeks ago in Greensboro.
“It makes me realize that there’s still a lot of culture work left to do. We’ve worked awfully hard on just changing the culture, the mentality, the entire thought process,” Cutcliffe said. “Knowing that this could happen in January, I went back to — what are our expectations? And I really focused on that with our team.”
“I really want our team to understand that our expectations are far more important and should be far tougher than anyone else’s expectations.”
The kind of turnaround he’s been able to make happen at Duke is far from complete, of course. But the numbers are staggering.
From 2000-07 — eight seasons — Duke won 10 games and lost 82. From 2008-12 — five seasons — Cutcliffe has more than doubled that win total (Duke is 21-40 in that span). The Blue Devils were 3-61 in the ACC from 2000-07 and are 9-31 since Cutcliffe took over.
Just about the only thing Cutcliffe hasn’t improved upon in that span is November wins. Duke had three from 2000-07 and just one under Cutcliffe — which came in 2010. Last year, Duke started off 5-1 and had a chance to win the Coastal Division at one point, but finished 1-6 and lost its final five games.
With November freshest on the minds of the ACC media, they slotted Duke in last place. As is expected in sports, athletes are fueled by slights, perceived or real. Last year’s leading rusher Jela Duncan is no different.
“It motivates us a lot because people don’t know what we’re capable of,” Duncan said. “To me, I like being the underdog because it shows people that they don’t know what they have in store when they’re about to play us. It just lets us know that they’re sleeping on us.”
Cutcliffe, though, wants to use it in a different way.
“I do use it for motivation, but it’s a little different than what you might think,” Cutcliffe said. “We haven’t earned anything if we haven’t earned a November respect. So my deal is if you don’t like the way it tastes, don’t drink it anymore. If you don’t like the way it feels, if you don’t like the results you’re getting, change what you’re doing.”
Quarterback Anthony Boone sees it that way. He said he doesn’t play to try to prove the media wrong. Boone, though, is part of a group of athletes plenty of other big-time schools coveted.
They didn’t come to Duke because they wanted preseason adulation. Cutcliffe has welcomed players who embrace the challenge of rebuilding Duke football and changing the program’s perception and image. Finding consistency this year is one step in that process, and an important one.
When Boone and his teammates leave Duke, they want the program to be at a place in which it’s not automatically the default last place team in preseason polls. It seems meaningless, and it is, ultimately. But it’s part of the process.
“That’s the reason I came here. I could have went to any other big school that had a winning tradition,” Boone said. “I wanted to go to a place where it was a struggle. I wanted to be on a team that had to work to get their respect back. That’s what’s happening and that’s what we’re going to keep continuing to do. I’m looking forward to it.”
In addition to state-of-the-art facility upgrades and a renewed commitment to football by Duke’s administration, Cutcliffe’s teams have played in home games in front of 30,000 or more fans 12 times (compared to four total such games from 2000-07). Changing Duke football, he says, is a group effort, and it includes the fans.
“I said it a year ago, but we won the North Carolina game because of that stadium’s atmosphere,” Cutcliffe said. “I believe in my heart of hearts, none of that ever happens if we don’t have that atmosphere. So we’re calling all hands on deck. That’s kind of the mentality. If we don’t like November’s results, let’s all get involved with it.”
Cutcliffe has looked into all kinds of reasons that his teams have struggled in November, from injuries one year to an outbreak of swine flu in 2009 and everything in between. He’s trying to find just the right balance of how hard he can work his team early in the year during the learning process while still ensuring they have enough in their proverbial tanks to finish the year strong.
And that’s one of Cutcliffe’s biggest points of emphasis this year and every year — finishing. He teaches it in practice, from drill to drill, from play to play. But it has a broader meaning as well. He compared it to a salesman who has a great presentation, works hard and gets to 15 clients in one day, but he can’t close. “What is he at the end of the day? A poor man. He’s broke. And that’s the way I believe,” Cutcliffe said.
When injuries hit, he wants to be better prepared. He wants everyone on his depth chart to be ready to go, because if history is any indication, they may have to be before the year is over.
Building depth has been a challenge at Duke, but Cutcliffe is as close to having real, quality depth at most positions as he has been at any point in his time at Duke.
Whether they be established veterans or young, talented players waiting for their chance, they have to be ready to go if needed. And that’s where Cutcliffe thinks the elusive end-of-season success will come from.
“Championships are won when everybody’s beat up, when you’ve got a few people out that you weren’t expecting to be out, and that ultimately is what August is about,” Cutcliffe said. “If our third-teamers don’t prepare as if they’re a starter in August, and they don’t learn to finish, if these young secondary people don’t learn the proper way, we’ll have another struggle in November.”
“August is probably the most important part of November.”