Cutcliffe mentor for life to Peyton, Eli Manning
DURHAM, NC — Peyton Manning knew where to turn when facing the most difficult challenge of his professional football life. It was time to go home.
Not home as in Louisiana to work with his father, Archie, a former NFL great. But rather to work with the man who knows Peyton Manning's right arm better than anyone; a man who has been there in some capacity as he has gone from a big-time high school prospect to one of the greatest quarterbacks the game has known.
Manning went to Duke University.
Yes, the future Hall of Famer with a Super Bowl ring played at Tennessee, not Duke. But his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from those days with the Volunteers, David Cutcliffe, is currently the Blue Devils' head coach. And when Manning, 36, suddenly found himself without a team after being let go by the Indianapolis Colts this past winter after a neck injury cost him the entire 2011 season, he turned to Cutcliffe.
"The only guy for me to go see at that time was David Cutcliffe,'' Manning said. "He's a guy that has known more about my throwing motion and quarterback mechanics than anyone throughout my career.''
As for that going home part?
"It's kind of in some ways like going home,'' Manning said. "Like golfers (going) back to that swing coach (they) always knew.''
Manning's goal was to fine-tune his form and eventually work out for prospective NFL teams. Cutcliffe opened the Duke facilities, allowing Manning full access. But there was one caveat: Duke was soon entering spring practice, so Cutcliffe's first priority was to his team. Manning gushes with gratitude for his mentor's willingness to help.
"That he would give me the time and energy and make me a Duke football player for the time — I'm still a Tennessee Vol, no question about it — but it just tells you about the kind of person he is,'' the pupil said.
"The thing is, as much time as he gave me, it never took away from his football team. That he was multitasking tells you how much of a load he can carry.''
They hit it off right away
Nearly 20 years ago, Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer, assistant coach Randy Sanders and Cutcliffe made an in-home visit with the highly touted Manning.
The coaches went through the usual pitch, but they also spent quite a bit of time talking about things unrelated to football. Something stood out that evening to Archie Manning, though. After the coaches left, he told his wife, Olivia, he couldn't recall Fulmer saying much of anything to Peyton. Dad was a bit perplexed.
Fulmer called Archie the next day acknowledging he hadn't spoken with Peyton much because Peyton and Cutcliffe were hitting it off so well he didn't want to "mess it up.'' Fulmer was smart, because Manning and Cutcliffe were already developing a bond.
Knoxville, Tenn., is a long way from New Orleans, and at times young Peyton got a little homesick. Cutcliffe, though, opened his home to players when other students were gone, and Peyton became a regular visitor. He even babysat a few times.
As for Eli Manning, winning quarterback in two Super Bowls for the New York Giants, he chose to play his college ball at Mississippi after Cutcliffe was named head coach there in 1998. Manning had narrowed his choices to Texas, Virginia and Ole Miss, where his fathered starred, but Cutcliffe's relationship with Eli's older brother and the family's implicit trusted in the coach were key factors.
" 'Cut' is a great guy, a great person, a great quarterbacks coach — an unbelievable quarterbacks coach — and a fine man,'' Archie Manning said. "I respect him a great deal.''
Archie wasn't as hands-on with his sons as some might expect from a former pro. He worked with Eli, Peyton and Cooper, whose career was cut short because of an accident. Archie never interfered when his quarterbacks left for college. He showed Cutcliffe the ultimate in trust.
"Archie is maybe the finest example of a parent of an athlete that you could get,'' Cutcliffe said. "He gave them the things that mattered most, and that is what's inside them. Their character — certainly their DNA helps, and they got that from Olivia, too. But I'm not talking about (just) DNA.
"Archie taught them the importance of learning, the importance of respecting their elders, if you will — their teachers.''
As students under Cutcliffe, and even to this day, the Manning boys are note-takers. They filled so many notepads during meetings, Cutcliffe said, one couldn't possibly count them. He also described them as "sponges.'' They expressed their respect and trust for coaches through their actions.
Strengthening the bond
Cutcliffe's job as mentor to the Mannings didn't end when they left for the riches of the NFL. If anything, their relationships have since grown in many ways.
Peyton has periodically sent Cutcliffe film to review during his career, knowing he will always get critically honest feedback. He still does some of the drills Cutcliffe taught him in the mid-1990s and also prepares somewhat the same. Peyton wants to go into every game feeling as he did in college, when he had a sense of calm that allowed everything to slow down on the field.
"From a preparation standpoint,'' Peyton said, "there's nothing more he could have done to get me ready to play every Saturday.''
That's why, when Eli needed to work out during last year's NFL lockout and when Peyton faced his most recent football crisis, they chose Cutcliffe to help them move forward. Eli responded to one of his worst seasons by winning a Super Bowl. Peyton's career remains intact.
Cutcliffe knew how to handle the sensitive situations because he knows the young men so well.
"He's been a big part of my family for some time,'' Peyton said of Cutcliffe. "And he and I have stayed close since I graduated.''
Good for Duke
The Mannings and Cutcliffe are obviously big winners in this relationship. Everyone benefits from it. But as Cutcliffe enters his fifth season as the Blue Devils' head coach, it's not a stretch to suggest Duke is getting something significant out of the relationship, too.
Eli received some press last summer when he worked out at Duke during the NFL lockout. And Peyton's time in Durham as he prepared for workouts with the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos drew national coverage, often as the top sports story of the day.
Major sports networks had their television cameras at Duke, showing the facilities during workouts and even conducting interviews with Cutcliffe, who made sure to wear a Duke shirt every time. The fascinating thing about all this is that the Mannings, who are as close to football royalty as there is, teamed up in times of need with perhaps the least successful BCS program of the past 30 years.
"It's quite an endorsement,'' Archie Manning said.
It certainly is. And the relationships might have had a positive impact on Duke's program.
This isn't the same old Duke that has served as a punching bag for the rest of the ACC for so long. The Blue Devils have a man at the helm so respected by a pair of the sport's biggest stars that it only makes sense to expect a residual effect of some kind.
Cutcliffe has averaged nearly four wins per season in four campaigns compared with the 2.3 victories the program averaged in the 18 seasons before his hiring — and that includes eight wins in 1994.
Perhaps more telling is the competitiveness of the losses. The Devils rarely get blown out anymore, as evidenced by a 14-7 loss to Virginia Tech a year ago. The program is trending forward, and having the Mannings around certainly helps — even if Duke was just the backdrop to Peyton's comeback.
"This has certainly helped generate some enthusiasm and interest in the program around this campus,'' Cutcliffe said, acknowledging the exposure. " . . . It's shown in California. It's shown everywhere.''
But Cutcliffe says it was more than that. He takes tremendous pride in his relationship with the Mannings. He knows it validates him as a quarterbacks coach and football mind, and he's fine with that. The coach is quite comfortable telling it like it is.
"If you know what you're talking about and you're not a pretender, then you gain people's confidence,'' Cutcliffe said. "I'm not an arrogant person, but I know what I'm talking about. I know what we expect. I know how we train quarterbacks/football players to be mechanically sound, fundamentally sound and also way beyond that, students of the game and also a student of life.''
Cutcliffe wants to sell the Mannings' experience with him to prospective recruits without overdoing it. He is wise to use it to his advantage. The ultimate goal is that he wants the relationships with all of his players to be the cornerstone of their college experiences.
"I think it's good for Duke football that we've gotten a lot of attention, a lot of words,'' Cutcliffe said. "I would hope coaches — particularly young coaches everywhere — understand why something like that happens. It's because of trust. And the only way to get somebody to trust you that much is that relationship's got to be real."
Peyton and Eli Manning aren't the only former players of Cutcliffe's to maintain a special bond with the coach.
Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton once played quarterback for Cutcliffe at Tennessee. In fact, Helton started a few games before Manning took over as a freshman in 1994. Helton worked out for five days at Duke before heading to spring training in February.
Cutcliffe admittedly knows nothing about teaching the potential Hall of Famer how to hit a curveball, but Helton's time at Duke was about more than mechanics. Learning is about the environment. It goes back to that trust Cutcliffe spoke about. Helton just wanted to spend some time where he knew he could get his mind right and ready to attack the long grind that is a Major League Baseball season.
Cutcliffe has maintained relationships with other former Volunteer QBs, such as Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler and Tee Martin. It's what he does.
"It tells you he's not just there to coach you, he's there to be your mentor and your friend,'' said Peyton Manning, who eventually signed with the Broncos.
Archie Manning was asked about the relationship helping Duke's program. He paused and gave it some thought before answering, then spoke like a father who swears by his sons' mentor. Whatever good it does for Duke is not much on his radar when it's that personal.
"I hope so,'' he said. "I don't think it's on purpose, the friendship is genuine. But maybe it can help some.''
And that's how strong the bonds are and why this fascinating union of the Mannings and the head football coach at Duke is so intriguing. Cutcliffe could be anywhere and their relationship would be the same. But he's at Duke, and he might be there for a while.
Peyton and Eli join him along the baseline at famed Cameron Indoor Stadium for North Carolina-Duke basketball games. They use the facilities, serve as models for current Duke assistant coaches and players.
And they validate a coach who is always there for them, just as he is for his players. The Mannings aren't going to win the Blue Devils any games, but the vibe they lend the program sure doesn't hurt.