Coaching Duke football a family affair for Roper brothers
Growing up, Zac Roper would complain to his parents that his older brother Kurt would not let him play in backyard football games. Nearly three decades later, the Roper brothers share the sidelines as members of the Duke coaching staff.
Kurt Roper, the Blue Devils’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Zac Roper, the team’s special teams coordinator and tight ends coach, grew up around football. After serving as a graduate assistant for Bear Bryant at Alabama, their father, Bobby, served as a coach at a number of college programs including Iowa State, Tennessee, Oregon State and Texas A&M.
It did not take long before both Kurt and Zac decided what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“From the moment I can remember, I knew that I wanted to be a college football coach,” Kurt said. “There was no question what I wanted to do—I just wanted to be like my dad.”
Backyard football games in the Roper household were intense, but a few bruises and scrapes along the way could not stop both Kurt and Zac from developing a passion for the game to which their father had dedicated his life.
Kurt starred as a quarterback and went on to play at Rice. Finding a way to join in the neighborhood games, Zac decided to be his older brother’s wide receiver.
Following his college football career, Kurt began working as a graduate assistant at Tennessee, where he worked alongside current Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. Zac worked as an undergraduate assistant at Oklahoma until the Sooner staff was fired after his sophomore year, putting his job in limbo.
That same summer Cutcliffe took his first head coaching job at Ole Miss, and asked Kurt to serve as his quarterbacks coach. Upon accepting the position, Kurt knew just the guy to help fill out Cutcliffe’s staff—his brother Zac transferred to Ole Miss to finish out his undergraduate degree alongside Cutcliffe and his brother.
“In this profession you are away from family a lot,” Kurt said. “Whenever you can have a little piece of family with you in this job, that’s hard to get in many places. So I feel fortunate that I get to work with my brother.”
After six years working together at Ole Miss, the brothers went their separate ways in 2005. Zac Roper took a job at Cornell, and Kurt went to Kentucky to coach for Rich Brooks for one season.
Cutcliffe and Kurt returned to Tennessee for two seasons before the duo was struck with a severe case of deja vu. Ten years after Cutcliffe had landed his first head coaching job at Ole Miss, he was offered another one at Duke.
Just like he had a decade earlier, Cutcliffe asked Kurt to come with him, this time to serve as offensive coordinator for the Blue Devils. Then Cutcliffe made the same call he had made to Zac 10 years earlier.
“That was a fun conversation, to know that we were all headed to Duke,” Zac said. “We knew we were going to do something special as far as building a program, but we knew we were also going to have the opportunity to build some memories as a family as well.”
Working in Durham gave the aspiring coaches more than just the opportunity to work together—it gave them the opportunity to raise their families together as well. Both Zac and Kurt have a son and a daughter each, but Zac said that sometimes they act much more like brothers and sisters than they do cousins.
“I think the thing that I enjoy most about it is we both have two young kids and they’re growing up together,” Kurt said. “They’re cousins who know each other, and hang out together and love each other. And that, to me, is one of the most rewarding things to watch.”
As Duke hopes to repeat last year’s bowl appearance, both Ropers will be presented with challenges in the Blue Devils’ upcoming season. Kurt is responsible for the development of first-year starter Anthony Boone, and Zac will adjust to a new position this year, taking over the role of special teams coordinator and tight ends coach from Ron Middleton, who departed for the NFL during the offseason.
But as the pair continues to coach together and raise their families together, they said they can see their children starting to catch the football fever as well.
“It’s just kind of a family business,” Zac said. “Some people’s families are politicians, some people are lawyers, some people are businessmen—we’re a family of football coaches.”