The worst year for Duke Athletics in 3 decades?
Some years are better for Duke Athletics than others, a natural phenomenon for an athletic department with 26 varsity teams.
But rarely has that distinction been so easy to discern as in 2016, which was arguably the worst year for Blue Devil programs in 30 years.
Despite Duke rowing reaching its first-ever NCAA championship and baseball returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1961, a combination of bad timing, down-trending programs and off years from the usual heavyweights made 2016 a year to forget.
For one, there is arguably the most glaring statistic—the lack of an ACC championship.
From 1988 to 2014, the Blue Devils earned at least one ACC postseason championship each year, or regular-season championship in sports with no postseason championships. In fact, Duke earned 3.3 per year on average.
But in 2015, that streak ended. In 2016, Blue Devil teams did not win an ACC title for a second straight year, though field hockey was the nation's top-ranked team for much of the year and won the ACC regular-season title.
The ACC title drought falls into a broader trend of decreasing performance in recent years.
Another metric of contending on a national level, NCAA postseason success, also declined for the Blue Devils.
Duke captured no NCAA team championships—freshman women's golfer Virginia Elena Carta did win the individual title—and for the first time in 16 years had only one team, women's golf, finish in the top four nationally.
Even across the board, the Blue Devils struggled just making the NCAA tournament or its equivalent.
In 2011, 19 Duke teams made the NCAA tournament or NCAA championship, but there has been a decreasing trend since then. In 2016, only 14 Duke teams reached the NCAA postseason, and there have not been fewer since 2003, when the NCAA tournament field was smaller for sports like rowing and lacrosse.
For some fans, perhaps the most discouraging statistic may be the performance of so-called "revenue sports," the three Blue Devil sports that receive the most media attention and have the greatest expenses, according to data from the Department of Education.
Duke men's basketball suffered more losses, 11, than it ever had since 2006-07, then lost in the Sweet 16 a year after winning the national championship.
The football team missed the postseason for the first time in five years, finishing 4-8 despite upsetting then-No. 15 North Carolina.
Women's basketball missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 22 years, and at one point in February both the men's and women's basketball teams were unranked for the first time in 30 years.
As a whole, nine Blue Devil teams either did not reach the NCAA tournament or championship after making it the previous season or ended their postseason runs at least two rounds earlier than in the previous year. By contrast, only four teams improved by those same margins.
So why the decrease in performance?
One might think it is related to newer coaches, but in fact newer coaches at Duke have also largely been responsible for the improved teams, whereas the teams that performed worse in 2016 than 2015 all had coaches in at least their seventh year.
Baseball, women's outdoor track and field and rowing—which all reached the NCAA tournament or championship in 2016 but not 2015—featured head coaches in their fourth season or less.
Instead, the reason seems to be twofold.
For one, there was just really bad luck, in a way, for the Blue Devils. The teams that have been stable throughout the past six years remained stable in production in 2016 from an NCAA tournament standpoint.
There were four exceptions to this, but two were improvements and two decreases in performance, cancelling out.
Yet of the teams at Duke that have been inconsistent since 2011—reaching the NCAA tournament at least twice but not more than four times—all six of them missed the NCAA tournament in 2016. From 2011 to 2015 they averaged a combined 3.4 postseason appearances per year.
Does this spell trouble for the Blue Devils going forward?
It does not necessarily. One could say Duke was due for missing the NCAA tournament, as it was one of only two schools to earn at least one ACC championship each year from 1988 to 2014.
Still, the Blue Devils' consecutive years without ACC championships are more alarming. The only schools that have also done so since 1988 are the same schools that tend to represent the lower tier of ACC athletics—Boston College, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Miami, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh.
The takeaway for a Duke fan might just be tempered judgement of the athletics program as a whole as a result of conference expansion. Both sharp dips in the chart above coincide with the ACC adding more teams, as Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College joined the league in 2004 and 2005 and Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville were added in 2013 and 2014.
The Blue Devils' 18th-place average in the Directors Cup since it was created in 1994 is strong, but not the top-10 potential it has reached in various years. The limited success, in a way, has been ingrained into the Duke psyche since 2002.
That year, then-athletic director Joe Alleva created a mission statement for the athletics department that drew criticism for not being ambitious enough. "We do not believe that we need to fundamentally change what we are attempting to do or how we are attempting it," it concludes.
Moreover, the Blue Devils' 2.9 conference championships per year since 1984 ranked fourth among the ACC, but a far cry from North Carolina's 4.7 average.
Perhaps Duke can turn the ship around in 2017, which it already appears primed to do with the recent success of women's basketball and the depth of talent on the men's team.
But if they and other Blue Devil teams do not excel as a whole again, and in coming years, perhaps that will raise broader, more serious questions for Duke Athletics.