As Duke President Richard Brodhead navigates his final semester, The Chronicle will be examining his impact on athletics with a series of articles, continuing with one about how athletics impacts the University’s image. Check back in the coming weeks for a final story about sports at Duke Kunshan University, and read about Brodhead’s bond with men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski here, his role in hiring football head coach David Cutcliffe here and his decision to hire Kevin White, vice president and director of athletics, here.
Although there are player safety concerns in modern college football, the enormous revenues make it unlikely that schools will currently consider getting rid of the sport.
But more than 100 years ago, that is exactly what happened at Duke.
After the University—then known as Trinity College—played the first football game in North Carolina in 1888 against its Tobacco Road rival, it stopped playing football from 1895 to 1920 after players around the country were severely injured and even killed.
Eventually, President William Preston Few oversaw the transition from Trinity College to Duke University, and one of his many transformative decisions was to reinstate football and begin a long tradition of using athletics as an advertising tool.
“President Few understood the work of your philosophy professors may have a very enduring mark on the world, but the quickest way to get noticed is through athletics,” Brodhead said.
As the University’s student and faculty numbers skyrocketed, Few prioritized two areas—football and medicine—to quickly put Duke on the map.
Brodhead discussed those decisions in a 2015 faculty address. The University famously hired former Alabama head coach Wallace Wade, the namesake of Duke’s football stadium, to coach its football team starting in 1931. Seven seasons later, the Blue Devils made a Rose Bowl appearance after the “Iron Dukes” held opponents scoreless throughout the regular season.
During the same time period, the Duke School of Medicine became one of the better medical schools in the nation less than a decade after its inception in 1930.
“I just find it incredibly interesting. Stand on the front door of the Allen Building, and you’ve got Duke Medicine 100 paces to the right and Duke Athletics 100 paces to the left,” Brodhead said. “I love the fact that from the new football stadium, you can see back through the whole campus. You can appreciate how sports is part of the University…. None of us would be here if it weren’t for the interlacing of the many choices that were made on different fronts.”
Since the 1930s, several other choices have been made to keep Duke among the nation’s top institutions for both athletically- and academically-inclined students.
‘Very few places could claim that’
When publications or other organizations rank the best colleges in the nation in terms of academics and athletics, Duke is mentioned with Stanford as the top two destinations for prospective students. The organization Niche actually ranked the Blue Devils ahead of the Cardinal for their 2017 rankings, though Stanford is normally thought of as the gold standard for having “the best of both worlds” with its 112 NCAA championships.
Although Duke is going through one of its worst two-year periods athletically in recent memory—the men’s basketball team’s recent ACC championship was the school’s first in any sport since 2014 and the University has not won a national championship since 2015—Duke’s reputation has not seemed to take a hit.
“Athletics are part of the fabric of this university. We have shown that we can go to the highest level academically while we still continue to go to the highest level athletically. That’s a combination [Brodhead] has put his arms around and hugged and made better,” Krzyzewski said. “Athletics is the window that a lot of people see this University from. Once they look into the window or walk through the door, they find truly one of the great, great institutions of learning in the world. As long as we keep that combination of athletics and academics strong, Duke will continue to grow.”