David Cutcliffe was not hired to lead Duke to a national championship, an ACC championship or even a bowl game in his first four years as head coach. He was hired to immediately do two things—change the culture surrounding the program and return it to respectability.
Many will argue that the Blue Devils have made significant progress on that road to respectability. They will cite the progress Cutcliffe has made in fundraising and recruiting, plus the increased competitiveness of the product he has put on the field.
Early returns were positive. After just two wins in three years prior to Cutcliffe’s hiring, the new coach won four games in 2008 and then five games in 2009. But Duke has won only three games in back-to-back seasons after winning a total of nine in the first two years of Cutcliffe’s tenure. Duke fans can cling to the positive that the team is no longer the worst BCS football program in America, but that does not change the fact that the win totals say that the program is backsliding.
And yet you do not hear much grumbling from Duke fans because they still have not adjusted their expectations after decades of laughingstock status. Cutcliffe’s hiring was supposed to change those expectations, especially after the coach showed in his first two seasons that the Blue Devils could be successful in the win column. So the question has to be asked: Who is to blame?
The only answer is the coaching staff.
Cutcliffe’s hiring was supposed to bring a renewed sense of football pride to Durham, a feeling that should have been cemented when he spurned former employer Tennessee’s advances after the school offered him its head coaching position in 2010. He was an established and successful head coach who had been a part of a national title at Tennessee as an assistant and led Ole Miss to an SEC championship as a head coach.
So it is inexcusable that the recent downturn at Duke appears to have been tolerated by the fan base, if its silence on the matter is any indication. Cutcliffe should be held to the standard that comes with his resume, not that of the previous two decades of Duke football. Expecting the Blue Devils to reach a bowl game four years into the Cutcliffe era might have been a pipe dream, but consistent progress in the win column is not.
And by those standards, Cutcliffe’s seat should be feeling a bit warm. His recruiting classes have generally been given higher acclaim than his predecessor Ted Roof’s, yet Cutcliffe’s two most successful seasons came with Roof’s recruits. With four recruiting classes under his belt and a team that is significantly more talented and athletic than its previous incarnations, it is not unreasonable to have expected more victories from Duke.
But many of Cutcliffe’s recruits have failed to develop as one would expect, a responsibility that falls solely on the coaching staff. Moreover, Cutcliffe’s in-game management cost the Blue Devils multiple victories this season. His poor clock management led to a season opening upset against Richmond, and his insistence on using running quarterbacks led to the red-zone failures that cost Duke possible program-defining victories against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
And while many look at those close calls as steps forward, if the Blue Devils are to be respectable, they must be judged by the same standard as every other football program—victories. Often cited is the statistic that four of the Blue Devils’ losses this season have come by a combined 14 points. But it isn’t an accomplishment that Duke “should have” beat teams like Richmond and Wake Forest. It’s an indication that this team still is not able to play with the big boys.
I am in no way advocating that Cutcliffe be fired. He deserves the time to mold his program, just like Mike Krzyzewski did when he arrived in Durham. But Krzyzewski took his team to the NCAA tournament in his fourth season while Cutcliffe’s program has taken a step back in years three and four. Yet while Krzyzewski endured a firestorm of criticism during his early tenure, Cutcliffe has seemingly been given a free pass.
Still, there’s reason to believe—once again—that next year will be the year the Blue Devils take the long-awaited leap towards respectability. But if Duke spends another season mired in the ACC’s basement, especially with Cutcliffe’s first full recruiting class in its senior season, it may be time to make some changes to ensure that his progress off the field translates to results on it.