Only one person from Mississippi came to visit David Cutcliffe in the hospital following his triple-bypass surgery in March 2005, just four months after being fired as the head coach there. More than six full seasons, 44 wins, a top pick in the NFL Draft and just one visitor to show for it.
Suffering aches, pains and stiffness, which turned out to be caused by an artery that was 99-percent blocked, Cutcliffe had battled through those ailments and accepted a position as an assistant under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, with that same visitor accompanying him as a part of the staff.
Meet John Latina, Duke’s new offensive line coach.
“My dad always taught us growing up, you really find your friends through adversity,” Latina said. “When [Cutcliffe] was going through that situation, the only right thing for me to do and the only thing I wanted to do was be there for him—not only for him, but for [his wife] Karen because you can imagine how scary that is.”
Latina was on Cutcliffe’s staff all six years at Mississippi and followed him to Notre Dame though Cutcliffe had to resign before ever coaching a game due to the health issues. The pair even lived together in a condo during their brief time together in South Bend, Ind., with Cutcliffe recalling that you could taste Latina’s eggplant Parmesan “if you’re lucky.”
Latina remained there through 2008 and for the last two years has served as the offensive coordinator at Akron.
But when Kurt Roper, Duke’s offensive coordinator who was the quarterback coach at Mississippi for those six years, called Latina and said Matt Luke would be vacating the offensive line coaching position with the Blue Devils, Latina seized the opportunity to reunite with his former colleagues.
And for Cutcliffe, it was an opportunity to reconnect with an old friend who shares not only the same philosophies on football, but also on family and friendship.
“This is a very family-oriented business. We’re always around each other’s wives and children.” Cutcliffe said. “Watching John interact with the kids on our staff, you just knew he’d be everybody’s favorite uncle.”
But the family man, who has two children, is about business too. Since being hired in December, Latina has stressed the need for the offensive line to improve in all facets of its game by bulking up and being more physical.
And Cutcliffe has not seen the results on the field yet, so much as he has heard it during the spring practices.
“You could hear us coming off the football. You could hear the contact,” Cutcliffe said. “John is a teacher but he’s not going to overteach. He’s a veteran.”
The mustached offensive line coach, who played four seasons as a lineman at Virginia Tech and also served as an assistant at Clemson, brings a unique focus on cohesion to his units. In his meeting rooms, players sit according to their position and string, with the starting left tackle sitting in the front left of the room and his backup behind him.
His crew only furthered that unity when 10 of the offensive linemen traveled to Ethiopia this summer on a service trip. Proposed by starting left guard Dave Harding, who had been there before with his family, the trip involved drilling for freshwater wells and visiting local orphanages over the course of two weeks.
Latina was encouraged by the initiative his players took after stressing to them in his first meeting with the team that he wanted them to be the closest unit on the squad.
“If that [trip] doesn’t bring you close together as a group, nothing will,” Latina said.
Much like Latina’s understated loyalty to his coach, an offensive line serves the team without the glory of many other positions. As Cutcliffe eagerly noted, it is the only position on the football field without an official statistic, saying linemen only care about wins and losses.
“It’s why the offensive line coach is the heart of the team,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s the role John has always played. His guys will mimic his personality in that regard.”
If the two men hold one thing in common it is that belief in heart and loyalty above all else—when Cutcliffe was fired as the head coach at Mississippi, it was at his refusal to fire some of his assistants.
And as the pair seeks to remedy an offense that averaged the second fewest points and the fewest rushing yards per game in the ACC last season, they will have that close bond as a building block.
“Everybody was in it together. It’s not like he was the head coach and everybody else was waiting for his command to go to work,” Latina said. “I think that really formed what I consider a great friendship.”