When he accepted the head coaching job at Duke in Dec. 2007, David Cutcliffe knew he was facing an uphill battle. He was inheriting a team that under his predecessor, Ted Roof, had won just four games in the last four years, and Cutcliffe’s first obstacle arose long before the team played its first game—convincing the players to buy into his system.
Consistency has not been a staple in the Blue Devil football program—just one head coach since 1965 has remained at Duke for more than five full seasons. The transition would be particularly difficult for players on the offensive side of the ball, who prior to the installment of Cutcliffe’s coaching staff experienced two offensive coordinators under Roof.
“It is different. You’re not only teaching something new, you’re having to do a re-learning of language and circumstance,” Cutcliffe said. “Some of our older players like [quarterback] Thad Lewis were learning their third offense in five years.”
The majority of Roof’s players bought into Cutcliffe’s system, which led to instant improvement, but finally after four seasons of growing pains, the upcoming 2012 campaign will mark the first time in Cutcliffe’s tenure at Duke when he will enter the season with a team comprised entirely of players he recruited.
“They’ve only been indoctrinated into this system. They are 100 percent in tune with our way of conditioning and our summer commitment level,” Cutcliffe said. “And you see it all over, you see it clearly in the weight room and the bonding.”
Cutcliffe’s experience in recruiting talented players during his time at SEC powers Ole Miss and Tennessee was vital in attracting players to a Duke program that had not posted consecutive winning seasons since 1989 and had not been ranked in the final AP poll since 1995.
When current starting quarterback Sean Renfree received his first call from Cutcliffe after he took the job as the Blue Devils’ head coach, Renfree was already familiar with the coach from his time at Tennessee, but knew Cutcliffe had the drive to take his new program in the right direction.
“It was all positive. Before he even asked me if I was interested in Duke at all, he just went off on the potential Duke has and how excited he was to get started,” Renfree said. “He saw the direction this team was headed in. When I put the phone down, I knew this was going to be one of my top choices.”
One of Cutcliffe’s philosophies has always been that “speed thrills.” He has not shied away from that, recruiting faster players and assembling a deep core of running backs and wide receivers.
“The straight up depth of this team is extremely different. This is a good football team top to bottom,” Cutcliffe said. “We have focused on speed, and that’s a great difference between where we were and where we are now.”
In Cutcliffe’s four years in Durham, the Blue Devils have won 15 games, 11 more than his predecessor in as many full seasons. Renfree said the strides Duke made all started with its newfound winning attitude.
“The coaching staff took football here to a whole new level,” Renfree said. “Players were expected to show up for work and give it their all every day. They turned Duke football into a professional organization, which older players said wasn’t the case here before.”
Having his most experienced players all on the same page will be anything but a necessity for Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils, as they face one of the most difficult schedules in program history. Ten of Duke’s 12 opponents were bowl eligible last year, and the Blue Devils’ eight conference opponents sported a combined .609 winning percentage in 2011—the highest winning percentage found on any ACC schedule.
Finally having five years worth of players that have all played college football under the same system, Cutcliffe added that he saw something different in this year’s Duke team.
“This is a more unified team than we’ve ever seen at this school,” Cucliffe said. “You see it, you feel it, you hear it in their words and their actions. It’s going to translate into something special.”
Cutcliffe hopes the difference will mean the Blue Devils’ first appearance in a bowl game since 1995, but he said it all starts with the Duke community’s will to create a football culture.
“It’s been difficult for Duke to learn how to embrace football. I can’t blame them,” Cutcliffe said. “We need to improve our home football atmosphere. I hope the students realize that they can take an ownership in this just like the players have. We need help. I’d like everybody to take ownership because we’re ready. It’s time.”