Believe it or not, there was a time in Duke’s history when it was a perennial college football powerhouse.
With Wallace Wade himself roaming the sidelines, the Blue Devils were a force to be reckoned with during the 1930s and 1940s, winning the Southern Conference nine times. Duke played in the Rose Bowl in 1939 and hosted it in 1942—it was the only Rose Bowl played outside Pasadena. After the Blue Devils’ first Rose Bowl appearance, Eddie Cameron, who served as both a head football and basketball coach during his tenure at Duke, pushed the University to invest in a new basketball stadium using the money they earned from the game.
In Jan. 1940, Duke basketball played in what would later be named Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time. The rest was history. Duke was a football school no more.
Other than blips on the radar in the 1950s and 1960s and the Steve Spurrier years in the 1980s, football gave way to basketball as the University experienced little success on the gridiron. As the Blue Devils get set to kick off their 2012 campaign, Duke continues to struggle to create a football culture, and attendance at games has been an issue.
Last year, the Blue Devils filled barely 70 percent, on average, of one of the smallest stadiums in FBS football. Averaging just 24,393 fans per game, Duke ranked last in the ACC in attendance—more than 7,000 fans behind 11th-ranked Wake Forest and less than one third the average attendance of the league-leading Clemson Tigers.
Last season, Duke fans made national headlines when The Chronicle reported that the Blue Devil men’s basketball team was having trouble filling the student section at Cameron Indoor Stadium, managing “only” 650 students per game through the first 10 games of the season. Meanwhile, the student section at Wallace Wade rarely sees more than a few rows of students for an average home game, paling in comparison to even the worst night at Cameron.
In essence, it is hard for students to come out every weekend and support a losing team. Even head coach David Cutcliffe understands this.
“It’s been difficult for Duke to learn how to embrace football. I can’t blame them,” Cutcliffe said to The Chronicle this summer. “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.”
So why is this year different than any other year of Duke football? Because this is the most talented team Cutcliffe has ever had. Keep in mind that despite sporting a 3-9 record last season, the Blue Devils lost four games by fewer than seven points—they were a few bad bounces and missed kicks away from bringing Duke its first bowl bid since 1994. If not for three missed field goals, the Blue Devils could have beaten eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech in Durham, and similar miscues prevented the Blue Devils from leading a top-10 ranked Stanford squad at halftime.
This year, the Blue Devils return a bevy of starters from last year’s team, have an arsenal of weapons on the offensive side of the ball and will play for the first time with a team entirely comprised of players Cutcliffe recruited. They have bolstered their defensive line and special teams units, areas in which Duke sorely struggled last season. But most importantly, they have the experience of playing an entire year of competitive football in the ACC.
I’m not saying this is the year for Duke to be a surefire bowl contender, but I am saying this is the year for students to support Duke football. To create a brighter future for this program, the University community first must work to create a better present. Recruits who turn on a Duke game on a Saturday afternoon won’t fall in love with a school when all they see are empty seats.
Let’s break out of this vicious cycle. Go watch this team because it can be good and it can get better.
“I’m anxious to see a great atmosphere in Wallace Wade—a difference-maker atmosphere in Wallace Wade—and we’ll do our darnedest on the field to be a difference-maker football team,” Cutcliffe said.
So get ready for another roller coaster ride, Duke football style. I can’t guarantee how it will all end, but I can guarantee you it is going to be an exciting season.