If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, then any given Duke football fan from the past two decades or so is dangerously insane. I seem to have a particularly bad case, as I not only continue to attend Duke games and get loud, but also try to get others to go as well. Sure, the fact that Duke has inarguably the greatest basketball program of the last 25 years is nice, but I make it a point of pride to watch Duke football at every available opportunity. It has been a fortunate coincidence that my time at Duke has coincided with the emerging relevance of Duke football.
College football has never been a winning venture for me. The first football game I can remember took place in Evanston, Ill. in 2001. Northwestern was hosting Iowa, the game was half an hour from my house, and my dad brought me along to see it and root for the home team. I didn’t really understand much of what was going on, and the only play I still remember was an illegal kick that Iowa made in their own end zone for a safety. That was one of the few highlights of that very rough day for Northwestern, as Iowa went on to a 59-16 curb stomping. I didn’t know Northwestern was supposed to win the Big Ten that year; all I saw was this team I’d never seen before get its tail handed to it on a fancy silver platter.
I’ve been to a lot of football games since then, most of which have taken place at Wallace Wade Stadium. The majority of them have been losses. In my first few years, as a marginal Duke football fan, losses were routine: From 2002 to 2007, the team’s record was 10-60. The football team hadn’t won half of its season games or played in a postseason game since 1994. Any game I went to, a loss was less a disappointment than an expectation. Because of that, I never understood just how awful a loss in football could feel.
Somewhat older, yet still somewhat football-ignorant, I attended the first game of the Cutcliffe era with my dad. In that first game, Duke matched the win total of the entire previous year with a 31-7 win over James Madison University. I still remember one fan a few rows behind us trying his darnedest to heckle the opponent’s quarterback, despite being at the very back of the section. In previous years, he would have been a symbol of the program’s futility; in the years since, he has been symbolic for me of the program’s newfound confidence.
I didn’t understand a loss in Duke football until 2009. That year, Duke opened the season with a loss to Richmond (sound familiar, sophomores?) and fell two wins short of the program’s first bowl game since that 1994 season. For once, a five-win season was disappointing. The 2008 season had been a pleasant surprise, but in 2009 there were expectations, dang it! The team fell to 3-9 in 2010. 2011 was another 3-9 season, this one fraught with tantalizingly close yet ultimately agonizing losses.
That brings us to this year. Duke football’s reputation precedes it, yet the program has surpassed its reputation: People know about Duke’s reputation as a losing program, yet college football fans nationwide, college football fans in the ACC and students on Duke campus have not latched onto the fact that the team no longer matches that description. The program is at a crossroads: It can either find some equilibrium closer to its 2002-2007 levels, or it can take the next step and become a program that can reach the postseason somewhat consistently and even contend for the league title once in a while. If it’s any motivation, the latter state is exactly where Carolina is.
Duke football might never be the great program it was in its early history. A loss in basketball will probably still be a point-blank shot to the heart compared to the punch in the stomach that a loss in football is. But as a Duke football fan and Duke student, I go into every year believing that it can be The Year, and I go into every game where we’re heavy underdogs thinking it can be The Upset. I want to be able to say that I was there when Duke football finally broke through. That’s what this year’s Duke football team means to me, and that’s why I keep going to game after game, expecting different results than the past.
Jordan DeLoatch is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Jordan on Twitter @jstorm64.