David Cutcliffe’s career at Duke began in a thunderstorm.
Eight months after he took the head coaching job, the Blue Devils were finally prepped to take the field in their 2008 season opener against James Madison when the lightning started.
The game was my first as a student, and I waited out the nearly-90 minute delay as most of the Tailgaters sobered up and left—along with many of the paying fans.
And who could blame them?
It was an inauspicious start for a coach who had spent most of the summer rebranding Blue Devil football around the Triangle, not only promoting a new level of competitiveness on the field, but solidifying that goal by guaranteeing an ACC championship for the Blue Devils—quite the challenge for a team with just one win in its last two seasons.
Seniors had seen just one home victory in their first three years on campus: a 45-7 victory as freshmen against the Virginia Military Institute, an FCS team that hasn’t had a winning record since 1981. And they didn’t even know that Cutcliffe thought the team he’d inherited was the “softest, baddest football team” he’d ever seen, as he said earlier this season.
To put it in perspective, students threatened to storm the field after the eventual 31-7 victory against James Madison—highlighted by a frantic dismantling of the closest goal post by the grounds crew—but eventually didn’t because there were fewer than 100 people left in the section.
This was not a Stanford-esque turnaround that Cutcliffe, his staff, and his players faced. The Cardinal had John Elway and John Lynch, plus a history of gridiron success that spans nearly a century. Jim Harbaugh didn’t raise Stanford to new heights so much as return them to the level to which they felt they belonged. Northwestern is perhaps a more fitting analogy, but even the Wildcats have never been as consistently bad as the Blue Devils.
Duke has not had a program in the modern era that could sustain success between head coaches, and the decade before Cutcliffe was especially abysmal.
The program officially hit rock bottom a week after the 2008 opener. Earlier in the year, Louisville had filed suit against the Blue Devils for backing out of a proposed four-game series, but Duke lawyers argued that the school was only subject to the $150,000 termination fee per game if the Cardinals couldn’t find a team of “similar stature” to Duke. This would mean the Blue Devils were as bad or worse than all other FBS and FCS teams and thus could serve as an apt substitute.
“Duke is probably the worst football team in Division I football,” Duke’s counsel said in the hearing. “Everybody knows that. That’s no secret. The longest losing streak, the inability to ever win games…. That’s well documented.”
The judge ruled in favor of the University, agreeing that any other team is of similar stature to the Blue Devils because the “threshold could not be any lower.” But somehow, some way, in less than five years, Cutcliffe has already rebuilt the Blue Devils—and Walt Disney could not have scripted Saturday’s bowl-clinching win any better.
Through almost three quarters, it was as unlike a Duke football game as I’ve ever seen—the Blue Devils were unstoppable on the ground and the Tar Heels, who plain out-muscled Duke in their season-ending matchup less than a year ago, looked like they were out of answers.
Most surprising, though, were the more than 3,000 students still standing in Wallace Wade even as the Tar Heels began to mount a late rally—and it became late enough to think about getting ready for Shooters.
They even stayed in their seats after the most bizarre loose ball chase of the college football season. Ross Cockrell’s body shielded the ball from the student section for just enough time for one collective, pre-celebration inhale, but then it was loose again, and soon the Tar Heels had taken a four-point lead with just three minutes to play.
But the fans stayed, albeit with lots of muttering and eye-rolling for a minute, before Sean Renfree found Conner Vernon over the middle on the same slant pattern that has become their staple over the last four years. Eleven plays later—and on fourth down, of course—Renfree fired a bullet off his back foot to Jamison Crowder, who held onto the ball as he flipped over a Tar Heel defender.
The Gatorade bath rained down on Cutcliffe moments later—and it must’ve felt better than that August rainstorm five years ago.