Fred Goldsmith needed a motivational speaker.
His 1994 Blue Devil team was 5-0, true, but none of his players had ever experienced a winning season, and Clemson stood in the way of that elusive sixth win. Who better than a friend from Sunday school?
Better yet, she had just led her own team to an NCAA championship the previous April and had helped coach Team USA. There was just one problem: Sylvia Hatchell was the head women’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina.
“We told the team, ‘Be real quiet, don’t tell anybody that the Carolina basketball coach came over and talked to you,’” Goldsmith said. “And I’ll be darned, we beat Clemson… and the first player they asked, he said, ‘It all started with the Carolina basketball coach.’”
But Goldsmith couldn’t be too frustrated. Duke football had just defied expectations by guaranteeing itself a winning season and potentially more. Goldsmith had been thinking about a bowl game from the moment he took the Duke job several months before.
To go bowling then was a bigger deal than it is today. There were only 19 bowls in 1994—almost half of the 2012 total—and Goldsmith had just coached Rice to consecutive winning, but bowl-less, seasons in 1992 and 1993.
“Duke didn’t have quite the speed and athletic ability that I might have left at Rice,” Goldsmith says, “but it was a good football team.”
Hatchell wasn’t in the locker room before Duke’s bowl-clinching win against North Carolina in 2012, but Duke didn’t need much of a pep talk in a sold-out game at Wallace Wade Stadium. It was an atmosphere starkly different from the one in which David Cutcliffe arrived four years prior—a sold-out crowd for a night game, along with ESPN production crew for a national broadcast.
When Cutcliffe arrived at Duke in 2008, he found himself at the helm of “the softest, baddest football team” he’d ever seen. A Kentucky state court had just declared it the nation’s worst program. He spent his first offseason just getting players to lose weight. They didn’t have a full-length practice field or an indoor facility.
The program wasn’t completely barren, though. Thad Lewis had a rocket arm, and the linebacking core of Michael Tauilili and Vincent Rey was dominant. The Blue Devils won four games that season and five in 2009, and Duke fans prepared for a bowl run in Cutcliffe’s third year.
Without that core trio, though, the Blue Devils racked up just six wins over the next two seasons, and Duke fans went back into hibernation.
When Goldsmith took over in Durham in 1994, he met with outgoing coach Barry Wilson to go over the strengths and weaknesses of the team. Wilson was upbeat about the offense but wasn’t sure if the team had enough talent on the defensive end to compete in the ACC.
So Goldsmith made some calls. He had to convince two key players to return to the Blue Devils after taking a year off in 1993: cornerback Jamal Ellis and offensive lineman Jon Merrill.
“I just wasn’t happy here. The whole Duke scene didn’t appeal to me,” Merrill told The Chronicle in 1995. “[But] it just seemed like [Goldsmith and his coaching staff] were really genuine people…. That really sparked my interest back into football.”
Even after convincing both to come back, though, there was little enthusiasm on campus. A new generation of students separated the present from the post-bowl enthusiasm generated in the wake of Steve Spurrier’s meteoric rise—and there were 30 years of evidence suggesting that the Head Ball Coach was an aberration.
“I started thinking and talking about bowls, and everybody thought I was crazy,” Goldsmith recalls. “I told [Athletic Director Tom Butters] if we beat East Carolina we would go to a bowl, but he said I was crazy.”
Duke did beat East Carolina, an eventual bowl team, 13-12 and ran up a 7-0 record before falling to Florida State in Tallahassee. That was the only regular season game the eventual 8-3 Blue Devils lost by more than one point that season, dropping back-to-back games to N.C. State and North Carolina to end the year.
Goldsmith entered the 1995 football season confident in a repeat postseason appearance. A 34-20 defeat to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl had done little to suggest his team wasn’t good enough to compete with the nation’s best. Defensive coordinator Craig Bohl had left for a position at Nebraska, but the Blue Devils’ core players were returning on both sides of the ball.
Better still, the bowl appearance had offered Duke enormous national exposure. Goldsmith struck gold on the recruiting trail and welcomed a talented class of players in 1995.
“We had seven guys make it that we brought in after that bowl season,” Goldsmith said. “They made it in the National Football League. Not just drafted or signed, they made it.”
The rest of the nation was less convinced that Duke was there to stay, though. At the ACC summer meetings, long-time ACC head coach Bill Dooley approached Goldsmith about coaching in the Blue-Gray Classic, a showcase game held on Christmas morning. Goldsmith was insulted—he could only coach the Classic if his Duke season was over—but Dooley insisted he sign the deal, just in case. Dooley was right.
The Blue Devils started off 4-3, but an injury to senior quarterback Spence Fisher derailed the offense, and subsequently the season.
Three years later, Goldsmith was out of a job after winning only six of his final 33 games.
“I had a lot of good job offers after that year,” Goldsmith recalls, “but I really thought we would [go to another bowl game].”
Duke hasn’t maintained success on the football field since the 1960s.
Goldsmith’s eight wins in 1994 represented the most of any Blue Devil season in the modern era, but he couldn’t manage to string postseason appearances together.
That goal immediately becomes Cutcliffe’s, even as he prepares to take Duke to its first bowl game since Goldsmith—and he already has an advantage over Goldsmith on the recruiting trail. Although the 1994 Blue Devils lost to N.C. State and North Carolina, Cutcliffe’s team earned its postseason bid and state supremacy with a win over the Tar Heels.
“Geography has always been the No. 1 factor… in recruiting,” Cutcliffe said in the wake of Duke’s win over the Tar Heels. “We’re going to always start right here in the state of North Carolina.”
Better yet, Cutcliffe now has the facilities to match his lofty expectations, which include an ACC Championship within the decade. A new indoor practice center, along with massive improvements planned for Wallace Wade Stadium in the coming years, give the Blue Devils facilities to match their recent success.
And it’s already working—for the first time since 1994, Duke controls its own destiny in the conference race after the season’s halfway point.
Whether the Blue Devils can do so again is the new question.