Rodney Peele and Brent Belvin are former sports writers for The Chronicle and both have attended both Duke bowl games in their lifetime and graduated in 1990. Peele is now an attorney in Washington, D.C. and Belvin is a teacher in Durham. They will be in attendance at Thursday's Belk Bowl and shared their thoughts and memories here.
When we were Duke seniors in December 1989, neither football coach Steve Spurrier nor basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski had ever won a national championship. Little did we know that Duke would begin a stretch of three straight appearances in the NCAA basketball championship game—losing to UNLV in 1990 before rebounding to the sweetness of the back-to-back national titles in 91-92. Duke was a Final Four regular already, however, whereas in football there had not been a bowl game since we had been alive.
Nevertheless, we had high expectations in football. Although Duke had graduated quarterback Anthony Dilweg, the 1988 ACC player of the year who prepared for the previous season by selling peanuts at Durham Bulls games, the new quarterback Billy Ray had transferred from Alabama, and wide receiver Clarkston Hines was consensus All-America and would go on to win 1989 ACC player of the year.
We were annoyed to lose the season opener at South Carolina, which had not joined the SEC yet. We expected (and received) victory in the second game, that year’s version of a Big Ten challenge, against Northwestern. And we were slightly disappointed that we couldn’t pull off a second straight upset of SEC power Tennessee in Knoxville even though Tennessee would go 11-1 that season.
The Blue Devils were 1-3 by the time undefeated Clemson, ranked No. 7 in the country at the time, brought their fans to Durham in plastic orange ponchos. More than half of the 22,000 fans at the game were cheering for the visitors. The Clemson defense featured three future NFL Pro Bowl players in Levon Kirkland, Chester McGlockton, and Ed McDaniel. Also, Wayne Simmons, Dexter Davis, Jerome Henderson, and John Johnson went on to play on Sundays.
Spurrier’s offense struggled in the first half, and the best play of the game turned out to be a long pass downfield, which Clemson would intercept, and then fumble in the soggy conditions. Ray threw five interceptions, and Clemson obliged with fumbles on the returns twice, helping Duke come back from a 14-0 halftime deficit, to win 21-17. Backup fullback Randy Cuthbert, who turned down Penn State and Joe Paterno, bulled into the end zone for Duke’s first score, Billy Ray connected with Clarkston Hines and then Ray threw the winning score. Linebacker George Edwards, who went on to a long career as an NFL assistant coach, helped hold the Tigers to their second- lowest output of the season. For the 10,000 or so Duke fans who were there, it might be the most memorable Duke game ever.
Coincidentally, some of us attended Clemson’s only other loss that season, an upset to Georgia Tech at Clemson’s homecoming, as well as Clemson’s bowl game victory over the West Virginia Mountaineers led by Major Harris.
The victory against Clemson set Duke on a run of seven straight wins by Thanksgiving, including a satisfying 41-0 rout of North Carolina, then coached by Mack Brown. Duke never lost to UNC in football while Spurrier was the Duke coach, by the way. Not to Georgia Tech either.
So we went to the All-American Bowl in Birmingham Alabama riding high, but we were overrun by Texas Tech on Thursday Dec. 28. And before classes resumed in January, Spurrier was hired by Florida.
Cuthbert and quarterback Dave Brown (no relation to Mack) weren’t the starters at the beginning of the season, but they were stars for Duke by the end. Brown later played for the NY Giants, throwing for more than 10,000 yards, though he found time to attend Duke’s next bowl game, against Wisconsin in Tampa, sitting near us and some of our friends. Many of us will be in Charlotte this week for the third bowl game of our lifetimes.