A framed banner hangs on the wall of head coach David Cutcliffe’s office to commemorate what may be the most important piece of Duke football history. It is not a shrine to the Blue Devils’ trip to the Belk Bowl last year or Steve Spurrier’s split of an ACC Championship in 1988, but rather a tribute to a team that 75 years ago accomplished something that will never be repeated in the modern era of college football.
The words practically jump off the wall—unbeaten and unscored upon.
As Duke prepares to reach a second consecutive bowl game for the first time in program history, the team celebrates the 75th anniversary of the original Iron Dukes—the 1938 Blue Devil squad that for nine games epitomized football perfection.
“Never happening again—it won’t. It’s impossible to stop a modern-day offense that way,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve really bought into the Iron Dukes part of our nature, and going into this season all of our little inserts about toughness, it’s about the Iron Dukes.”
The 1938 Blue Devils did not allow a single point in nine regular-season games, including a 7-0 victory against No. 4 Pittsburgh that will go down as one of the tightest games in Duke football history.
Football was a completely different game when the Iron Dukes inhabited the field at Duke Stadium, yet to be named for the squad’s head coach, Wallace Wade. The forward pass had been established in college football just 32 years prior, and the game utilized a number of positions and formations that now exist only in legend as the game’s dinosaurs.
The Iron Dukes averaged just 11.7 points per game during the 1938 campaign, a figure that in the present day would all but assure a team of a losing season, if not a winless record.
“That was a great goal that they accomplished,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “I don’t know if they went into the season expecting to accomplish that or not, but that might be one of the greatest defenses ever.”
Racking up victories against Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Syracuse and N.C. State before defeating the Panthers to cap off the regular season, Duke inched closer to perfection.
The Iron Dukes’ success earned them a spot in the 1939 Rose Bowl, which was Duke’s first bowl appearance in program history. Taking on No. 8 Southern Cal, the Blue Devils came within seconds of continuing their vaunted scoreless streak through a 10th game. But holding a 3-0 lead in the closing minutes of the Rose Bowl, the Trojans finally broke through when fourth-string quarterback Doyle Nave hit reserve end Al Kreuger for a 16-yard touchdown pass with 40 seconds remaining.
After 559:20 of perfect defensive football, the Iron Dukes’ quest for perfection—and what could have been Duke’s first and only national championship—fell short.
As the 2013 Blue Devils prepare to take the field for Saturday’s season-opener against N.C. Central, the memory of the Iron Dukes lives on. Cutcliffe opened his August training camp this year teaching the Blue Devils about the legacy of the Iron Dukes.
“We just try to emulate them,” defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “That’s our goal. No defense wants to be scored on. You need to protect your end zone. So if our defense goes unscored on, I guarantee you we will lose zero games this year.”
Last season, Duke’s defense was far from the standard that its 1938 counterpart set. In a five-game losing skid to close the 2012 season, the Blue Devils allowed opponents to score an average of more than 49 points per contest.
The Blue Devils also led the nation in allowing explosive plays of 25 yards or more, including nine in a 48-34 Belk Bowl loss to Cincinnati, a game in which Duke appeared to have the upper hand.
“You’re not going to stop people from scoring when you’re doing that,” Cutcliffe said. “Not winning that bowl game when you were the best team on the field has left a bad feeling in their gut, so they have something to prove.”
As Duke pushes forward into the 2013 season and hopes to correct the defensive issues that cost the team its first winning season since 1994, it appears the Blue Devils will draw their primary inspiration from a legend 75 years in the making.
“You never forget that iron sharpens iron, and that’s the mentality that this team has to have,” Cutcliffe said. “I think if you’re going to be a great football team like the Iron Dukes were, it’s all about the next play, the next play, the next play. I’d love to see our team be as tough a bunch as the Iron Dukes were.”