Behind the scenes with Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe
But before Cutcliffe wakes up and throws on his national championship ring, he starts his day the same way many people do—by taking a walk with his dog.
Cutcliffe’s 5 a.m. walks with his miniature labradoodle serve as fleeting moments of leisure before the Blue Devil head coach re-enters the pressure cooker of the college football world. But the Birmingham, Ala., native can’t even get football off his mind during his quiet walks of reflection. His dog’s name is TD—short for touchdown, something he has seen more than a few of over the years.
With the 2013 season quickly approaching, Cutcliffe is entrenched in preparation for Duke’s final set of practices during August training camp. By 6:30 a.m. on August 19, the head coach was already knee-deep in his practice notes for the day. The scratches on his yellow legal pad were laid out with meticulous detail, and each member of Cutcliffe’s staff held a full training camp schedule for every day leading up to the season.
“There’s an art to this,” Cutcliffe said. “Almost every minute of the day matters.”
As Cutcliffe scribbles his notes, a John Mellencamp song plays from his speakers in the background. Mellencamp’s son Hud walked onto Duke’s team last season, and Cougar is one of many celebrities Cutcliffe has rubbed elbows with over the years. But most of the others, including NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning and Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, are former pupils who went on to stardom in professional sports.
“Coach Cut has been around a lot of great players, so I definitely feel like he has experience getting the best out of those players,” redshirt junior wide receiver Isaac Blakeney said. “He has the experience of how to work with great players and how to make good players great as well.”
The coaching journey has been a long one for Cutcliffe—after spending nearly three decades in the SEC on staff at Alabama, Tennessee and Ole Miss, the head coach inherited a Duke team six years ago that had managed to win just two games in its previous three seasons. Five years later, the Blue Devils were taking the field at a bowl game for the first time in 18 years.
Cutcliffe’s six-year stint at Duke seems short when compared to Blue Devil men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski. But by lasting six years with a Duke program that has seen limited stability since a young Steve Spurrier was at the helm in the late 1980s, Cutcliffe is actually the Blue Devils’ longest-tenured head coach since Mike McGee was fired following the 1978 season.
The Duke program that Cutcliffe has been sought to build since 2007 is founded on what the head coach calls “the four Fs,” which are faith, family, future and football, in that order.
Cutcliffe has never been shy that he is a man of great faith. When he opened the first full team meeting at 7:10 a.m. to address his squad, it was as though Cutcliffe had entered his personal cathedral. With every seat in the room filled, the public persona of a stoic head coach melted away as the preacher stepped up to his pulpit.
It was the beginning of the last two-a-day Cutcliffe’s senior class will endure during their college football careers, and the team’s head coach had a special message for his squad.
“The best thing this team can do is have the time of their life every play. There is no pressure. There is no looking back. There are no regrets,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s the next play, and that’s the play that we’ve got to have the time of our life. And that’s the greatest lesson that all of us can remind each other—we’re going to go have the time of our life. It is going to be exciting, because I cannot wait for that next play. I cannot wait for that next play. Regardless of the results, it doesn’t matter what just happened. That’s football—you’ve got a first, second, third and often fourth down. Anything can happen on any of them…. Let’s go for it. Let’s go for it with all the gusto we’ve got.”
The entire room went dead silent—the players’ gaze locked onto their head coach. It took less than two minutes before the tired student-athletes were ready to put in a full day’s work.
Duke’s special teams unit remained in the room as special teams coordinator Zac Roper ran film of kickoff coverage. Shortly after, it was wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery who took the room for his position meeting.
Montgomery is entering the first year of his second stint on the Blue Devil coaching staff, retrurning to his alma mater after three years as the wide receivers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He began the meeting by reciting the day’s drills from memory and breaking down each play on film, critiquing each player position by position. Montgomery made a point of adding that “it’s the detail” that separates good players from great ones.
By 8:30 a.m., the Blue Devils were en route to the practice facility for their morning workout. Before exiting the Yoh Football Center, every player walked past the Victory Bell, the trophy Duke earned after its last-second victory against North Carolina to secure bowl eligibility in 2012. The bell sits directly between the team’s weight room and training room, serving as a reminder of the ultimate goal that is born out of significant sacrifice.
The scene was chaotic when the Blue Devils first arrived at the field for practice. Different units were spread out in all corners of Pascal Fieldhouse discussing plans with position coaches and waiting for the day to begin. As soon as Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” blasted over the PA system, everything seemed to snap into place.
Practice started slowly, synchronized with the ticking of the scoreboard clock. But as the short period ran out and drills shifted, the pace revved up until Duke’s workout was nothing short of a well-oiled football machine. Position groups moved about the fieldhouse, always ready for their next task as soon as the clock struck zero. The team’s managers and training staff provided scenery changes as the practice field became a crowded stage, ushering in construction barrels, pads and rope ladders for drills.
The Aug. 19 practice was scheduled for 68 minutes—not a moment more or a moment less.
On the field, the intensity level rose. Freshman Johnell Barnes showcased his breakaway speed on a deep route, but lets what would have been an easy touchdown pass slip through his hands. On his way back to the line of scrimmage, the rookie is immediately pulled aside by Blakeney for a pep talk.
There was plenty of action on the sidelines as well. Redshirt freshman quarterback Thomas Sirk, who suffered a ruptured Achilles in April, tossed a football as he continues to rehab. On the receiving end was wide receiver Blair Holliday, who has returned to school after a year-long leave of absence following a nearly fatal jetski accident during the summer of 2012. Holliday will serve as an undergraduate assistant coach this season.
Duke’s young players have opportunities to learn both on and off the field during training camp. In the evenings, Cutcliffe often arranges the team’s veteran players to lead lectures and discussions regarding topics such as academics, dorm life and social life, bringing the learning experience full circle.
"You’re developing leaders, which is something that we want to do out of this program," Cutcliffe said. "We want them all to leave officers, so to speak. And I think it’s just more effective coming from the people who have lived it.”
There is no shortage to Cutcliffe’s intensity on the gridiron, but when it comes to dealing with his players, the Duke head coach could not be more laid back. Cutcliffe did not raise his voice once in frustration, only in encouragement, and that is a quality that is not lost on his players.
“He’s super positive. He knows how to treat his players,” senior wide receiver Brandon Braxton said. “He knows when to work us and he knows when to back up. He’s a personable guy. He cracks jokes, he’ll crack on people in the meeting room, but when it comes down to it, if you’re going to be messing around he’s going to get on your butt.”
When practice drew to a close, Cutcliffe gathered his team again for another meeting. This time, he spoke to his players about holding themselves to a higher standard, and accomplishing the little things with excellence. As the head coach droned along in his southern drawl, another type of music played in the background.
It wasn’t Mellencamp or Marley this time. Cutcliffe’s speech was interrupted by the opening of the fieldhouse door, which revealed that the ice cream truck had arrived.
You’ll never see 100 football players more excited for ice cream at 9:30 in the morning. It was that raw joy that showed why they had all chosen to play this game starting from the time they were five or six years old, making sacrifices along the way to reach this point.
After the players lined up for their frozen treats (seniors first, of course), Cutcliffe retreated back to his office to watch the tape of that day’s practice.
Cutcliffe said he first learned his organizational skills from Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, the college football legend who gave the Duke head coach his start as an undergraduate assistant in the 1970s.
In a game where coaching trees are constantly dissected an analyzed, Cutcliffe remains one of Bryant’s last direct coaching disciples.
The Duke head coach sat at his desk, watching each drill with a meticulous attention to detail as his mentor had—but Bear Bryant wasn’t taking down practice notes on his iPhone.
“People know where to go and what to do—that doesn’t happen by accident. We have a system. We’re not just out there by the seat of our pants,” Cutcliffe said. “It goes back to something [Bryant] told me, ‘Don’t get in this because you love it. The only reason you do it is because you can’t live without it.’"
As he reviewed that day's drills, Cutcliffe chose to focus on the cornerbacks, a position that graduated two of its top-three players last season and was a part of a secondary that gave up more gains of 25 yards or more than any unit in the country.
Cutcliffe paid particular attention to freshmen Breon Borders and Bryon Fields, both of whom saw action in their first collegiate game, with Borders recording the first interception of his career.
The Blue Devils’ current freshman class is the most talented Cutcliffe has brought to Duke during his tenure. As the program continues to rise, recruiting dividends will follow. The quarterback guru has sent his last seven starting quarterbacks to play in the NFL—the future that all college football recruits desire. Cutcliffe made his biggest recruiting splash during the past summer when he received a verbal commitment from four-star signal-caller Nico Pierre—Duke’s first ever recruit ranked in the ESPN 300.
Braxton said he has seen the caliber of recruits entering the Duke footall program rise throughout his four-year college career.
“This recruiting class we got is phenomenal,” he said. “There’s definitely a lot of competition. There’s way more competition now at every position than there ever was. So that’s huge because it’s making everybody else better.”
The head coach made the short trip from his office to the conference room for his 11 a.m. staff meeting. Coaches crowded around the table as the room quickly reached full capacity. Position coaches all sat at the table, but graduate assistants and video coordinators were relegated to sitting on the ledge by the window.
It was as though Duke football’s family had just sat down to dinner together. Laughter and joking filled the room, and light-hearted moments were shared between some men who have coached together for decades, others who played for their current colleagues.
The meeting started with every coach around the table grabbing a pen and some stationary. Two recruits’ names flashed on the television screen in the conference room as the coaches tried to explain to 17-year-old kids why their future should be a part of Duke’s future. Cutcliffe has a history of barraging prospective recruits with some good-old-fashioned snail mail—a series of tweets this summer showed prospects receiving as many as 115 handrwritten letters from Duke, all in the same day.
The coaches spent the remainder of the meeting discussing the team’s play from the day’s first practice and debating drills for the afternoon session. As the group broke their meeting, they departed for lunch after a long morning’s work.
But for Cutcliffe, there is no such thing as a lunch break. A self-proclaimed “brown bagger,” the head coach prefers to work through meals, estimating that he goes out to lunch only once during football season.
Working through lunch is just another part of Cutcliffe’s many routines that make up his long-term plans. As the old ball coach says, every minute spent preparing in August will pay its dividends come November and December.
Defensive end Kenny Anunike, a redshirt senior, was a part of Cutcliffe’s original recruiting class at Duke, coming into a program that at the time was famous only for its futility on the gridiron. Anunike has watched his head coach grow this program and said the difference between his first season and his last is night and day.
“I know that coming through here was the best decision of my life, and I’ll never regret it,” Anunike said. “Even though I was recruited by many other schools, I don’t ever regret signing to Coach Cutcliffe and Duke.”