David Cutcliffe and Kevin White reunited by 'perfect storm'
Depending on the result of the game, the mood of their conversation varies, but one thing remains constant—Cutcliffe and White have unmistakable chemistry. As the Blue Devils' head coach and Duke's Director of Athletics have watched their football program flourish into an ACC Coastal Division champion in their sixth season together, that bond has only grown stronger.
"Because you care about somebody and you build relationships and you like people who do things right, it's been a lot more rewarding to do it with someone who has the same ideas and ideals as what you do," Cutcliffe said of White. "He’s a machine. Ask any coach in any sport here. He sees and knows all the athletes. That just makes it fun. It’s been special."
White's knowledge of Cutcliffe spans all the way back to the early 1990s, when White was the Athletic Director at Tulane. Two of White's sons played in basketball leagues with Peyton and Eli Manning, who Cutcliffe would go on to coach at Tennessee and Ole Miss, respectively. White and the duo's father, Archie Manning, quickly became friends and supporters of the Tulane athletics programs.
"I remember on a couple of occasions in the early '90s Archie would bring up on a couple of occasions this young quarterbacks coach at the University of Tennessee, David Cutcliffe," White said. "That was the first time I had ever heard of him. And Archie said, 'There's a guy up there, he's going to be a head coach.'"
When Cutcliffe took over as the head coach at Ole Miss in 1998, his path crossed with White's once again. White's son Mike, who is currently the head basketball coach for Louisiana Tech, was a point guard for the Rebels. Cutcliffe and White would often bump into each other at church in downtown Oxford, Miss., and were able to become truly acquainted for the first time.
"It was interesting that we never really knew each other, but we knew of each other for a long time," White said.
So when White—who was ranked as the third-most-powerful man in college football by Sports Illustrated in 2003—needed a new assistant head coach at Notre Dame in 2005, he knew exactly where to turn.
"Charlie Weis hadn't been a college head coach before, so we wanted to surround him with coaches on both sides of the ball that had head coaching experience," White said. "Archie called me, I can remember it like it was yesterday, and said, 'Boy, David would be great in that role.' And I knew he would be."
Cutcliffe interviewed for the position and was added to Weis' staff. He was set to mentor a young quarterback named Brady Quinn, who would go on to become a Heisman Trophy finalist in back-to-back seasons.
But just as Cutcliffe got settled in South Bend, his health began to falter. He tried to work through his illness, but it eventually became too much for him. Doctors told him that he would need a triple bypass to clear an artery that was 99 percent blocked. After conferring with White, Cutcliffe resigned from his position at Notre Dame and went in for surgery.
Although White's attention shifted toward his Fighting Irish squad that would go 9-3 in 2005, he kept close tabs on Cutcliffe throughout his recovery process, exchanging phone calls and messages with the coach and his wife, Karen, on a weekly basis. As Cutcliffe took time away from the coaching profession that he had been entrenched in for the previous 36 years, it forced him to reevaluate many aspects of his life.
"I never saw the leaves change color before I had triple bypass surgery," he said. "That summer I spent a lot of time just enjoying the neighborhood, walking, recovery. I'd take my daughter Emily to school, she had just started kindergarten. We'd hang out, we had a screen porch on the back, beautiful trees out where we lived, and I'd forgotten how beautiful the fall was. I took a sabbatical. I used that term just to see how different my life was."
Cutcliffe returned to coaching for two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee before taking over a Duke team that had previously been the laughing stock of college football. After the head coach was hired by then-Athletic Director Joe Alleva, White made a point to laud the man who would become his predecessor on the hire.
"I knew just how difficult this football resuscitation project was going to be, and it was going to take someone like David Cutcliffe," White said. "I remember as soon as I heard David was coming to Duke, long before I knew I would ever be here, I wrote to Joe Alleva to tell him that."
Six months after Cutcliffe was hired, Alleva stepped down to take the Athletic Director position at LSU. In stepped White, who said Cutcliffe was one of the key reasons why he came to Duke in the first place.
Four years after Cutcliffe and White were pried apart by fate, the duo had a second chance to build a program together. But White and his new head coach faced the ultimate rebuilding project with the Blue Devils, a team that had won just eight games in its previous eight seasons.
Cutcliffe would later call his first team the "fattest, slowest football team he had ever seen." He challenged his first Duke squad to get in shape, and the Blue Devils lost 597 pounds together as a team. His squad won a combined 11 games in Cutcliffe's first three seasons at the helm, and White began to notice the beginnings of something special.
"The guy had built what I called a widget factory," White said. "We weren't in a position, when he came, to go buy ready-made players. We weren't in the player-acquisition business. David was quick enough to understand that. He's a very smart guy—he determined we were in the player-development business. And then he built a heck of a process and put it in play, and that's what we're all seeing and enjoying here six years in. It's pretty amazing."
Slowly but surely, the dominos started to fall for Cutcliffe. He won his first ACC game in 2008, took Duke to a bowl trip in 2012 and knocked off a ranked Virginia Tech squad on the road in 2013 en route to the program's first 10-win season and a Coastal Division championship. He won his second consecutive ACC Coach of the Year Award and had the Blue Devils back to national prominence for the first time in decades.
Duke's run to the ACC championship game is a story of redemption in more ways than one. At the core of a program that made its rise back into the spotlight after an embarrassing period of dormancy are two men who Cutcliffe said were pulled apart and brought back together by a twist of fate.
"I'm a believer in it. I think there's a purpose to be had here. I've felt that since I've been here," Cutcliffe said. "I think a lot of this has taken a perfect storm."