For Duke’s freshmen and sophomores, the Blue Devils are a bowl team and nothing else. But for the juniors and seniors, the memory of consecutive 3-9 seasons is still fresh.
Duke’s veteran leaders have used the pain of losing as motivation to propel the Blue Devils to a historic season. The dichotomy between players who know losing and those who don’t is proving to be a successful formula for head coach David Cutcliffe, as Duke takes it shot at the ACC championship game for the first time ever.
“You need leaders that have experienced college football from both standpoints, a losing and winning standpoint,” senior Juwan Thompson said. “Just being able to let those younger guys know that it’s not always going to be an easy road. You didn’t have to witness the struggles that we went through, but at the same time, you don’t want to go through those struggles."
In 2010 and 2011, the Blue Devils won just six games total. Only two of those wins came against conference opponents, and Duke finished last in the ACC's Coastal Division both seasons. The Blue Devils even lost their home opener in 2011 to Richmond, an FCS opponent that went on to win just two more games that season.
Now, Duke is using these defeats as motivation. The drive to move beyond the program’s losing past has helped create a new winning tradition.
“The great thing is that we can still feel that feeling of going 3-9,” redshirt senior defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. “Especially for us fourth- and fifth-year seniors, we know exactly what it is like to go 3-9 and just start to turn things around last year. So it’s not too far out of our rearview that we can’t see where we came from.”
For the older Blue Devils, this attitude has prevented complacency from seeping into practices and games. They stay hungry, motivated by the memory of losing records and perennially dwelling in the ACC's cellar.
“We want to make sure we finish. Obviously guys are happy. We’ve never been in a situation like this. But we know the job is not done,” redshirt senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We’ve been there before, two 3-9 seasons, a 5-7 season. We’ve been there.”
For the younger Blue Devils, it is not the fear of losing but rather the joy of winning that drives them. Duke has 55 players who have been with the program for two years or less. For them, motivation comes from a different source than that of their older counterparts.
“I think for them what drives them is not knowing anything but success and the desire to stay ranked,” redshirt senior Dave Harding said. “That’s a great feeling. The way victory feels is a lot stronger than losing, if that makes sense. It creates a hunger in you, and you just want that more. It’s like a drug almost—you keep going back to it.”
This mixture of confident young players and experienced leaders is paying dividends. Duke's freshmen and sophomores play with the confidence of winners, while the older Blue Devils play with the determination of those who have been at the bottom of the pack and do not want to return.
Nowhere is this dichotomy more present than in the secondary. Cockrell and fellow fifth-year senior Garett Patterson start at cornerback, while three players in their first years playing for Duke fill the safety positions. Two true freshmen also see significant playing time at corner.
“You basically have the extreme on either end of the scale,” Cockrell said. “The thing that is nice about it is you have people who remember what the foundation was built on and people trying to build upon that foundation. Our job as seniors is to make sure that foundation isn’t being forgotten.”
As the Blue Devils win game after game, it would seem that losing seasons have become a thing of the past. But some veterans fear that losing the memory of 3-9 seasons could hurt Duke in the long run.
“It’s going to be a bad thing that they haven’t witnessed it,” Thompson said. “You don’t want them to think we can win any game just because we are Duke football.”
At the same time, Thompson also sees a positive to this shifting mentality.
“Having been part of a winning tradition, it will benefit them in the long run because they know how to win,” he said. “They won’t have any doubts.”
The painful memory of losing has been the catalyzing force for the Blue Devils this year, but the program is now headed in a new direction. Duke’s older generation will leave a legacy of bringing the program from the bottom of the ACC to its apex. They hope that this success will develop into a new kind of motivation for the Blue Devils in the future.
“I think it’s a great transition because that was our motivation, to not go 3-9 and have a losing record. They're coming in winning so they expect to win,” Sarmiento said. “Then you start getting recruits that expect to win. It sort of steamrolls downhill and works out for the best.”
In just two years, Duke may lose its memory of losing records and ACC mediocrity. As the juniors and seniors graduate, the Blue Devils who played through those 3-9 seasons will leave behind a program with a different set of memories. But these veterans take comfort in the fact that they have instilled a legacy of hard work and fear of complacency. And they will pass the torch to a talented group of youngsters, ready to bring Duke football into a new era.
“We have this young core group of guys who are going to continue on to bring Duke football to even higher levels,” Cockrell said. “I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done, what we’ve accomplished, and I think we’ll be even better next year.”