As Duke Athletics turns another page with the hiring of a new athletic director, I can't help but think of a fluorescently lit room in Little Rock, Ark., a loud Clinton campaign strategist, and a single line taped to a wall that spurred a seminal moment in American politics: "It's the economy, stupid."
At Duke, Saturday's press conference to introduce Director of Athletics Kevin White was a seminal moment in its own trying 18-month campaign, one that began with an unprecedented football summit in January 2007 and ended with the lifting of the athletics director from the University of College Football.
Somewhere in Cameron, I'd like to imagine there's a two-year old note posted on a wall, perhaps underneath the photograph of Wallace Wade Stadium filled to capacity by the Rolling Stones, reminding all of Duke's top athletic minds what they should have known long ago.
It's football, stupid.
White's hire is just an extension of the work that's already been done.
2007-2008 was the year of Duke Football, and not just because the men's basketball team was ousted from the NCAA Tournament's first weekend for the second consecutive year. From the hiring of football coach David Cutcliffe, to the departure of Joe Alleva to LSU, to the department's first comprehensive strategic plan and now the beginning of the White Era, this year has been about raising the program from the cellar of both the department and the national rankings. It had to be.
Duke Football nearly ran a $780,000 deficit in the last fiscal year. Football was one of the central focuses of the strategic plan (in many ways, because football is also about "the economy, stupid" when it comes to the department's annual losses). Football, which Alleva called his "greatest disappointment" in his time here, was presumably one of the factors that drove the longtime Duke man to the greener pastures of the bayou. And football-with a push from Notre Dame that began in 2004 and a pull last week from Gene Corrigan, a former Fighting Irish athletic director and ACC commissioner acting on Duke's behalf-was what brought White to Durham.
In December 2004, the Notre Dame Board of Trustees ordered White to fire then-head football coach Tyrone Willingham before the end of his contract. White reportedly did not support the firing, and then was allegedly pressured later by the same board to give new head coach Charlie Weis a 10-year contract just seven games into his Notre Dame tenure. An article in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune cited a high-ranking source within college athletics who said White "was out there with the responsibility but not the authority."
So when White expressed his euphoria over the situation at Duke and, in particular, his appreciation of the "vote of confidence" from the people he met here, perhaps the move from one high-profile job to another makes a bit more sense. At Notre Dame, he seemed to have little power in guiding of one the nation's most historic football programs. At Duke, White has the opportunity to play a huge role in directing the renaissance of one of the nation's most historically bad ones.
"I think the future of Duke Football is awfully bright, but it is going to need a lot of attention and a lot of hard work," White said Saturday.
Attention and hard work the new athletic director seems delighted to be able to give.
White said Cutcliffe, while one of the best coaches in the country, could not fix Duke Football alone. It is now his job to be the help the coach needs.
When I watched White's press conference, I remembered the comments of former Blue Devil and NFL player Brian Baldinger.
"Right now, Duke Football is a drag on everybody, in every way," he said before the summit. "It's a drag on publicity for the university. It's a drag on revenues for the athletic department. I'm sure Coach K and the basketball program would benefit from a good football team, too."
It seems to me that White knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed up for this job. He knew Duke Football was more than just your average fixer-upper. But in sports, just as in politics, there's always a certain thrill in the challenge, of being central to changes in prevailing attitudes and cultures that guide the world you live in. White seemed to know that, too.
"It's the economy, stupid" was a harbinger for an era of economic prosperity. Perhaps a similar phrase will bring a comparable fate for Duke Football-or at least inspire a couple of wins in the meantime.
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