“Because it’s Duke.”
Those are the only words my father, my long-time sports confidant and ally, could find to help console me after Duke’s heartbreaking season-opening 23-21 loss to Richmond Saturday evening.
At the time, it seemed a sage answer to my helpless pleas for an explanation following the seemingly senseless destruction of a promising football season. The message was clear—you never should have gotten your hopes up, because Duke will always be Duke.
But once I overcame the shock of the upset, I came to an important realization. The fact that my grief could be placated by such a response epitomizes what is wrong with the Blue Devil football program in the first place.
We are now in season four of the David Cutcliffe era, a period that has been typified by doing things the right way and getting results everywhere except on the football field. For all the positive talk, all the encouraging practices and all the improvements in recruiting, this program is still a national laughingstock.
Consider this—Duke has now lost games to Richmond, an FCS school, in two of the past three years. Minnesota is the only other member of the BCS or major independent to have lost two games to FCS schools in the last five years. Only one other school, Rutgers, has fallen more than once to FCS opponents in the new millennium.
Aren’t these the type of statistics that the Cutcliffe hire was supposed to eradicate?
And in his fourth season, the honeymoon period for Cutcliffe and this program has to be over. In a similar situation at Stanford, where he inherited a program that had gone 1-11 the year before and won a total of 10 games in the three seasons prior to his arrival, it took Jim Harbaugh the same amount of time to send his team to a bowl game. The next season, the Cardinal went 11-1 and were a legitimate national title contender.
Right down Highway 15-501 there’s another, albeit more reasonable, example of such a turnaround. In 2007 Butch Davis inherited a 3-9 squad at North Carolina that had been to only two bowls in the previous six seasons. It took him only two years to turn the Tar Heels into a respectable 8-5 team, despite NCAA violations that chased him out of Chapel Hill.
Obviously Duke’s situation was much more dire entering the Cutcliffe era, as the Blue Devils had not been to a bowl game since 1995. But if Duke’s goal is to be respected, eventually Cutcliffe has to be held accountable for the program’s stagnation after the initial surge of optimism upon his arrival.
It is not completely fair to ask that question right now, only one game into a season that may still yield improvement. The impact that Cutcliffe has had on the attitude and culture of this football program also can’t be undervalued—the man did win as many games in his first season, four, as Ted Roof did in his final four years at the helm in Durham.
But this team has been stuck the past three seasons in a place between “worst BCS program in the country” and just “really bad”—and I don’t think that’s where Cutcliffe or the athletic department wanted the Blue Devils to be in year four.
Losing to FCS competition is not acceptable for any respected BCS program, so it should not be acceptable for Duke. A single conference victory per year does not satisfy the fans of any respected BCS program, so it should not satisfy Blue Devil fans. Moral victories are not enough to gratify the athletic departments for any respected BCS program, so it should not gratify Duke’s department either.
I have long been a vocal Cutcliffe supporter, but the hour is drawing nigh for an objective analysis of the direction of this program under Cutcliffe. I may look stupid come October if Duke has rallied to a 3-2 record, but if not, Cutcliffe needs to feel legitimate pressure from fans and administrators alike.
The fact is, Cutcliffe’s job won’t be done until the “because it’s Duke” excuse is rendered obsolete—and expecting victories over inferior FCS teams should have been accomplished a long time ago.
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