Building a college football program makes flipping a house look easy.
In the mid-2000s, there was no bigger fixer-upper than Duke football. From 2000-07, the Blue Devils went a combined 10-82, winning more than two games in a season just once. Turning Duke into a competitive FBS program was no easier than renovating a one-room shack into a Malibu mansion.
Athletic Director Kevin White, who came to Duke in 2008, refused to call the plan to revitalize the Blue Devil football program a rebuilding project. He would only refer to it as a "resuscitation project."
In the six years that followed, Duke has done much more than bring its football program back from the dead. The program has left the days of winless seasons behind and gone places many thought to be impossible—an ACC Coastal Division title, back-to-back bowl trips and showdowns with Heisman Trophy winners on national stages.
The first domino to fall in the Blue Devils' rise to respectability on the gridiron was the 2007 firing of head coach Ted Roof following a 1-11 season. In his four full years at the helm, Roof had managed a record of just 4-42, including a winless season in 2006.
Duke football had been circling the drain since a surprise run to the All-American Bowl in 1994, and it appeared that the program had finally hit rock bottom.
The University's administration finally decided that enough was enough. At a school where basketball was king, Duke had attempted to operate a small-budget football program for years. The Blue Devils did a lot more than just lose a lot of games for their school—according to the 2006 Equity in Athletics Data Analysis report, Duke managed just $8.9 million in football revenue that season and lost the University nearly $1 million.
“You have to spend money to make money, and I think Duke finally realized it was time to spend some money on football,” said Joe Alleva, who served as Duke's athletic director from 1998-2008.
Before the Blue Devils could worry about building a program, they had to find a capable leader to replace Roof. After years of trying to bring in former college assistant coaches with Duke ties, the University went after an established head coach and a big name to energize the team's dwindling fan base.
Enter David Cutcliffe.
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The man and the plan
His football resume spoke for itself. Cutcliffe was famed as the mentor of NFL stars Peyton and Eli Manning and had spent his entire coaching career in the high-powered SEC, working as an assistant for nearly two decades and winning a national championship at Tennessee before guiding Ole Miss to four bowl appearances in six years.
Duke put its money where its mouth was and announced Cutcliffe's signing Dec. 14, 2007, less than a month after Roof was fired. The University agreed to pay Cutcliffe $1.5 million per year, more than triple the salary of his predecessor.
“Duke finally got so frustrated with losing. [Football] was one of the only things that Duke wasn’t good at," Alleva said. "If you look across the board at the hospital, the medical school, the law school, everything, the academics, all the other sports, Duke was pretty darn good but then football was the one thing it wasn’t. So I think they finally decided that we needed to make an investment to compete.”
Cutcliffe was the first of two major parting gifts Alleva left Duke when he resigned from his position to take the athletic director job at LSU in April 2008. Less than three weeks after he resigned, Duke athletics published a strategic plan entitled "Unrivaled Ambition." The plan's centerpiece was for financial investment in the football program, with the hopes that creating a winning mentality off the field would lead to success on the gridiron.
"While the plan to produce a consistently winning football program involves a certain level of financial investment, what is needed has nothing to do with bricks and mortar or with increasing staff size and salaries but with attitude and focus, with a daily commitment to excellence on the part of players, coaches and staff," the plan read.
The plan's primary objectives for football were as follows:
- Change the culture of the entire program.
- Address personnel needs both on the staff and among the players.
- Schedule strategically, giving the program the maximum chance to win nonconference games.
- Build field house with an indoor practice facility.
- Renovate Wallace Wade Stadium.
Rest assured, this was no short task.
"Unrivaled Ambition" was more than a 38-page office memo—it was published on the internet for all to see. Duke was making a statement to the rest of the country that it was prepared to invest in football.
White remembers reading the plan from his office in South Bend, Ind., where he was serving as athletic director at Notre Dame. At the time, he did not know that it would be him, not Alleva, that was primarily responsible for the bold plan's implementation.
Building the foundation
A month after the plan was published, White became Alleva's successor as Duke's Athletic Director. His pre-existing relationship with Cutcliffe—along with head men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and head women's basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie—was one of White's main draws to Durham. Cutcliffe and White became acquainted through the Manning family in the 1990s and White's son played basketball at Ole Miss during Cutcliffe's head coaching tenure there.
Ranked by Sports Illustrated in 2003 as the third most powerful man in college football, White understood the massive project he was undertaking in the Blue Devil football program.
White already had a prominent coach, but he knew that to recruit equally talented players Duke had to make the major facilities upgrades outlined in "Unrivaled Ambition."
When Cutcliffe arrived, the Blue Devils already had access to the $22 million Yoh Football Center, which opened in 2000. But the team's practice facility was in disarray—Duke had no indoor practice facility and its outdoor practice field was just 75 yards long.
“We were not a decade behind," White said. "We were closer to half a century behind than a decade behind.”
Looking back on the humble beginnings of the program's facilities, Cutcliffe joked during the 2014 season that his first team couldn't succeed in the red zone because their practice field didn't have one.
“I’ve seen pictures of it before Coach Cut got here and it was bad. It was awful," said redshirt senior linebacker Kelby Brown on the state of Duke's practice facilities. "What we have now to work with is big for us and makes a huge difference."
Duke lengthened its outdoor practice field to full size and added the Brooks Football Building. In 2011, the Blue Devils added the Pascal Field House, a spacious indoor practice facility.
Humble beginnings on the gridiron
The Blue Devils' product off the field was catching up to the rest of the ACC. On the field, Duke still had a lot of work to do.
"I remember his first conversation with us," said Chris Rwabakumba, who played cornerback for Cuctliffe from 2008-10 and captained Duke's 2010 squad. "We were running and he stopped us right away. We were doing some drills and he said, ‘Good job. Look at you guys,’ and we’re thinking, ‘He likes us. The new guy likes us.’ Then he said, ‘You guys are the fattest, softest football team I’ve ever seen in my life. But that’s good because we’re going to get you guys ready for Fall.’”
During Cutcliffe's first practice with his new team in the spring of 2008, he challenged the Blue Devils to lose 1,000 pounds as a team. What the team lacked in talent it would make up for in speed.
"Our two pillars were discipline and conditioning. Right off the bat he said that we had to be the most disciplined and best conditioned team in the country,” Rwabakumba said. "As a whole, we had to buy in right away or else we weren’t going to make it. We ran a lot of sprints on a lot of hot summer days."
Duke's first test of the 2008 season was against FCS opponent James Madison, where the Blue Devils kicked off the Cutcliffe era on the right foot with a 31-7 win.
"We came out—we kicked James Madison's ass," Rwabakumba said. “Coach Cut believed in us and we believed in ourselves. He made us believe in ourselves."
The Blue Devils managed to go 4-8 in Cutcliffe's first season, matching the program's win total from the previous four seasons combined. But perhaps the most important game of the 2008 season was a game that Duke lost.
Heading up to Blacksburg to face eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils were in the midst of a November slump. After jumping out to a 3-1 start, Duke had lost five of its last six games and were slated to play in one of the conference's most hostile environments without starting quarterback Thad Lewis.
Dominating the Hokies at the line of scrimmage, the Blue Devils forced five turnovers in the first half and trailed just 7-3 at halftime. Although Duke ultimately succumbed to its anemic offense and lost 14-3, the game proved to the Blue Devils that the talent gap in the ACC was closing fast.
"We all knew that the gap between us and the elite teams in the ACC had gotten that much smaller," Rwabakumba said. "We manhandled them. We took it to them. That’s when we knew for sure that Duke football was coming.”
Duke finished 5-7 in 2009 as the team fell one win short of its first trip to a bowl game since 1994. With the team on the precipice of the postseason for the first time in recent memory, many thought it was a matter of time before bowl games were an annual occurrence for the Blue Devils.
White described his first few teams as a "widget factory." As Cutcliffe continued to recruit and develop better young talent, the head coach mixed and matched players that were often undersized and under-recruited in hopes they would bring the team success.
Raising the stakes on and off the field
During his first two seasons, Cutcliffe made some of the program's greatest strides on the recruiting trail, bringing in players like quarterback Sean Renfree, wide receiver Conner Vernon, guard Dave Harding and cornerback Ross Cockrell, all of whom would play key roles in the program's rise.
The Blue Devil head coach continued to sell players on his vision for the program, using its newfound resources as a way to draw in higher-caliber athletes. With Duke's product on the field still very much a work in progress, there was an extent to which blind faith in Cutcliffe's vision allowed the Blue Devils to grow.
"My parents and I sat down with Coach Cut in his office. He looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘Kelby, we’re going to win the ACC,’" said Brown, whose younger brother Kyler committed to Duke the year after he did. "When he says something, he’s so confident and it’s really obvious. Somehow he sold me on it, and I believed every word he told me. And the great thing is that he’s fulfilled all the things he told me when he was recruiting me, and I’ve never doubted for a second that we were on our way to winning an ACC championship."
Cutcliffe's recruiting philosophy centered around finding players who were not just fit to succeed in the program, but fit to succeed at one of America's premiere universities. He sought high-character athletes who placed a high importance on academics—people Rwabakumba pegged as "Duke guys."
“You don’t pick Duke. Duke picks you," he said. "You have to be a special type of person to go to a school like Duke, to compete academically against some of the smartest kids in the nation as well as play in the ACC.”
When Duke released "Unrivaled Ambition" in 2008, Richard Hain, a professor in Duke's math department, published a series of questions about the strategic plan in hopes of stimulating discussion among the University's academic sphere. One of the questions he raised was, "Is it reasonable to expect that the football program can attract enough recruits who combined strong potential in football with an academic foundation strong enough to enable them to succeed in Duke's academic programs?"
When Cutcliffe arrived at Duke, he raised the football team's academic standards, requiring that the team maintain a cumulative 3.0 GPA. In 2014, the Blue Devils accomplished that feat for the 11th consecutive semester and posted an Academic Progress Rate score of 992, second highest in the FBS.
As its on-field product continued to grow, Duke continued to emphasize its off-field resources in hopes of attracting better young players. The team revamped its jerseys, added a black uniform in 2011 and followed that up by debuting blue and black helmets in 2012.
“This day and age, as far as high school football goes, when you’re sitting there on Saturdays you’re looking at who has the best jerseys," said sophomore cornerback Bryon Fields. "I can’t tell you how many guys I talked to said they would love to go to Oregon because they’ve seen all the jersey combinations they had.”
In 2011, Cutcliffe signed his first four-star prospect during his tenure at Duke with punter Will Monday. The Blue Devils' current incoming freshman class has four four-star prospects, including Cutcliffe's first signee ranked in the ESPN300.
Bursting onto the national scene
Duke's young nucleus developed through a trial by fire, resulting in back-to-back 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011. After nearly tasting bowl eligibility in 2009, Cutcliffe's vision of turning the Blue Devils into ACC champions had taken a serious hit.
"There were two bad seasons where it was just tough to battle through it and believe in what we were trying to do," Brown said. "When you go 3-9 two seasons in a row it really makes you start to wonder whether you’re going to get there. Coach Cut never stopped believing and that just rubbed off on all of us.”
The 2012 Blue Devils played with renewed confidence, jumping out to a 5-1 start in early October. After blowing a 20-point lead on the road in Blacksburg, Duke had a chance to reach bowl eligibility for the first time in 18 years against arch rival North Carolina. Despite squandering a nine-point fourth-quarter lead, the Blue Devils completed their Cinderella story when wide receiver Jamison Crowder reeled in a 5-yard touchdown pass from Renfree with 13 seconds remaining to send fans spilling out of the stands at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Duke lost its last five games of the 2012 season and allowed a win in the Belk Bowl to slip through its grasp against Cincinnati. A taste of success allowed the Blue Devils to reassess their goals—six wins was good enough to reach a bowl game, but a 6-7 finish still left a sour taste in their mouth.
"We had to change our perception to know that we could beat anyone at anytime," Brown said. "A few years ago if we got down, made a big mistake and the other team had a chance to turn the game around we didn’t know how to respond to that. Now we don’t let momentum take over our game. We control momentum."
Off to a slow 2-2 start in 2013, the Blue Devils faced a virtual must-win when they went on the road to face Virginia. Falling behind 22-0 early, Duke put its confidence on full display and seized control of the momentum, scoring 35 unanswered points to keep its season alive.
But of course, the season's defining moment came the next week in Blacksburg. Six years after dominating the Hokies and letting one slip away, the Blue Devils toppled then-No. 16 Virginia Tech 14-10, recording its first road win against a ranked team since 1971 and becoming bowl eligible in consecutive years for the first time in program history.
"That was the program-changer," Brown said. "We beat a team that we were never supposed to beat in a hostile environment. Against all odds, we stood up and won the game, and that’s when we realized that we can beat every team that we play and there’s never a reason to think otherwise.”
The Blue Devils finished the 2014 regular season on an eight-game winning streak, recording the program's first-ever 10-win season. Ranked in the top 25 for the first time in 19 years, Duke won the ACC's Coastal Division and made its first appearance in the ACC championship game, falling to eventual national champion Florida State.
Duke's ultimate prize that season was a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, taking on No. 20 Texas A&M on New Years Eve in front of a sold out Georgia Dome—a game televised nationally by ESPN in an unopposed time slot. The Blue Devils pushed 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to his limit before ultimately falling 52-48.
Cutcliffe earned five different National Coach of the Year awards for his efforts in 2013, and though the bowl loss left the Blue Devils with yet another bitter ending, the nation was finally forced to admit that Duke football had arrived.Look back at the key moments from Duke's 2014 season:
Return on investment
You don't have to like football to understand what a successful football program has done for Duke. The effects of the program's rise transcend division titles, bowl appearances and a re-energized student body.
Five years after the Blue Devil football program turned nearly a $1 million loss in 2006, Duke profited $4.9 million from football in 2011, according to that year's edition of the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis. The program generated $21.9 million in revenue that season, more than twice its earnings in 2006. The Blue Devils spent $17 million on football during that season, which ranked 11th out of the ACC's 15 schools.
“Basketball at Duke is as good as it gets, but at the preponderance of athletic departments in the country, football is the golden goose that generates the money," Alleva said. "It was a huge opportunity cost lost by not having a good football program.”
The Blue Devils now have two golden eggs in their nest.
Duke earned a $1.7 million payout from its participation in the 2012 Belk Bowl and a $3.975 million payout from the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl, and future bowl trips could serve to pad the Blue Devil football program's revenue-generating potential.
Profits from football programs across the country often serve to fund their respective institution's Olympic sports, which are often costly and almost never profitable. Duke's football success comes at a time when the University is making a number of facilities improvements for several Olympic sports through the Duke Forward campaign.
In 2014, the University announced its plan to add softball as a 27th varsity program in 2018 and add a slew of scholarships to a number of women's athletic programs.
White said that although those financial decisions come from a variety of revenue sources—which are primarily television contracts—football's success does both directly and indirectly serve to assist Duke's Olympic sports.
White noted that football's financial uptick is only in its beginning stages. Following the team's success in 2013, season ticket sales for the 2014 season are already up 40 percent.
“Maybe we move from a negligible investment, to a moderate investment, to a mean investment within the ACC," he said. "If we’re a mean investment and we’ve won the Coastal Division championship, which we did, and we’re projected to be a pretty strong contender this year, we’re getting what they would call at Fuqua a pretty good return on investment.”
Duke football's success has also served to re-energize the program's alumni giving base. When the Yoh Football Center was financed in the late 1990s, Duke fielded more than 750 private donations in addition to Spike and Mary Yoh's principle $5.5 million gift.
More than half of the 750 donations came from former Duke football players. Following the team's successful run, alumni from all walks of life are lining up to support the Blue Devils as they look to defend their first division title.
"We’re seeing a fairly dramatic and important shift of people beginning to believe that Duke can be very competitive in football," said Tom Coffmann, executive director of the Iron Dukes. "That’s a mental thing that we have great hopes will continue to translate in people investing financially.”
Getting there was hard enough. Staying there will be even harder.
Duke won't be surprising the rest of the ACC when it takes the field for the 2014 season. Instead, the Blue Devils will need to get used to having a target on their backs.
Rwabakumba said that one of the keys for Duke to stay competitive in the ACC is for the team to not forget its humble beginnings. Following back-to-back bowl trips, the players who suffered through 3-9 seasons are graduating and being replaced by players who wear division championship rings. A culture of losing is being replaced by a culture of winning—which is a good thing, unless it breeds complacency.
It is on Blue Devils' young talent, which played a key role in the team's 2014 Cinderella run, to maintain that hunger and intensity.
"They don’t know about when Duke football was bad," Rwabakumba said. "All they know is winning. They think Duke goes to bowl games every year. They don’t know the days of 0-12 and 1-11 and having 75-yard fields and having 10,000 people at a home game. They know bowl games and ESPN games and beating Carolina every year.”
Fields didn't think that would be difficult for his team to keep its competitive fire lit. The cornerback still sees Duke as the perpetual underdog until the Blue Devils prove they have staying power atop the ACC.
"We’re still Duke football. It’s been decades of not having any respect," he said. "We’re not necessarily a joke anymore like people used to think we were, but we’re still going to come out and people aren’t going to expect much from us. We still need to continue to go out and earn it.”
In some ways, the national perception of Duke football has changed significantly since last year's trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. USA TODAY ranked the Blue Devils 17th in the country heading into the 2014 campaign, which was higher than they were ranked all of last season. Still, a number of media outlets' early projections are picking Duke to finish as low as fifth in the ACC's Coastal Division.
Six years removed from a resuscitation project, there is still major work to be done. More facility upgrades to finish. An elusive ACC championship to chase. Solidifying the national perception that the days of Duke football as a national laughing stock are long gone.
Which is why Fields doesn't mind having his team enter 2014 with an axe to grind. The only thing more dangerous than an underdog playing with a chip on its shoulder is a good team playing with a chip on its shoulder.
"To this day we still don’t get the respect that I think we deserve," Fields said. "But that’s not necessarily a bad thing—that’s just more motivation for us. We have the pieces to really do some damage."