The independent news organization of Duke University

Duke football's good neighbor

President Richard Brodhead's role in hiring David Cutcliffe changed the team's trajectory

Duke football's good neighbor
  Jon Gardiner, Jon Gardiner

As Duke President Richard Brodhead navigates his final semester, The Chronicle will be examining his impact on athletics with a series of articles, continuing with one about Brodhead’s relationship with Blue Devil football head coach David Cutcliffe and his program during its transformation. Check back in the coming days for stories about Brodhead’s impact on Duke’s athletic facilities and much more, and read about Brodhead’s bond with men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his program here.

Every year toward the end of Duke football’s fall camp, President Richard Brodhead speaks to Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe and his players.

“What do I say to the football team? I used to have to say something to the football team, which is that our football team used to be notoriously not very good. You can count how many games our team won in my first four years as president. I’m sure it’s not a double-digit number,” Brodhead said. “Someone once said to me, ‘Why does it make sense for everything else to be about excellence at Duke, and football to lag so far behind?’ It was not a question I could easily answer.”

From 2004 to 2007, the Blue Devils actually won four total games.

But Brodhead’s decision to hire Cutcliffe in December 2007 changed Duke’s program forever, and his final months as president offer a unique perspective into how far the Blue Devils have come.

‘Don’t worry, Dick, it’s not your fault’

Brodhead’s tenure as president has seen the University cement its elite status with progress in many areas, including athletics.

Duke has captured 10 of its 16 total national championships since 2004, with its men’s basketball and women’s golf teams among the best programs in their respective sports.

But as the Blue Devils made progress in each of their 26 varsity sports, Duke’s football program continued to flounder, to the point that it claimed to be the worst team in the nation to win a lawsuit and get out of playing Louisville in nonconference play in 2007.

“The games were so long and so error-ridden. The thing is you have to train just as hard to be on a losing team as a winning team,” Brodhead said. “But why shouldn’t the University give you a chance to be on a winning team?"

"When I came and I’d go to those games, all credit to the people who were on the teams at that time, I have a lot of respect for them, but a year when you have a 1-11 record or you’re ahead until the very last minute and somehow contrive to lose the game, very dispiriting. It’s meant to be a source of inspiration, instead it was a total downer. Someone said to me in my first year as president, ‘Don’t worry, Dick. It’s not your fault. Our team hasn’t been good for 40 years, except for the [Steve] Spurrier years.’”

Other former senior administrators echoed Brodhead’s point, noting that Duke’s lack of success hurt the University’s sports culture and image as a school that is successful academically and athletically. 

“Football is obviously the huge hole in any perception of athletics at Duke. We were just awful,” said John Burness, former senior vice president for government affairs and public relations. “Someone who shall remain nameless had retired sometime back. I asked what it was like to be retired. He said, ‘Every day feels like Saturday except you don’t have to go to a Duke football game.’"

“I actually felt when we were in that period when we had just horrible football teams, just really bad, it actually detracted from some of the character that makes Duke a special place,” former provost Peter Lange said. “We had this campus spirit which is partly built around athletics, and having a season when we were so bad and we had that horrible tailgate at that time—it almost got fed by the weak quality of the football team." 

"I always thought if you could have a stronger football team, so that football would be a little more of a presence in the fall, a little more something to build spirit around, that that would actually enhance the culture.”

That culture transformation has occurred since Cutcliffe’s hiring as Duke won 38 more games in his first eight seasons than it did in the eight that preceded his arrival.

The immediate connection between the former SEC Coach of the Year and the University’s ninth president is a major reason why.

‘Who are you going to get?’

After Duke fired Ted Roof in late November 2007, former athletic director Joe Alleva and company set out to find a new head football coach.

Burness noted that Brodhead had long wanted the football team to take a new approach to achieve different results, and the University’s president had an active role in vetting Cutcliffe—and making the Tennessee offensive coordinator want the job.

“Dr. Brodhead played a significant role in me wanting the opportunity to coach at Duke. He was the person I visited with early in the morning in the interview process,” Cutcliffe said. “I think immediately, we hit it off. I knew he was the type of person I wanted to work with. I hope he felt the same immediately, I believe he did in conversations we’ve had since.”

Because of how quickly the interview process moved, Cutcliffe said he drove all night to get to Durham to meet with Brodhead.

“I chose to drive where if I wanted to turn around, I could,” he said. “I wasn’t sure, I did not know much about Duke, I had never visited Duke.”

Cutcliffe stopped in Hillsborough for about two hours before arriving on campus at about 3:30 a.m. He walked Duke’s campus, noting that the still and quiet campus landmarks like the quad, chapel and Wallace Wade Stadium “told a story of some history” that interested him.

To get to know an unfamiliar university, Cutcliffe spoke to a few people in housekeeping—the group that arrives on campus that early in the morning. Their long periods working at Duke and the way they spoke about the University drew him in further before he met with Brodhead.

“I knew the facts of his career. He’d been a head coach. He had the notable feature of having been the coach of two extremely famous quarterbacks [in Peyton and Eli Manning]. He also showed his appreciation of Duke,” Brodhead said. “It was a funny time to be hiring somebody, to be hiring someone to be the coach of what was then the poorest team for 40 years in Division I football. Who are you going to get? But his combination of his very high-end experience and his humility and his instinctive appreciation of Duke, you just knew it right away."

"When I talked to him, a moment I’ll never forget. He came early, drove all night from Knoxville. He came early and he walked the campus. It was one of those late fall days when there are these golden leaves everywhere. He got it. He talked about the appearance of the campus in a way that made you realize this wasn’t going to [just] be his next job, he was going to connect with the meaning of Duke.”

‘I fell in love with his vision’

One of the main topics for Brodhead and Cutcliffe to discuss was how to improve Duke’s talent level without compromising the University’s academic and admissions standards.

Despite his background as a player at Alabama, assistant coach at Tennessee and head coach at Mississippi—all three traditional SEC programs—Cutcliffe wanted his new program to stay unique.

“He said to me, ‘I’ll never ask you to admit an academically weak student to make our football program,’” Brodhead said. “He said, ‘They won’t do me any good because they’ll be so anxious about their academics when they’re on the field that they won’t perform that well.’ We have never had one moment of arm wrestling over this kind of issue in his eight years here.”

Brodhead’s belief that Cutcliffe could improve the on-field product with that approach also made the highly-touted quarterback guru want the job—Duke’s president wanted someone with a vision and plan different than what had been done before.

One of the first things Cutcliffe did when he arrived was ask his new players to collectively lose 1,000 pounds, the first step in building a program around fitness and discipline.

“[Brodhead] believed we could do both—be better in football and maintain the integrity that this university has displayed through the years, not only academically, but in every aspect,” Cutcliffe said. “I fell in love with his vision, and I felt strongly if we could bring the right people here. That’s what I talked with him about, that we needed the quality of people that it would take to run a major college football program. He kind of lit up in that conversation, which I was pleased with.”

In addition to typically ranking among the nation’s best football programs in graduation success rate, the NCAA’s measure of student-athletes who graduate within six years, Duke’s football team has had four recipients of the National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athlete Award since 2012.

The 12 honorees each year are finalists for the Campbell Trophy, known as the academic Heisman. Quarterback Sean Renfree (2012), offensive lineman Perry Simmons (2013), linebacker David Helton (2014) and redshirt senior safety DeVon Edwards last fall were Duke’s recipients, with Helton going on to win the Campbell Trophy.

Brodhead is extremely proud of the Blue Devils’ four-year bowl streak from 2012-2015 and 2013 Coastal Division title that highlighted a 10-win season.

But the program's academic success also makes his eyes light up.

“I can’t tell you how proud that makes me. The National Football Foundation came down and had a luncheon, they do it with the nominees so I’ve been to two of them,” Brodhead said. “The Sean Renfree year, he invited six faculty members, one of whom did not know he played football while he was in her class."

"Jeremy Cash signs with the [Carolina] Panthers, but he was the scholar athlete of the year in the ACC [in 2015]. That’s the kind of program I want. So when I talk to the football team, I talk about how the team has risen. I talk about the commitment a Duke athlete makes to their sport, their education and to education of character, which is a big part of sports.”

An annual National Coach of the Year candidate

After Brodhead spoke to the Blue Devils last fall, one of their captains noted how much they appreciate the support of Duke’s president.

“There’s so much he’s done for our program. Going out his last year, we want to make it a special one for him so he can remember Duke football. He always will,” redshirt senior quarterback Thomas Sirk said. “He’s been so supportive of our football program, and obviously the new press box and [new facilities] have to go through him and the university, so we’re just so thankful for him accepting that Duke football is relevant.”

Brodhead also has a unique relationship with the team because of his house’s close proximity with Wallace Wade Stadium and Duke’s practice facilities.

“Every year, when Dr. Brodhead comes amongst our team, our guys are at immediate attention, particularly the older ones. Our older guys have learned what I learned. Dr. Brodhead doesn’t have to prepare a speech,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s never going to be over-lengthy. But the message is genuine, it’s sincere, it hits the spot, it’s delivered with a quietness that maybe football players aren’t so used to. There’s an excitement to it."

"They know he’s our neighbor. He always refers to us as his neighbor. God bless he and Cindy for the whistles, the music and the loudness. We’re a morning practice team, so I’m sure at some point he doesn’t feel so good about Duke football, but he does speak to us as a neighbor as well as being our leader.”

Although Cutcliffe saw his team’s four-year bowl streak end last fall with a disappointing 4-8 campaign defined by serious injuries to three of the team’s four captains, including Sirk, it is worth remembering that Duke only won four games once in the nine years before he arrived.

Since reeling in four-star punter Will Monday in 2011, signing four-star prospects has become common for the Blue Devils. In each of Duke’s last three recruiting classes, Cutcliffe and his staff have signed multiple four-star talents as rated by ESPN, including seven in the Class of 2016.

In November 2012, Cutcliffe signed a contract extension through June 2019—he has since become the Blue Devils' longest-tenured coach since the 1960s. Although he has been linked to several recent coaching vacancies, including at Michigan and Tennessee, Cutcliffe has elected to stay in Durham as his program continues its rapid ascent. 

“I’m actually not surprised. If it hadn’t happened, I couldn’t have complained. It’s unreasonable, the quickness with which we’ve advanced. He’s an extraordinarily superb person,” Brodhead said. “As far as I’m concerned, he should be the National Coach of the Year every year."

"This is what David Cutcliffe understood. It wasn’t a matter of having a winning season, you really had to turn around a long history. I remember when David would say whether he won or lost, in his first year, he would say, ‘We’re not here to win this game. We’re here to build a program.’ It was a multi-year strategy. That’s what paid off.”

Hank Tucker contributed reporting.