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'This sets Duke football apart': Alabama matchup caps David Cutcliffe's program turnaround

<p>Head coach David Cutcliffe has more connections to Alabama than just a game against the school this Saturday.</p>

Head coach David Cutcliffe has more connections to Alabama than just a game against the school this Saturday.

In 2013, the Blue Devils won 10 games—the most in program history.  

The magical year culminated in an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl for Duke, perhaps the biggest stage for the program in five decades.  

The Blue Devils will return to the same stage Saturday to open the 2019 campaign for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, in what will be another high-water mark for Duke, playing in front of 70,000-plus fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Although the Blue Devils are 35-point underdogs against the reigning national runner-up Alabama squad, this is more than a game—it’s a celebration of how far David Cutcliffe and his program have come. 

“I really feel that after 2013, we were at a place where we needed this type of opportunity to play in the kickoff game and everyday programs don’t get to do this," said Gerald Harrison, the Blue Devils' assistant director of athletics for football development, responsible for scheduling football games for the team, from 2008 to 2018. "This sets Duke football apart—we’re in the conversation with some of the top football programs in this country and that’s a great respect for the ACC, that’s a great respect for our university and what Coach Cutcliffe has done there. This means a lot for Duke athletics regardless of what happens in the end, regardless of the final score.” 

When he took over the Blue Devils' head coaching job for the 2008 season, Cutcliffe certainly had some work to do. 

Duke suffered three winless seasons between 2000 and 2007. Returning the program to relevance was a slow, methodical job for Cutcliffe, who averaged four wins a season during his first five seasons in Durham.  

But in 2013, Cutcliffe’s efforts at transforming the culture proved their effectiveness. Although the Blue Devils ultimately lost to Texas A&M in a 52-48 thriller, 2013 marked a change for the better for Duke, which appeared in bowl games during four of the following five seasons. 

“I got to Duke in 2008, and where we were as a program, we were not in need of a shot in the arm or a rebuild, it was really a resurrection that Coach Cutcliffe was asked to do for this program,” said Harrison. “Duke University earned the opportunity to play in a game like this." 

'You learn to expect to win'

While Duke and Alabama may not share similar football reputations, both schools can thank one man for ushering in an era of dominance for their respective programs: Wallace Wade. Wade—the namesake of Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils’ home field—led the Crimson Tide to Rose Bowl victories in the 1925 and 1930 seasons, before darting to Durham. At Duke, Wade oversaw the golden era of Duke football, reaching two Rose Bowls. 

Nearly 70 years after Wade retired as a coach, Cutcliffe looks to return the program to the elite levels that it reached decades ago. And like Wade, Cutcliffe can thank Alabama for shaping him as a football coach. 

Cutcliffe spent his childhood in Birmingham, Ala., about an hour from Alabama’s campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before eventually studying at the university. Though not a varsity athlete himself, Cutcliffe worked in the athletic dorm, taking every opportunity he could to learn from the football coaching staff—including legendary head coach Bear Bryant. Today, Cutcliffe attributes much of his coaching philosophy to his time at the school. 

“Well I’m so old, I can barely remember,” Cutcliffe said with a laugh. “Alabama—not only the university, but growing up there—shapes your passion for college football…[From Bear Bryant and other Alabama coaches at the time], I understand a lot about the right way to go about this coaching business. The other part is that when doing anything involved with Alabama football, you learn to expect to win.” 

Given Duke’s and Cutcliffe’s prior ties with Alabama and the Blue Devils’ success in the 2013 Peach Bowl, this kickoff game was bound to happen. 

“I called Nick [Saban] and said, ‘David Cutcliffe is an Alabama grad, he was part of the program when Bear Bryant was there, obviously, he’s the head coach of Duke, would you be interested in playing Duke?’” Peach Bowl CEO Gary Stokan said. So, Nick says, ‘Yeah, I admire Cut, I’d be happy to play Duke.’ 

“It all made sense, so we made it work.” 

'A talent rich state'

It’s easy to look at Saturday's matchup and assume that the Blue Devils will be coming back home with a loss this Saturday. However, this competition means much more than the final score. 

Held at an ideal time for recruiting, the flashy game may capture the attention of high school players looking to play at the same level as Duke football, especially those residing in Georgia.  

“Georgia has been a rich recruiting ground for Duke football so getting in that state and playing on that level is something they’re going to hear on their local news,” said Harrison.  

When players and their parents tune in to watch broadcasts about their own local high school football games, a Duke vs. Alabama game mention will follow, surely helping to put the Blue Devils on the minds of recruits. 

“How often do you get the opportunity in August to be such a prominent part of the news cycle in the state of Georgia, a talent rich state?” said Harrison. “So yeah recruiting was a huge part of it, branding was a huge part of it.” 

‘The more Georgia players the better’

Duke’s football program has many roots in Georgia, with 20 players originating from the Peach State. Some of the Blue Devils even once donned the same high school jersey, like freshman Ahmad Craig and redshirt sophomore Josh Blackwell from Buford High School. A chance to play closer to home has many of the players energized, as immediate family members may not be able to make it to every game and extended family will be attending a Duke contest for the first time.  

“A lot of people are excited because their family is coming, and a lot of the families don’t get to make it to the game every single time, just the immediate families,” said redshirt junior running back Brittain Brown. “Now we’ve got cousins, aunts, uncles.”  

Not only will family be in attendance, but some high school friends and former teammates will have a chance to watch a live game as well.  

“Besides my family I also have friends coming so it’s just going to be really good to play in front of them,” said Brown. So, I’m just excited to show out in front of them, give them a little taste of what they saw back in high school. It’s going to be fun.”  

The Blue Devils will also be performing in front of future teammates, and the Georgia natives are excited to recruit more of their own.  

“It’s going to be some good exposure to all those guys down South, so the more Georgia players the better,” said Brown. 

Not only has Saturday's matchup received hype from across the country, but back on Duke's campus as well. Although it's frequent to see large sections of empty seats at home games, more than 500 students bought tickets to venture six hours south to watch the Blue Devils play, according to Art Chase, senior associate director of athletics and external affairs. 

The Duke ticketing office reached out to students back in April with a $60 ticket offer which includes free transportation to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

'How do you walk away?'

Although perhaps it’s not yet Duke’s time to eat, getting a seat at the adults' table is a start. The Blue Devils will be on ABC, against Alabama of all teams, playing in front of a likely sold-out stadium that typically houses the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. 

For Cutcliffe, the answer was simple to play in this game for the program. 

“I viewed it as a tribute to Duke football’s past and Duke football’s present, so how do you walk away from that opportunity?” 

For more preseason coverage of the 2019 Blue Devils, check out our football season preview for features, predictions, and more.

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