Duke Football takes the field in Atlanta on Saturday in its first season-opening game with Alabama since 1972. In this one, like the '72 game, Duke will play before a full house (in the Mercedes Benz Stadium) against an Alabama team ranked No. 2 nationally preseason polls. For all of that, the game stands for so much more in the lore of college football and in the Duke program's return to the national stage under Coach David Cutcliffe.
That Duke would be playing Alabama now is a story in itself. Duke's fabled West Campus wasn't even finished in 1930—and Duke had yet to open its stadium—when then Dean E. H. Wanamaker approached Alabama's then-head coach Wallace Wade for advice on how to steer Duke into the same national prominence in athletics that Duke was seeking in academics. Wade, who was coming off consecutive Rose Bowl appearances (the first by any southern school) and two national championships, stunned the world by accepting an offer—$12,500 in base salary plus a share of the gate—to come to Duke as its head football coach. In short order, Duke would win two national football titles under Coach Wade and name its stadium after him.
What I didn't know, as a freshman walk-on player in '72 practicing for Duke's opener that season in Birmingham, was that Duke Football was just beginning to compete again on the national level after years wallowing in obscurity. Duke went into that game led by second-year Head Coach and Duke All American Mike McGee (who passed away last week after a storied career as a coach and athletic director). Against all odds, Duke was competitive against that Alabama team, trailing by two at the half and falling by a respectable 35-12 margin. Our team withstood some big hits—as my freshman teammate and All-ACC defensive end Emo Gilson was decked on the opening kickoff by future NFL Hall of Famer John Hannah—grew from the experience, and headed home. But not before Alabama Coach Bear Bryant paid Duke Football the highest of compliments in a post-game interview, "Duke out-toughed us tonight!" Remarkably, David Cutcliffe, then an Alabama student and later an assistant to Coach Bryant who would return to Duke in a role unimaginable at the time, was "in the house" for that game.
Duke Coach Mike McGee's unranked teams of the 1970's went on from that epic meeting with Alabama in 1972 to play Tennessee, Florida, Southern California, and Michigan in successive seasons. That willingness to schedule and compete with national football powers proved to be a run-up to Steve Spurrier's arrival at Duke as head football coach in 1986. The legendary Spurrier continued the restoration by leading Duke to a share of the ACC Football title and to national offensive yardage records in his last season here.
So Saturday's "Kickoff Game" between Duke and Alabama in Atlanta, historically reserved for the nation's highest-ranked college teams, is really a "major" bowl game for Duke. And it's a tribute of the highest order to all that has been achieved in recent years by Duke Coach "Cut" with the support of Coach K and Duke AD Kevin White. The Duke-Alabama game really reopens the tale of two schools that long ago put college football on the map and put Duke athletics on the road to compete at the highest level.
John Bussian, T'76, is a Raleigh-based First Amendment lawyer and former walk-on player who serves as volunteer counsel to The Chronicle.