This season has not been kind to Duke football so far.
The 2020 campaign has featured the program’s first 0-4 start since 2006, the loss of both starting cornerbacks after the home opener and an offensive unit that has struggled with turnovers and consistency. Clearly, this is not what head coach David Cutcliffe had in mind when he brought in Chase Brice from Clemson and took over the play calling duties in the offseason.
Many feel as though Cutcliffe deserves a large part of the blame for the Blue Devils dropping five of their first six contests this year, which is a fair argument considering that in college football, responsibility ultimately falls at the feet of the leader on the sidelines. However, when some begin to argue that Cutcliffe may not be equipped to lead his team out of this slump, they are lacking a bit of perspective on the state of Duke football before and after Cutcliffe’s arrival.
Thirteen years ago, Duke was mired in a dreadful span of ineptitude. Unable to recapture the magic that former head coach Steve Spurrier brought to town during his three-year stint in the late 1980s, the Blue Devils were one of the worst programs in the entire country. Then, Cutcliffe was given the keys and asked to right the ship, and the outlook of Duke football changed dramatically.
Gone were the days of winless seasons, something fans saw in 1996, 2000, 2001 and 2006. By Cutcliffe's fifth season at the helm, the Blue Devils reached a bowl game for the first time since the 1994 campaign, showing that patience pays off in the wacky landscape of the ACC. From 2013 to 2015, Duke reached new heights, with a 27-13 record and a Coastal Division title in 2013 being a clear indication that the rebuild was complete. Thanks to this newfound success, the university even undertook a full scale renovation of Wallace Wade Stadium in 2015.
While Duke has since been unable to fully get back to the heights displayed during those three seasons, the program is still much better equipped to compete on a weekly basis than it was in the years before Cutcliffe arrived in Durham. Sure, 2016 and 2019 resulted in losing records and this season is looking like it could end up that way as well, but can anyone actually argue that Cutcliffe is not the man for this job?
Just look at the talent level on both this year’s squad and Cutcliffe-led Duke teams over the past decade. On the current roster are two of the top edge rushers in the nation in Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II along with the program's all-time leader in receptions by a tight end in Noah Gray.
The Blue Devils have featured plenty of NFL talent in recent seasons as well, from Jamison Crowder to Laken Tomlinson to Daniel Jones. Previous regimes, such as those led by Carl Franks and Ted Roof—two coaches who steered Duke to a 13-90 record from 1999 until 2007—just weren't able to recruit and develop the talent that Cutcliffe has brought in during his tenure.
To put it simply, this program is light years ahead of where it was when Cutcliffe was hired by former athletic director Joe Alleva in December 2007, and it would be foolish to think that a man with the third most wins in school history—behind only Hall of Famers Wallace Wade and Bill Murray—is not capable of righting the ship. Heck, we’re talking about a guy that was named the National Coach of Year in 2013 by the Walter Camp Foundation, the Maxwell Football Club and the American Football Coaches Association.
I get it, this season has been a tough one to watch. There have been issues with red zone play calling and a never-ending string of turnovers that can drive a fan crazy. But for someone to channel their frustration with this year’s squad and translate it into a call for a replacement at head coach is just not taking into account the strides that this program has made under the Birmingham, Ala., native.
Cutcliffe was able to spearhead a full scale rebuild that had many experts in awe, so what makes you think he can’t fix whatever is plaguing this version of the Blue Devils?
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.