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The egg and the chicken

Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis’s big day against N.C. State added a new game ball to David Cutcliffe’s office.
Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis’s big day against N.C. State added a new game ball to David Cutcliffe’s office.

In his wood-paneled office, David Cutcliffe has a collection of keepsakes that’s begging to grow. There’s the enlarged photo of the fervent student section that watched Duke open Cutcliffe’s tenure with a 31-7 win over James Madison last year, and there are game balls from that victory and his first conference win, a 31-3 shellacking of Virginia last September. There’s a scrapbook of press clippings from the early months of his tenure, and there’s a laminated copy of the speech he gave his players before the final game of his first season—a cross between benediction, poem and pep talk.

The mementos aren’t completely representative of his time at Duke, though. There was nothing particularly inspirational about the 13 games between the Blue Devils’ last two ACC wins, and for Cutcliffe, space on his shelves is precious. The decorations aren’t there for aesthetic purposes, even if league victories look as pretty in pictures as they do on the scoreboard. They’re there because Cutcliffe wants them there for inspiration, and that’s why a ball from Duke’s win Saturday over N.C. State will soon nestle its way into a certain corner office on the fourth floor of the Yoh Football Center.

Football isn’t democratic, and not all wins are created equal. Some are better than others. Saturday’s was the best in the last two years.

“I don’t know what a ‘signature’ win is. I think they’re all pretty neat myself,” Cutcliffe said Sunday. “On occasion, on a tough day, it’s important to remember past successes. I think it energizes you. A lot of people have themes in their office, and I like to think of success—that’s kind of my theme.”

It’s never been much of a Duke Football theme—not in the last 20 years, at least—and precedent is pesky at a place where football simply isn’t an aspect of campus culture. At Duke, football coaches are responsible for more than drawing X’s and O’s during the week and executing them on Saturdays. They have to make sure people are there to watch, hardly a concern at hotbeds like Tennessee, Notre Dame and Ole Miss, Cutcliffe’s last three stops. When Cutcliffe taught a coaching strategy class at Ole Miss, he moved the starting time to the wee hours of the morning and promised the packed room he would fail students if they weren’t on time. Nobody ever came late again.

Here, students get to class early and stay late. They get to Wallace Wade Stadium late and leave early, if they even bother coming at all.

Usually, it’d be hard to fault anyone who opted for a post-Tailgate nap. The Blue Devils were a bad football team—the worst, sometimes—and what’s more, they were a boring football team. They’re not anymore, and incompetence is no longer an excuse for apathy.

“We’ve got to put a product on the field that they enjoy watching play,” Cutcliffe told me a few weeks into his job, when his office was not his own, but simply a stale shadow of Ted Roof’s abode. “What comes first, the egg or the chicken? We’ve got to have people in the stands to create a little atmosphere for the players; we’ve got to have the players create a product on the field that gets people in the stands. This is their school. I want this to be the students’ football team, and I think they’ll enjoy the heck out of it.”

Eighteen games later, the Blue Devils are 7-11. Not good, but not bad. Certainly not the worst. Tennessee is 8-10 in the same time frame, and for comparison’s sake, Roof started 4-14 and Carl Franks 3-15. That is, the product on the field isn’t what it used to be, and if Saturday’s 49-28 win over N.C. State isn’t worthy of kickstarting the rest of the season, then I’m Thaddeus Lewis. (I’m not!)

Entering an open date and heading into matchups with three of the ACC’s most middling teams, the Blue Devils couldn’t have picked a better opportunity to finally put together the type of performance most expected out of them in their season opener. One game isn’t definitive—remember Richmond, anyone?—but it is indicative. Duke is better than it was at this time last year, and Duke is better than it was six weeks ago.

When Cutcliffe walked into the visitor’s media room on the field level of Carter-Finley Stadium Saturday, clutching a can of Diet Coke and sporting a cautious smile, he mentioned that the win warranted special recognition. It merited a game ball in his office, the space that looks nothing like it did the first time I saw the room nearly four years ago, when it belonged to Roof. About 18 months later, there I was again, staring through the head coach’s window into the stadium. Somehow, everything looked different. The office was bigger and the desk had been moved and, of course, the guy sitting behind it finally exuded the confidence that comes with winning.

After Saturday, lots of other parts of Duke Football look different, as well. The next time I look, maybe the student section will, too.