Feeling Blue

New coach David Cutcliffe faces tough task in turning around Duke

Former Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe addresses the Vols prior to the Outback Bowl last December.

May 16, 2008

By Adam Caparell



Caparell is CSTV.com's football editor and national football writer.

When you haven't won an ACC game in your last 25 tries, you tend to do much more listening than talking. 


And when your new head coach is David Cutcliffe, the renowned offensive mastermind and quarterback guru, just keep quiet, listen, learn and follow.


"He knows what he's doing. His resume speaks for itself," Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis said.


The school that wins all the time on the hardwood has faced more than its fair share of lean years on the gridiron and the man the Blue Devils hope can change that is Cutcliffe.


Duke's 21st head coach comes to Durham highly decorated, highly recommended and highly regarded. And for good reason. Starting in 1982, Cutcliffe spent 17 seasons as an assistant with Tennessee where he helped the Vols win four SEC titles, appear in 16 bowl games and take home the 1998 national championship.


He then parlayed that success in Knoxville to five bowl appearances in six seasons as the Ole Miss head coach. He won the SEC Coach of the Year award after he led the Rebels to the 2003 SEC West Division championship and a victory in the Cotton Bowl. And of course, he's one of the names most closely associated with the development of the best pair of quarterbacking brothers in football history; Peyton and Eli Manning.


So when Cutcliffe speaks, you listen. Especially when you've won one game over the past two seasons. And if, for some reason, Cutcliffe can't get your attention then maybe his two most celebrated protégés can. That was the case for Lewis.


During spring practice, the Manning brothers paid a visit to Cutcliffe in Durham and as they were making their way through the Duke football facilities, Lewis ran into the pair who gave him some rather simple advice about the new head coach. They told Lewis to do whatever Cutcliffe tells him.


 "He's just like God. Do as he says," Lewis joked.


Cutfliffe's mind and methods have produced results wherever he's gone, but it will be a challenge to replicate the same success in Durham. The Blue Devils are the perennial basement dwellers of the ACC. They haven't been to a bowl game since 1994, the last time they won more than four games in a season. This decade has seen the Blue Devils win a total of nine games thanks in large part to three winless, and totally forgettable, campaigns. And it's been almost two decades since they last won an ACC title.


Part of the blame can be attributed to the university. Many, including soon-to-be-former Duke AD Joe Alleva, have blamed the university for its lack of commitment toward the football program as a big reason why the Blue Devils have been so awful. Meanwhile, there has been no lack of institutional commitment shown to other sports.


But that could be changing. The university announced that it intends to try and change the culture of the program through steps and initiatives and Cutcliffe, who will be paid $1.5 million annually, is the first step toward that reaching those goals. But Cutcliffe isn't going to do it on his own. 


"One of the first things I told them was I didn't come here to change the culture," Cutcliffe said. "I came here to assist them to earn a change of culture and real quickly I put in their minds if anything was going to change it was going to have to come from within them. Internally and externally. Internally they've paid a hell of a price."


Cutcliffe's laid out a number of tenets from the beginning, with the need for speed at the top of his list. Coming from the SEC, Cutcliffe has seen first hand what speed can do for a team and he thought Duke's lack of it, along with poor conditioning, cost them in the fourth quarter of a number of games.


So since the winter, Cutcliffe has been making his team run, run and run.


"If there's one thing, we're going to be a well-conditioned team," Lewis said.


They're also going to be more disciplined. Never before were the Blue Devils pushed so hard in spring practice. The smallest mistakes meant punishment. Line up with your hand too close to the line of scrimmage and expect to do plenty of up and downs.


And if they're going to be better conditioned, and better disciplined, Duke is also going to be a more confident team. One of the first things Cutcliffe noticed when he laid eyes on the Blue Devils was their blue disposition.


"Very little confidence, a bunch of guys hanging on every word you said," Cutcliffe recalled of that first meeting.


But he also saw a hunger in those same eyes. And he immediately began talking about what the future would hold: winning seasons and eventually bowl games, things that have been nothing but a pipe dream for the Blue Devils in recent years.


"It's just a new atmosphere around here, a new attitude around here," Lewis said. "Coach has been treating us like a big-time football program."


Big-time football program and Duke have never been synonymous with each other and they very well may never be, but Cutcliffe seems determined that he can turn around the Blue Devils.


He's just stressing that he can't do it alone and that his name, no matter how much cache it carries around the game, is only as good as his players.  


"He's let us know that it's up to us to go there and do it," Lewis said. "He can lead us to the well, but we have to drink."


And since Cutcliffe came on board, Lewis and the rest of the Blue Devils have been drinking up as much as they can stomach.

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