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August 17, 2008
Cutcliffe faces difficult challenge at Duke
» MORE: ACC preview | ACC unit rankings | Duke fall practice coverage
On the field.
In the classroom.
Even at the campus dump.
"During our community service, we all had to pick up trash around campus," junior defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase said. "At the end of our community service, we all took trash bags to the dumpster and dumped them in there at the same time, so we all finished community service together."
Consider that a metaphor for the challenge that awaits Cutcliffe as he attempts to revive a Duke program that would like to toss its past few seasons - heck, maybe even its past few decades - in the trash bin.
Cutcliffe, who was Tennessee's offensive coordinator when Duke hired him, already proved in his last head-coaching stint that he knew how to rejuvenate a program. Ole Miss went 44-29 and reached four bowls in six seasons under Cutcliffe. The Rebels have gone 10-25 with no bowls in the three seasons since his departure.
Cutcliffe's latest assignment is infinitely tougher.
Tommy Tuberville already had built a winning foundation at Ole Miss before Cutcliffe's arrival. Cutcliffe later benefited from the emergence of star quarterback Eli Manning. Cutcliffe's predecessor at Duke, Ted Roof, was 6-45 overall and 3-33 in the ACC. And the Blue Devils certainly don't have a player with Manning's potential.
How bad is the program Cutcliffe now oversees? The Blue Devils have lost 25 consecutive ACC games. And Duke has posted more than two wins just once in its past eight seasons while posting an overall record of 10-82.
Duke has struggled in just about every phase of the game. The Blue Devils are 7-for-22 on field-goal attempts the past two seasons. They have failed to average more than 3.2 yards per carry each of the past four seasons. And they've finished last in the ACC in total defense and scoring defense for three consecutive seasons.
Duke wasn't always one of the worst major college programs in the country. The Blue Devils posted four top-10 finishes in a six-year span from 1938-43. Duke won seven Southern Conference or Atlantic Coast Conference championships from 1952-62.
Since then, it's been mostly downhill. The Blue Devils have posted just one winning season – an 8-4 mark in 1994 – since Steve Spurrier closed his Duke career by earning a share of the ACC title in 1989.
Spurrier, for one, thinks Duke made a good hire.
"Dave Cutcliffe is a super coach," he said. "He's got a proven track record. He'll get them competitive. It's hard to beat a whole bunch of teams (at Duke), but they should be very competitive soon."
Merely being competitive would represent a giant step. There's a reason Cutcliffe resists the temptation to predict a bowl bid or a certain number of victories. Duke can't afford to look that far ahead.
"I'm not avoiding the question, but I don't think we can think that way," he said. "When your seniors have won two games in their career, when your last home victory was Sept. 17, 2005, for us to get beyond focusing totally on beating James Madison in the opener is a big mistake."
Why take on this kind of challenge?
Cutcliffe said conversations with Duke president Richard Brodhead and other university officials led him to believe the school was serious about upgrading its program. And Cutcliffe understands what needs to be done.
"I'm not going to burden our guys with numbers and predictions because I don't want them thinking that way," Cutcliffe said. "The thing I would characterize as a success is believing you can win and competing like you can win every week. That's a bigger deal than you think.
"We went through that at Ole Miss. When you're playing LSU or you're playing Alabama or Auburn, you know you're not supposed to win, (that) something's going to happen even if we get a little lead. That was the biggest challenge we faced there early on. It's magnified 100 times at Duke."
Duke's strict academic standards make the challenge particularly difficult, but Wake Forest has proved it's possible for a small private school to succeed in the ACC. Cutcliffe has embraced Duke's academic reputation and even used it to set a long-term goal for his program.
"I want people coming to Duke eventually because they want to play at a great football program and they happen to get a great education on the side, rather than coming just to get a great education and they don't care what kind of football program it is," Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe began his Herculean task by issuing a challenge to his players. He let them know they wouldn't stop losing games until they started losing weight. In one of his first practices, Cutcliffe called the Blue Devils the softest and fattest group of players he ever had seen. His players responded by dropping a combined 400 pounds over the next three months.
"Looking back on it now, I feel we were kind of out of shape," senior wide receiver Eron Riley said. "If you look at it, we'd be in a lot of games to the end and we couldn't finish the game off. I believe it was because players got tired. The 'want to' was there. We'd just get tired."
The Blue Devils were tied or ahead in the fourth quarter five times over the past two seasons, but they only have one win to show for it.
Cutcliffe and his staff already have won some battles off the field. Duke has commitments from 21 class of 2009 prospects, including two four-star recruits (defensive tackle John Drew of Columbus, Ga., and running back Desmond Scott of Durham, N.C.). Duke had signed only one four-star prospect (tight end Brandon King) in its past three recruiting classes.
Duke's upcoming recruiting class indicates Cutcliffe is upgrading the talent level, but he first must find a way to win more games with the players he inherited from Roof. Duke returns 19 starters from the team that went 1-11 last season, including promising junior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who ranks second to Florida State's Drew Weatherford among all active ACC players in career total offense, passing yards and touchdown passes.
Lewis figures to benefit from working alongside one of the nation's foremost quarterback gurus, but Cutcliffe also must try to spark a running attack that gained just two yards per carry last season. He may have to do it without Re'Quan Boyette, who led Duke with 432 rushing yards last season but is out indefinitely after undergoing knee surgery last week.
"I think we're going to be able to throw the football pretty well," Cutcliffe said. "For Duke to be better, we've got to find a way to be a more physical offense and more balanced."
Boyette's injury represents the latest setback in a program that can't afford much adversity. The Blue Devils' inability to run the ball or make a field goal in recent seasons makes it easy to assume they'll struggle to win more than one or two games this year. The optimism of Duke's players suggests otherwise. They insist Cutcliffe's arrival has brought an energy that was missing around campus.
"The sky's the limit, realistically," Oghobaase said. "The sky's the limit. We're under a new regime right now and things are looking very, very positive for Duke football. We can't just talk about what we're going to do. We're going to go out and show people so they can believe."
How long will it for Duke to give skeptics a reason to believe? Cutcliffe doesn't know exactly when it will happen, but he's sure that it eventually will happen.
"We've got to earn the right to win," Cutcliffe said. "We haven't earned that right yet. No one's going to give you anything. We're going to earn the right to win sometime, somehow.
"It will eventually come together that we're winning more than we're losing sometime. I don't know when, but it will."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.