No Longer a Pipe Dream
By Matthew Osborne
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The road has been long and unforgiving, but the Blue Devils have finally arrived at a destination which previously seemed like a mere pipe dream.
For most college football fans, bowl games serve little purpose other than to shorten the gap between the end of one football season and the start of the next.
While the 15 additional practices and the opportunity to see their beloved team play one final game are certainly perks of the bowl process, an invitation to a bowl game typically does not generate feelings of pure excitement and adulation amongst the masses.
For die-hard fans of the Duke Blue Devils, however, an invitation to a bowl game has long felt like an unattainable commodity, a strangely elusive conclusion which the team could never seem to achieve. Since the end of the 1994 season, the Blue Devils had gone 17 consecutive seasons without winning the six games necessary in order to receive a bowl invitation, a streak of ineptitude previously unseen in the modern era of college football.
Luckily for the forlorn Duke faithful, 17 years of infuriating futility came to an end with the Blue Devils’ dramatic 33-30 win over the rival North Carolina Tar Heels this past Saturday, a win which pushed their record to 6-2, good enough for bowl eligibility.
Although some might find it difficult to fathom the possibility of 17 consecutive losing seasons, a brief glance back at the state of the program just five years ago makes it easier to understand how such a prolonged stretch of failure came to fruition.
Senior wide receiver Conner Vernon, the ACC’s all-time leader in career receptions, best explained the transformation of the program.
“I couldn’t even imagine what it was like before I got here,” said Vernon. “When I got here, we didn’t even have a 100-yard practice field. It was still under construction, and then as soon as we reported for camp my freshman summer, they had just finished up our turf practice field. Two years later, we have our indoor practice field.”
The man responsible for overseeing Duke’s long and arduous climb towards respectability was current head coach David Cutcliffe.
A disciple of the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, Cutcliffe honed his coaching skills as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee, before accepting the head coaching job at Ole Miss in December of 1998.
Following a successful six-year stint in Oxford, Cutcliffe was inexplicably fired following the 2004 regular season.
After taking a year off due to medical issues, Cutcliffe returned to Tennessee as the offensive coordinator, where he vowed that he would continue to coach the Volunteers until the appropriate head coaching position was offered to him.
As it turns out, that head coaching job would be offered to him just two years later, as the Ted Roof era in Durham did not go the way which athletic director Joe Alleva had planned, resulting in Roof’s dismissal at the conclusion of the 2007 season.
The search for a new head coach led the Blue Devils’ athletic administration to Cutcliffe, who had a strong background of winning football games.
Cutcliffe accepted the position after making the voyage to the Duke campus to talk with members of the athletic department, but he was keenly aware that there was much work to be done in order to make the Blue Devils competitive once again. Among the priorities on his list of changes were upgraded facilities, an improved gameday experience and an administrative commitment to the football program, in addition to the expansive schematic and personnel adjustments which were to take place.
Toughing his way through four losing seasons and the introduction of a new athletic director (Kevin White replaced Alleva shortly after his hiring), Cutcliffe has now accomplished each of his initial goals for the program.
“It’s been monumental,” Vernon commented on the effect that his coach has had on the Duke program. “The strides that this program has made, not only on the field, but off the field, under his reign…I mean, I don’t think anybody else could have done what he has done here.”
Never was Cutcliffe’s effect on the program more on full display than during Duke’s bowl-clinching victory over the Tar Heels.
Coming out of the new and improved Yoh Football Center, and making the walk into a newly renovated Wallace Wade Stadium (more renovations are on the way), the Blue Devils were welcomed by a boisterous sell-out crowd of Duke blue-clad supporters. For a program which not too long ago was worried about meeting the NCAA’s newly-imposed threshold for attendance numbers, the sold out crowd provided a distinct home-field advantage not seen in nearly two decades.
“It’s been pretty crazy the last couple of weeks,” Vernon described of the hype surrounding the football team. “Coming into Carolina, we knew how important the game was and how high the stakes were. We preached that all week long to the school and the students, and we had an unbelievable turnout. That was by far the best crowd I’ve seen in Wallace Wade in my four years. That was something we haven’t had in the past.”
The Duke faithful, as well as the remainder of the ACC, are now believers in this football team. Before the Blue Devils could get fans to believe in the team, however, the players first had to believe in themselves.
“We had the same goal as everybody else at the beginning of the year, and that was to play in Charlotte [in the ACC Championship Game]. A lot of people laughed at that, but we knew how good we were.”
And just how good are the Blue Devils?
Well, a quick glance over the ACC standings shows the team in sole possession of first place in the ACC Coastal Division.
While it has yet to be seen whether or not the Blue Devils will be able to withhold the rest of the division for the remainder of the season (Duke still has games against Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami), ultimately, the rest of the 2012 campaign is inconsequential.
Bowl eligibility might not mean much to the average football fan, but it means more than words can describe for fans of the Duke Blue Devils.
The road has been perilously long and painfully unforgiving, but the Blue Devils have finally arrived at a destination which previously seemed like a mere pipe dream.
Live it up, Duke fans. This one has been a long time coming.