DURHAM – In any way evaluated, David Cutcliffe was overqualified for Duke’s head coaching position.
After recruiting and molding both Eli an Peyton Manning, Cutcliffe became the foremost expert on college quarterbacks. While he was the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, he implemented the system that won the Volunteers a national championship in 1999.
His stint as head coach at Mississippi – a traditionally down program in a traditionally strong conference – ended because of his loyalty, not his record. Athletics director Pete Boone asked Cutcliffe to fire some of his assistants following his only losing season in Oxford in 2004.
Cutcliffe refused. He was fired.
When Cutcliffe arrived at Duke for his interview in December 2007, he walked the campus in the middle of the night, and saw Wallace Wade Stadium, an outdated relic in a fast-moving world of college facilities.
The program was in even worse shape. The Blue Devils had won 19 games in the 12 years before him, including four winless seasons. Duke hadn’t beaten an ACC team in more than three calendar years when Cutcliffe arrived.
But he had a vision. He called his wife to let her know.
“I said, ‘I think I’m gonna take this job,’” Cutcliffe said. “She said, ‘Have they offered it to you?’”
He smiled at the memory. “And I said, ‘No, but they will.’”
Cutcliffe asked to meet with basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, a meeting that, coupled with his late-night stroll, convinced him he could win at Duke. He let people know he thought his staff could change the culture at Duke, which was received with mostly laughter.
And can people be blamed for doubting Cutcliffe? Football was something Duke did because the NCAA limited basketball season to six months.
Recruits knew Duke was a perennial loser, too. It took a man who could command respect to change it and make kids believe they would benefit from playing football at school that was the mockery of major college football.
“Everyone who came here wanted to be part of change, just wanted to be part of the process we saw evolve,” said senior safety Walt Canty, part of Cutcliffe’s second recruiting class at Duke. “Coach Cut just let us believe in that, not only football but developing as men is another huge thing with Coach Cut. That’s why we’re all here.”
So the Blue Devils waited for the moment when they could say it was different.
It did not arrive without patience.
Duke didn’t have a 100-yard practice field when Cutcliffe arrived. His first four years were all losing seasons. Two of those years began with season-opening home losses to Richmond. There were 23 double-digit losses through which to suffer.
With Duke, it always came down to a swing of emotion.
The minute anything changed for the worse, Duke was doomed.
That swing came against North Carolina on Saturday.
The Tar Heels, who had trailed by 14 in the fourth quarter, completed a long pass, lost a fumble, watched a Duke player dive at the ball and miss, then scoop up the ball and run in for a touchdown to take a 4-point lead with 3:12 to play in the fourth quarter. Cutcliffe went to his offensive line immediately.
“We had talked about that very instant. We talked about it last Sunday. We talked about it Tuesday. We talked about it in the motel before we came over here,” Cutcliffe said. “I went and talked to the offensive line (after North Carolina scored) … and said ‘They blew it. They scored with too much time on the clock. This is exactly what we want right here. This is exactly where we want to be.’”
Duke came back with a season-defining, and maybe even program-defining, drive. Duke faced a third-and-5 from its own 18-yard line, a third-and-8 from its 49 and a third-and-6 from the Tar Heels’ 19 and converted each one.
The game came down to a fourth-and-2 from North Carolina’s 5-yard line with 19 seconds to play.
The Blue Devils played a five-wide-receiver set, to which the Tar Heels countered with single coverage. Quarterback Sean Renfree needed his fourth option, receiver Jamison Crowder, to make a difficult catch in traffic and hold on to the ball after being hit by two players.
Duke became bowl eligible for the first time since the 1994 season, beat North Carolina for the first time in nine tries and sits alone in first place in the ACC Coastal Division.
“That’s just something you dream about since you were a little kid,” Crowder said. “… It’s just a dream come true for me. I always think about that, scoring the last touchdown to win the game. It’s couldn’t have come better (than) against Carolina.”
After squandering a 20-point lead last week against Virginia Tech and failing in game-winning opportunities four times in 2011, Duke showed growth.
The Blue Devils attributed the change to experience: They’ve all played under Cutcliffe’s staff and no one else.
“We have a lot of experience on this team, and we’ve been through the downs,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We’ve been through a lot of the downs. We figured out what we need to do to get past that.”
The staff constructed an excellent game plan to beat North Carolina.
It revamped its running game from scratch, and the Blue Devils ran for 234 yards, a season-high.
It’s 4-2-5 defense, a nickel hybrid with three safties, has flourished in its second full season. Cockrell said the Blue Devils identified what North Carolina’s offense liked to run, and forced Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner to make check-downs. Renner had 36 yards passing through the first three quarters.
The biggest change for Duke, though, was attitude.
“I think our kids responded the way you want to see them respond,” offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. “They went out there with one focus, and that (was) to find a way to get a touchdown.
“They weren’t focused on the negative part of what just happened in the game, and we were able to put a drive together because of that, but I think it was all mindset.”
And part of Cutcliffe’s vision for Duke.
Conner Vernon, a senior who so many times has come into the post-game meetings with the media with his head down, trying to explain why Duke lost again, had lived the moment.
Duke can say it’s different. And it’s true.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Vernon said. “Everyone deserves it – our fans, the university – to finally take this team where it belongs. It’s been a long time since Duke has been a thought in football.
“To be 6-2 and 3-1 in the ACC and ahead of the Coastal, it’s Coach Cut’s vision finally unfolding.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com