David Cutcliffe - Tennessee offensive coordinator, quarterback guru and the ultimate tutor to a pair of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks - picked up the phone late last fall to hear the voice of then Duke athletic director Joe Alleva.
Alleva had a job opening. Cutcliffe wanted to be a head coach again. The fit appeared mutually beneficial, so Alleva wanted to send a private plane to fetch Cutcliffe for an interview.
Cutcliffe demurred and instead hopped in his car. Thoughts of one of major college football’s lousiest programs percolated in his mind as he drove more than five hours from Rocky Top to pigskin purgatory.
“I never told Joe this,” Cutcliffe recalled. “The reason I [drove] is I figured if I wanted to turn around halfway, I could.”
It wasn’t necessary. Instead, Cutcliffe emerged as a rare reason to believe Duke could be competitive in football after almost two decades of nearly uninterrupted, Sisyphean misery.
This is a guy who had five winning seasons in six years at Mississippi, a man who had no reason to leave a comfortable environment as Phil Fulmer’s trusted assistant at Tennessee, a schemer known for piecing together prolific offenses.
In short, his situation was the diametric opposite of Duke’s. And yet he wanted in at the Durham, N.C., school.
“When you have a guy like that who has a proven system and it works, you can’t do anything but buy into his system,” junior defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase said. “We’re not in a position not to buy in. We’ve been in every position possible where we’ve bought into everybody else’s system, and it hasn’t worked.”
Oghobaase isn’t kidding. Duke has played 18 seasons under four coaches since Steve Spurrier left for Florida after the 1989 season. The Blue Devils have more winless seasons (four) than winning seasons (one) in that time. They’ve endured ACC skids of 17, 21, 30 and 25 games.
Mostly, they’ve just lost, rolling up a 43-159-1 record.
And Cutcliffe thinks he’s the one to reverse the slide.
The table with the Duke football coach is not typically the most visited during the ACC’s annual kickoff event. Cutcliffe, though, maintained a steady audience for well more than an hour last week.
He jotted plays on his placard. He talked about family and doing things the right way and all the other stuff a first-year coach might discuss.
He also displayed what is usually a prerequisite for a Blue Devils coach: a sense of humor.