- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

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.

Change now

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.

“I’ve had more fun doing this job than any I’ve ever had,” Cutcliffe said. “I made that statement the other day, and some smart aleck said ‘Yeah, but you haven’t played a game yet.’”

Maybe he hasn’t, but his players have endured enough. Cutcliffe was far more aghast at the physiques of the players he inherited than their 2-33 record over the last three years.

After cutting his team’s first offseason workout short, Cutcliffe started laughing and drew some surprised glances from his befuddled players.

“I said ‘Coaches, can you believe this?’” Cutcliffe said. “Can you believe the goose has laid the golden egg right at our feet? This is the fattest, softest bunch of football players I’ve ever seen. If we just get them in shape, we have a chance to win.’”

So the offseason turned into a spinoff of “The Biggest Loser.” Oghobaase dropped from 25 percent body fat to 20 percent in four months. Wide receiver Eron Riley maintained his weight but decreased his body fat from 10.8 percent to 6.2 percent.

Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis slimmed down considerably as well. The junior started the winter at 17.9 percent; he’s now at 12.6 percent, all the better to show off athleticism muted by a young team that yielded 85 sacks the last two years.

“It was fun because you felt yourself getting better,” Lewis said. “You’d look in the mirror, and you’d see you’ve got muscles you’ve never seen before. You just feel better about yourself. You’re in better shape than you ever have been, and it gives you a new outlook.”

Duke needs one. The weight-loss program gave way to an active spring practice, one in which Lewis found himself busier than ever. There was never a moment to stop, even during special teams drills.

“The first day was kind of tough,” Lewis said. “It was brutal. … But by the 15th day, I was ready.”

But is everyone else? That would be quite a leap anywhere, not just Duke. But the Blue Devils might just be more prepared than ever.

Cutcliffe estimates Duke tripled its football budget, and no potential assistant coach turned down an offer to join his staff. Seven Duke assistants and the top strength coach worked with Cutcliffe at Mississippi, a familiarity that permitted Cutcliffe to move fast to implement his system.

“I got two notebooks going,” Cutcliffe said. “One’s thinking in the long term, and one is some things we can do right now to change our program. Because if we can’t change it now, then we weren’t worth hiring.”

No more talk

No two players loom larger in Cutcliffe’s background than Peyton and Eli Manning. Both were No. 1 overall draft picks. Both helped teams win Super Bowls in the last two years.

And both visited Duke this spring to let the Blue Devils’ quarterbacks ask about offenses, their new coach, anything.

“Their main point was, ‘Whatever Coach Cut says, do it,’” said Lewis, who last season threw for 2,430 yards and 21 touchdowns.

Perhaps his most obvious edict: Be quiet and work hard.

In the past, it wasn’t unusual to hear the Blue Devils discuss how close they were to winning more games, even to contending for the school’s first bowl berth since 1994.

Now, there is barely a mention of anything beyond the Aug. 30 opener against James Madison, the first of four straight home games to start the season.

“There’s a thing about talking about what you can do, and there’s another about showing people what you can do,” Oghobaase said. “We can’t talk about ‘Oh, we’re going to go this’ and give you a prediction of how many games we’re going to win. That’s crap. We’re not in a position to do that.”

That opinion comes straight from Cutcliffe, whose message has found a rapt audience in a group of players who haven’t enjoyed a home victory in nearly three years.

“It’s not easy to win at Virginia Tech,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not easy to win at Tennessee. It’s not easy to win at Georgia. It’s hard to win. I think our guys thought ‘These other guys had it easy to win. We just didn’t win because we weren’t supposed to win.’ You have to earn the right to win. I pretty much told them to shut up until you earn the right to win.”

Added Lewis: “If you want respect, you have to earn it. Instead of talking about it, be about it.”

So rather than turning around on the way to Durham, Cutcliffe reversed some attitudes upon his arrival. It isn’t a conference title, or a bowl berth, but it’s a source of hope.

And at Duke, that’s an immeasurable thing.

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