Every college football season, at one team turns out to be a surprise. This year, it’s Duke.
The Blue Devils have won ten games — the most in school history. The team’s coach, David Cutcliffe, was just named national coach of the year.
It’s a big turnaround for a team that was once the laughingstock of the Atlantic Coast Conference and overshadowed by basketball. But now, Duke is headed to the ACC championship game.
After the Duke football team beat the University of North Carolina last weekend to make it to the ACC championship game, lifelong Duke fans Larry Goss and Bobbi Harris hugged each other at a sports bar with tears in their eyes.
“I never would’ve imagined, I mean, you know, I’ve been following them for years,” said Goss. “This is just unbelievable.”
“Duke football is the season of perpetual hope for me,” Harris said. “I’ve always thought we could do this. Next Saturday we can win, because we can do this!”
On Saturday, Duke faces top-ranked Florida State for the ACC title. It’s a journey few fans expected. Harris attributes Duke’s rise to Coach David Cutcliffe — nicknamed Coach Cut — who was hired six years ago.
“That’s leadership, honey,” said Harris. “That’s Coach Cut, a hundred percent.”
Cutcliffe came to Duke with a great reputation. As coach of the University of Mississippi, he landed star quarterback Eli Manning.
But Cutcliffe faced an uphill battle in Durham. He inherited a program with only three winning seasons in a quarter century. Alumni showed up for tailgate parties but left at kickoff.
Cutcliffe says when he arrived, he didn’t expect much.
“After watching that first workout, I was thinking about when we would get the first win,” he says. “We’ve believed in the process and the program has been far ahead of each team we had.”
There were setbacks. The year after Cutcliffe took over, Duke attorneys won a lawsuit by emphasizing how bad the football team was.
Recruiting was tough, but the new coach convinced players things would get better. Junior Josh Snead, a Blue Devils running back who attended high school about an hour away, was among those he persuaded.
“Before Coach Cut came to see me, I really had no idea about Duke having a football team,” Snead says. “So coming in, he was like, ‘Well, you know, we’re trying to get guys that can come in and help change this program.’ ”
Snead is part of a wave of high school players recruited from within the state. Now the Blue Devils have more North Carolinians than UNC’s team does.
Alumni have contributed enough money to renovate Duke’s Depression-era football stadium. Students are excited too, even though Florida State is expected to win Saturday’s game.
“There’s no one I know going to the game that expects us to win,” says senior Zach Chartash. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not going. And that would’ve never happened before. People are excited about the team.”