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A coaching farm system sustains Duke's improbable turnaround

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, right, puts a lot of emphasis on mentoring his assistant coaches. Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball’s small-market teams looking to combat the opulence of spendthrift contenders this summer ought to consider consulting with David Cutcliffe.

Before front office types in Milwaukee and Tampa guffaw at the suggestion a football coach from Duke of all places could ignite a divisional run, study the program development going on in Durham, North Carolina.

Cutcliffe has established what resembles a farm system at Duke, turning lightly recruited prospects into productive upperclassmen. Fifty-two players listed on Duke’s roster have redshirted. (It should be noted the Blue Devils recruiting has markedly improved recently.) But it begins with how Cutcliffe develops young assistants, grooming graduate assistants and quality control personnel into full-time coaches.

Marcus Johnson’s promotion to offensive line coach last month marked the fourth time Cutcliffe has hired a Duke support staff member as an assistant coach. Cornerbacks coach Derek Jones was a graduate assistant under Cutcliffe at Ole Miss.

More than half of Duke’s nine assistants rose through Cutcliffe's farm system from rookie ball to The Show. Since Re'quan Boyette was the first to be promoted from within the Duke staff in 2013, the Blue Devils are 27-13.The three years prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival, they had two wins combined -- one against an FCS school.

"There’s a huge reason we do it: Our greatest winning edge is our day-to-day operations in practice, how we manage and motivate and mentor players," Cutcliffe said. "It’s somewhat of a learned behavior in that regard. We are very committed to the mentorship, not just the coaching, and so I think our people really understand that. And the greatest benefactors from that are our players."

Duke is unique within the ACC, as its coaches will tell you, given the school’s academic requirements and the coaching staff’s social standards. Though the university is committed to football and keeping with the facilities arms races, it isn’t going to burn through resources like some major programs can afford to do. There isn’t going to be a coordinator earning $1.6 million at Duke in 2016.

Establishing a winning culture demands some form of continuity in a sport that is naturally unstable with annual roster and coaching turnover. It took six seasons for Cutcliffe to win a division and eight to win a bowl game, a first at Duke since 1961. So when Clemson or Florida or Ole Miss or the NFL poaches one of Cutcliffe’s assistants, searches for replacements often begin with in-house candidates. (Two new assistants for 2016 were outside hires from Boston College and Purdue. The remaining two assistants on staff were hired from Cornell.)

"Continuity is where it starts, because we talk about being that developmental program," Boyette said. "Our culture and environment means more to us than winning games, because when that’s right everything falls in line. You want to keep that consistency."

Receivers coach Jeffrey Faris, a graduate assistant in 2012 and 2013, said Cutcliffe "spends the time that I'm sure no other head coach in the country would do helping [non-staff personnel] understand, coaching them on how to really coach." There is an investment from Cutcliffe in those younger coaches, who often earn $1,000 a month or less at some schools while taking graduate coursework. It’s an underappreciated position, and some programs will cycle through graduate assistants as it’s only a two- or three-year job.

"But he takes tremendous pride in bringing guys up who knows his system," Faris said.

Graduate assistants often have the thankless tasks of piecing together film or setting up drills, but Duke assistant Matt Guerrieri was the team’s safeties coach when he was a graduate assistant.

"He ingrains his philosophies in every assistant, from coordinator to intern. What people don’t realize is he’s going to coach his coaches on how to coach just as hard as he coaches his players how to play," Guerrieri said. "What he does is find young talent and cultivate it, and then give you more responsibilities as a GA underneath him."

With 23 wins over the three seasons since Cutcliffe promoted Boyette, the Blue Devils matched their best three-year stretch since 1960-1962. To get a perspective of what the sport’s landscape was at that time, that previous run began less than 10 years after the Heisman Trophy was awarded to a Princeton halfback.

Once regarded as a place incapable of sustained success, Cutcliffe is using homegrown talent within his coaching farm system to turn Duke into a viable ACC Coastal contender every year.

"Once you're family and you show you’re willing to work hard, he knows he can help you learn the rest," Faris said. "Coach Cut wouldn't surround his players with anyone other an exceptional people, and if he can trust you to be a good person, he's the best at training young coaches."