Who says you can't win big at Duke?
DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke coach David Cutcliffe has never been one to make promises he can't keep.
It's a big part of who he is and helps explain his unprecedented success at a place that his athletic director, Kevin White, concedes foreclosed on football for much of the past 40 years.
"They just said it was unimportant and maintained it at some level just to stay in the ACC, but weren't really working at it and knew they weren't working at it," White said.
Then along came Cutcliffe, after being hired in December 2007, with a vision, a plan and what seemed like a far-fetched dream to everybody but those players, coaches and staff members who will board the team buses to Charlotte, N.C., to face No. 1 Florida State on Saturday night in the ACC championship game.
"This wasn't a rebuilding job. It was a total resurrection," said Gerald Harrison, one of several people to follow Cutcliffe from Tennessee to Duke and who is now an associate athletic director for the Blue Devils.
"We were trying to raise it from the dead."
And that's hardly an exaggeration.
In the eight years prior to Cutcliffe's arrival, the Blue Devils won a total of 10 football games. They've won 10 this season, the most in school history. The last time they won nine in a season was their 1941 Rose Bowl season.
This also will be the first time in school history that they've played in bowl games in back-to-back seasons, and their ACC Coastal Division championship was their first title of any kind since Steve Spurrier led them to a share of an ACC title in 1989.
"We're the only ones who believed that we could get to this point, and we're the only ones who believe that we can get past it," said Duke senior defensive end Kenny Anunike, who like the rest of his teammates seems to be reveling in the fact that nobody is giving the Blue Devils a chance against the Seminoles.
But it has been like that all season.
"They picked us last in the Coastal Division," junior quarterback Brandon Connette noted. "We know how good we are and what level we can play to, and although everybody else may not believe it, we believe we're a good football team regardless of what everybody else may believe."
After Duke clinched its first trip to the ACC championship game last Saturday with a 27-25 win over North Carolina, Connette found Cutcliffe in a jubilant Blue Devils locker room and thanked his head coach.
Cutcliffe had convinced Connette to spurn Stanford and leave his home in Corona, Calif., to come to Duke. As part of his recruiting pitch, Cutcliffe made Connette a very bold promise.
"He told me we would be playing for an ACC title before I left here," Connette recounted. "I just wanted to thank him for keeping his word. Everything he told me during the recruiting process has come true, and we're not finished yet."
In fact, Cutcliffe is confident this is just the beginning. The Blue Devils have significantly upgraded their roster each year he has been there. They've been able to attract and hold onto top-flight assistant coaches, and their facilities are light years ahead of what they were when Cutcliffe took the job.
A state-of-the-art indoor practice facility now sits where a 60-yard practice field, which was more dirt than grass and was flanked by weeds, used to sit.
And the best news for the Blue Devils is that they're recruiting as well as they ever have.
"I can tell you right now that we're here to stay," said Cutcliffe, selected as the ACC Coach of the Year for the second straight season. "We will be better next year and will be better two years from now."
Having spent just about all of his coaching career in the SEC, Cutcliffe came to Duke with his eyes wide open.
"I had a lot of learning to do," Cutcliffe said. "I had never been to a private institution, much less an elite private institution. I had a lot to learn about how you function in this environment."
He sought out former players at Duke. He sat in on general student body evaluations during the admission process with Duke's dean of admissions, Christoph Guttentag, and he leaned heavily on the Blue Devils' Hall of Fame basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, for advice on what kind of kid would succeed at Duke.
In short, Krzyzewski told Cutcliffe to stay true to the quality of person that was going to be successful at Duke and to never step over that line, but not to limit yourself, either.
"You've got to continue to attack getting a better player and think about where you go recruit at Duke," Cutcliffe said. "I tell people if you want to catch bass, don't go fish in a brim pond. You better know where to fish. We go to a lot of places we think we're going to be successful, environments we think we're going to be successful."
The Blue Devils have been able to sign players from California, Texas and Florida. But one of the most glaring differences under Cutcliffe has been their ability to find key contributors in-state. They have 28 players from the state of North Carolina on their current roster. That compares to eight when Cutcliffe arrived.
For that matter, Duke had more starters from the state of North Carolina than the Tar Heels did last week, and the Charlotte area has been especially good to the Blue Devils.
The players say there's a common theme with everybody Cutcliffe brings into the program.
"You have to find a blend of athletes with character, and that's one thing that he's brought here," Connette said. "That's the biggest reason we are doing so well."
Anunike, who's a rare sixth-year senior, has seen it evolve every step of the way under Cutcliffe. It used to be that the roster was littered with Duke students who played football. Now, there's a pipeline of legitimate football players coming in who are also Duke students.
"Not everybody can survive here," Anunike said "There's a standard you're held to, being a Duke football player and holding up in your classes. You've got to be able to compete in the classroom as well as compete on the field."
Everybody talks about the pressure mounting for Saturday's ACC championship game. The real pressure for the Duke players is preparing for final exams next week.
"I'm thankful the game is Saturday night because I intend to let them sleep in Saturday morning because I know in my heart that they will be up all night this week doing papers and studying for finals," Cutcliffe said. "I tell them, 'You've got to be ready to play this game, but you can't dump your academics.' You just can't do that here."
But then, that's the part of this challenge that has been so rewarding for Cutcliffe, who said he has never been around a group of seniors who've been better leaders and set better examples than this group.
"It's the most fun I've ever had in coaching," Cutcliffe said. "I love the people I'm surrounded by, staff included. My equipment room guys, Wes Pickell and Tommy Phillips, are the best in business.
"And then you look at our players. I'm blessed with the kids we have here. We took the locks off our lockers. I don't ever want to coach anywhere again where you have to lock the locker room. A big reason we're winning is because of the kind of kids we have. I can't imagine coaching anywhere else."
The irony of it all is that Cutcliffe didn't know if he would ever be able to coach anywhere again eight years ago after undergoing triple bypass surgery and then experiencing complications from the surgery.
Ole Miss had inexplicably fired him following the 2004 season, only a year removed from the Rebels winning 10 games and sharing the Western Division title with eventual national champion LSU.
At the time, Archie Manning advised Cutcliffe to take a year off after what had been an enormously stressful season, but Cutcliffe took the offensive coordinator's job at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis.
Already experiencing chest pains, Cutcliffe returned to Oxford during spring break and went to see his doctor.
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"They gave me a stress test, and after about 45 seconds, the doctor goes, 'Whoa!' and stops it," Cutcliffe said. "I had surgery the next morning."
Because of the complications with his breathing and a few other concerns, Cutcliffe remained in the hospital for four weeks. He lost 30 pounds and was incredibly weak. He had no choice but to resign his position at Notre Dame and sat out the 2005 season.
He and his wife, Karen, talked about whether he should coach at all again. Cutcliffe did some radio that year and enjoyed it, but kept coming back to something Bear Bryant told him when Cutcliffe was a student assistant at Alabama.
"Coach Bryant told me once, 'Don't coach at this level because you love it. The only reason to do it is because you can't live without it,'" Cutcliffe said. "I told Karen I couldn't live without it."
So Cutcliffe returned to Tennessee for two seasons as Phillip Fulmer's offensive coordinator and then got the call from Duke following the 2007 season.
"It's the best decision I've ever made," said Cutcliffe, who's in excellent health now and can be found walking the Wallace Wade Stadium steps just about every morning, usually before 5 a.m.
"I want to be a person that's made a difference in our profession and not just have a decent career. What I would tell coaches is to find a job that fits your personality and something you truly believe in and not something you're just working in.
"This place has been the perfect fit for me."