Every college football season, there’s usually one team that turns out to be a surprise. This year, it’s Duke.
The Blue Devils have won ten games-- the most in school history. It’s a big turnaround for a team long overshadowed by basketball and a laughingstock of the Atlantic Coast Conference. But now, Duke is headed to the ACC championship game.
The team earned its invitation to the ACC over the weekend, after it beat UNC. At a sports bar near campus, lifelong Duke fans Larry Goss and Bobbi Harris hugged each other with tears in their eyes.
"I never would’ve imagined I mean you know I’ve been following ‘em for years, this is just unbelievable," said Goss.
Duke Football is the season of perpetual hope for me," said Harris. "I’ve always thought we could do this. Next Saturday we can win, ‘cause we can do this!"
Tomorrow, Duke faces top-ranked Florida State. It’s a journey few football fans expected. Harris attributes Duke’s rise to Coach David Cutcliffe- nicknamed Coach Cut- who was hired six years ago:
"That’s leadership, honey. That’s Coach Cut, a hundred percent. When a coach comes in and he believes so much in a group of young men and the young men respect him, and believe in the program, that’s all it takes sometimes."
Cutcliffe came to Duke with a great reputation. After all, 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 envision winning championships.
"After watching that first workout, I was thinking about when we would get the first win, you know, it went to that," said Cutcliffe. "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 arrived, 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 is a running back for the Blue Devils. He attended high school about an hour away:
"Before Coach Cut came to see me, I really had no idea about Duke having a football team. So you know coming in he was like well we are on the low end of a football program, but you know we’re trying to get guys that can come in and help change this program."
Snead says he’s proud he contributed to that change. He was also 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. Kelby Brown is a linebacker from Charlotte.
"We got a pipeline going through the state. And that’s not how it used to be for Duke recruiting, cause I mean it was hard to get kids in here, but now we’re getting top level athletes from in state, which kind of corrals the program," says Brown.
And alumni have noticed. Duke has raised enough money to renovate and expand seating in a football stadium that hasn’t changed significantly since it was built in 1929. This week on campus, the main topic of conversation is the game against Florida State. Zach Chartash is a senior.
"There’s no one I know going to the game that expects us to win," says Chartash. "But that doesn’t mean they’re not going. And that would’ve never happened before. So people are excited about the game."
Chartash says he knows his fellow students will continue cheering on Duke’s football team, no matter whether it wins or loses.