Commentary

Cutcliffe embraces challenge of rebuilding Duke

Originally Published: January 15, 2008
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

When David Cutcliffe was unceremoniously dumped by Mississippi following the 2004 season, his emotions understandably ran the gamut.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Scott Burton/Getty ImagesAfter proving he can win at Ole Miss, David Cutcliffe is ready for the challenge of rebuilding Duke.

One losing season at Ole Miss, and he was history, pushed out the door like a football pariah.

It was almost as if his 10-win season a year earlier and share of the SEC Western Division championship never happened. Same thing for his four bowl victories and the distinction of becoming the first coach in Ole Miss history to win at least seven games in each of his first five seasons.

Just like that -- and with nothing more than a flimsy explanation from the Ole Miss brass -- he was out of a job.

Cutcliffe didn't know what his next move would be, nor did he foresee the harrowing and whirlwind path he was about to take.

But he was sure of one thing: that he would get the chance to coach his own football team again some day.

"I don't want to sound arrogant, but I think I'm good at this. I feel like I was meant to be this, and I'm not just talking about coaching on the field. I'm talking about every facet of developing a program, and one of the biggest parts of that is the development of young people," said Cutcliffe, who now faces no small challenge in his second go-round as a head coach.

Cutcliffe, 53, takes over a Duke program that has had few peers the past two decades when it comes to football futility.

The Blue Devils have managed just four wins in the past four seasons and have lost 25 straight ACC games. They were 13-90 under their previous two coaches (Ted Roof and Carl Franks) and have not had a winning season since 1994.

Cutcliffe remains undaunted. He insists there is a hunger to win in football at Duke and, more importantly, a commitment to win.

He has a six-year contract that is guaranteed and will pay him $1.5 million annually. He had more than $2 million to use in assembling his staff. To put that figure in perspective, the Tennessee staff on which he was the offensive coordinator in 2007 was paid a total of $1.72 million (not counting coach Phillip Fulmer's $2.05 million salary).

"You win in college football with great assistant coaches and great organization, and we're going to have both," said Cutcliffe, who himself is one of the most respected molders of quarterbacks in the college game.

[+] EnlargeTed Roof
AP Photo/Karl B DeBlakerTed Roof's tenure at Duke ended on the heels of another losing season.

Cutcliffe was able to get many of the same coaches who worked for him at Ole Miss. He hired Mike MacIntyre away from the New York Jets to be his co-defensive coordinator. His other defensive coordinator also came from the NFL, Marion Hobby, who was with the New Orleans Saints the past two years.

Two of the assistants on Tennessee's staff, Kurt Roper and Matt Luke, followed Cutcliffe to Duke, and he was able to pry Ron Middleton away from the Alabama staff to coordinate the Blue Devils' special teams.

"When I came here to interview, I saw the fire in their eyes," Cutcliffe said. "That's all I needed to see. It felt right. When I got here, I knew it was right.

"I had a great time being around our kids in our first team meeting. You could see it in their eyes, too, but we've got a lot of work to do. Four wins in four years tells you about all you need to know."

Cutcliffe's first order of business is making Duke a stronger football team and a better conditioned football team.

"There's no ifs, ands or buts about it," Cutcliffe said. "That's a big challenge for all of us. We have to take our conditioning to another level if we want to compete."

Cutcliffe, long a stickler for doing the little things right, also wants to see the Blue Devils become a more prepared football team. Duke fans hope his vast offensive background can, at the very least, jump-start an offense that was anemic in 2007.

Nationally, the Blue Devils ranked 117th in total offense (271.1 yards per game) and 114th in scoring offense (17.9 points points per game). They scored 14 or fewer points in eight of their 12 games.

"The other thing is understanding what the demands are of a Division I program every day and the commitment it takes," Cutcliffe said. "I'm talking about how to start a drill and how to finish a drill. That's a big part of it, and it may not sound big. People may say, 'Gosh, don't you know how to compete?' But those who've been around this game understand what I'm talking about."

Cutcliffe said he will use Duke's glistening academic reputation and rigid entrance standards as a selling point and not a hindrance when he is recruiting.

Eli, Cutcliffe, and Peyton
Bill McCay/WireImage.com David Cutcliffe, known for his ability to groom quarterbacks, stands with former players Eli (left) and Peyton Manning.

"I know what a Duke education means," Cutcliffe said. "I don't care what school you're at -- you want a great player who's a great student and has great character. If you go out and sign three or four players like that and mix it with players with really good ability and great character who are great students, I think there's a diversity there that can work for us.

"We're looking for champions first, and they come from a lot of different directions. 'Winners' is what coach [Bear] Bryant used to call them."

The one thing Cutcliffe won't do is take anything for granted. His triple-bypass heart surgery, which forced him to resign from his position as assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame and ultimately take the 2005 season off from coaching, gave him a different perspective on things.

He moved his family back to Knoxville, where they were closer to family and friends. Later that year, Fulmer needed somebody to come in and revive the Vols' offense after a disastrous 5-6 season and turned to his old pal, Cutcliffe.

"It seemed like life slowed down for me," said Cutcliffe, who has been given a clean bill of health by his doctors and works out religiously every morning at 5:30. "It's almost like it was two different lives.

"Everything changed in March of 2005."

And now, here he is, back at the helm of a program he can call his own, one that, in many respects, needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

It's a challenge Cutcliffe embraces.

"Years from now, I want to look back and say, 'Look at what we did. We did make a difference,'" he said. "That's what we came here to do."

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.

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