By David Glenn and staff
January 15, 2008
DURHAM When Duke began its search for a new football coach in late November, there were immediate hurdles to overcome.
Start with the national perception that nobody can win at Duke, meaning that it wouldn't matter whom the school hired. Add to that a well-known lack of support from the university's administration, including inappropriate funding and a willingness to let Wallace Wade Stadium turn into ancient ruins. A once-proud program, albeit long ago, Duke football had become a laughingstock.
How could the Blue Devils persuade an experienced coach to take the reins this time, when they hadn't been able to for close to a decade?
The last two Duke hires, first-time head coaches Carl Franks and Ted Roof, proved to be among the worst in ACC history. Both were ill-prepared to handle one of the most difficult jobs in college football.
Those lackluster hires were made by Duke athletic director Joe Alleva, yet he once again would head the school's search committee. Alleva went into the process with three fires and two hires on his resume. Questions about his ability to identify and land a viable candidate were more than warranted, considering his horrendous track record in regard to most things related to the gridiron.
Alleva fired veteran Fred Goldsmith, who despite his downward spiral actually had Duke four points from the Cotton Bowl in 1994. It was hard to argue that move, when Goldsmith went
9-35 after Duke's last bowl season, but to fire him for Franks? A Duke alum, Franks had a fancy title at Florida, but in reality he was little more than a clipboard holder for UF coach Steve Spurrier.
Spurrier, of course, has maintained a relationship with Duke ever since his successful three-year run with the Blue Devils in 1987-89. He gave Franks a good review. That was enough at the time for Alleva to hire Franks, as the cupboard was bare of quality candidates looking to head the Duke program.
In Goldsmith, Alleva had fired a coach whom Miami once strongly considered to take over its powerful program. Goldsmith, now the head coach at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, even had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated for his amazing turnaround job at Rice, before he jumped to Duke.
In retrospect, most Duke football followers attach much more fault to Alleva for hiring Franks than for firing Goldsmith. Regardless, the fact that a once-hot coach such as Goldsmith soon found himself at the high school and Division II levels, after failing with the Blue Devils, only added to Duke's reputation as a football coaches' graveyard.
Franks was so bad that he made fans look back on Mike McGee as a great coach. By the time the Devils laid down in the 2003 Wake Forest game, fans thirsted for McGee's .500 records. With Franks' team trailing 42-0 at the half, word came down from the president's box that enough was enough. Alleva was instructed to make a midseason firing.
Alleva made the right decision in turning over the interim title to Ted Roof, then the team's defensive coordinator. But the AD made another huge mistake when he retained Roof after the season and awarded him with a five-year deal. What had Roof done? He had won two ACC games in five tries, one over his alma mater Georgia Tech and more importantly one over rival North Carolina.
After the season, the interest in the job was pitiful. The final candidates were Roof, Colgate coach Dick Biddle (a former Duke player) and a past-his-prime Bobby Ross, who had resigned as the head coach of the NFL's Detroit Lions during the 2000 season. A big winner at Maryland (three ACC titles in five seasons) and Georgia Tech (co-national championship in 1990), Ross withdrew from the Duke search, telling friends he questioned the Blue Devils' commitment to football. Soon after, he took the Army job.
By most accounts, the 2004 Duke search was lazy at best, and woefully incompetent at worst. It again reinforced what the coaching community thought of the school's commitment to football.
The writing had been on the wall that Roof would not be retained this past season long before it was made official. Alleva contended during the dismissal press conference that a decision had not been made during the season, but multiple Duke sources said otherwise, and ACCSports.com (working with WRAL in Raleigh) broke the news on Thanksgiving Day, before the Devils' finale against UNC. Roof later said he saw the news on TV that night.
Roof's coaching style had made the game against one of the worst Notre Dame teams in history look like an uphill battle from the outset. Duke fell flat against the Fighting Irish, then blew the Carolina game with more special-teams snafus, one of the undesirable trademarks of the Roof era.
Shortly thereafter, school officials sent out word that Duke was to have a press conference discussing the future of Duke football. There were more attendees there than at all of the 2007 season's weekly press conferences combined. Out came Alleva, stating the obvious, that the decision to dismiss Roof had been made.
Alleva then went into the criteria for the next coach. He wanted a proven Division I-A winner and an offensive-minded guy, stating that Duke needed to score points to win games rather than trying to eke out 10-9 victories. As the questions poured in, Alleva became vague. He mentioned a strategic plan but wouldn't offer any details. He danced around questions to the point where it left some media members having to go back to their recorders, trying to decipher his often-cryptic comments. The one thing he said that later came back to haunt him was that Duke would not hire or use a consulting firm.
Many at Duke had their doubts that Alleva could get the job done. While he had made great hires in other sports, his track record in football was worrisome to those who wanted to see the Blue Devils win before they died.
With one answer, Alleva displayed both his obvious love of Duke and his lack of perspective about his own football program. In response to a question about how he would land a top-flight coach, he said, "Because we are Duke."
There was a minor piece of drama before the real drama began. In what some saw as an unusual move, Roof was allowed to have a press conference just hours after Alleva's. While Roof had stated that he wanted to keep his job and to complete what he started, he sometimes contradicted himself in his statements, perhaps still frustrated that he was among the last to find out about his future.
Interestingly, Roof had called a local writer in between the press conferences, encouraging him to ask a specific question. It basically gave the coach a chance to say that he wouldn't have taken the job had he known all of the relevant details at the time.
Some at Duke later questioned how Roof could have served under Franks and not understood the deal. Besides, they asked, who else would have offered Roof a head coaching position? On one hand, Roof wanted to keep the job, but when it wasn't his anymore, he lashed out in a planned, not-so-veiled way. A pleasant, friendly man, he didn't sound bitter overall, but he threw a shot or two.
Once the search began, it didn't take the local media long to spot Spurrier on campus. Alleva and Spurrier are friends, but while the visit was for general counsel, Spurrier was offered the job.
Some speculated that Spurrier had become weary at South Carolina, and that he might return to Duke, perhaps with the understanding that his son would take over at the end of his tenure. Whether or not Duke was willing to make an offer than included that detail, it was a pipedream. The real reason for Spurrrier's visit to Durham was a recruiting trip, and to offer his two cents to Alleva.
Duke then moved on to its first realistic target, Paul Johnson of Navy. The Blue Devils made a valiant effort, even offering a package that would approach $2 million per year, but in the end Johnson wanted too many concessions and guarantees, and he saw the Georgia Tech job as a better opportunity anyway.
It didn't help Johnson, who has an extremely blunt conversation style, that he made a reference to Duke as a graveyard for coaches during the interview process. Despite that, school officials made more than one trip and concession in an attempt to woo him. In the end, though, he took less money than Duke offered to join Tech, where he will face the Blue Devils on an annual basis.
Johnson had been the clear candidate of choice, and despite those who would tell you there were plenty of backup options, Duke had a lot of eggs in the basket on this one. It's true that Alleva's phone had stayed busy, and that there was a lot of interest in the job, but few who met Alleva's blueprint were calling.
After Johnson took the Tech post, the news broke that Alleva had called on national search expert Chuck Neinas. This was a red flag to some, because Alleva had claimed that he wouldn't use an outside source, but in fact Neinas had been retained by Duke just days after Roof was fired.
Neinas is a headhunter who acts as a go-between, gauging interest between colleges and coaches and gathering preliminary information on potential candidates. A former executive director of the College Football Association, he has a wide range of valuable contacts in the sport.
Neinas' role as an intermediary allows both sides to deny contact in response to media questions, even when they are communicating through Neinas. Johnson, for example, told Neinas he would listen to Duke, but only after Navy's rivalry game against Army to close out the regular season. Boston College offensive coordinator Steve Logan, the former East Carolina head coach, sent word that he wouldn't be available to listen until after the ACC title game.
Grambling State coach Rod Broadway was the first interview after Johnson, but he didn't meet Alleva's criteria, and some at Duke didn't want him simply because of his status as a UNC graduate. Still, he was an African-American who had succeeded at Grambling and N.C. Central and knew his way around the program, having served as a Duke assistant under Spurrier. He wouldn't have been the "wow" name Alleva was seeking, and his defensive background worked against him as well, but Broadway had his backers.
This was about the time when Rick Neuheisel started to make inquiries, and he put on a full-court press. Several calls were placed in an effort to gain an interview, but Duke balked. More than a few big names gave Neuheisel references, including Spurrier. Some Duke-centric websites even pushed a petition to get Neuheisel an interview.
Neuheisel, though, never had a chance. Alleva and some members of the six-person search committee just couldn't get past the coach's baggage, including the NCAA violations that contributed to his demise (despite winning records on the field) at both Colorado and Washington. Neuheisel claimed to have been fired by the Huskies only for participating in a high-dollar NCAA Tournament pool, but he also had lied to an NCAA investigator and school officials. There were other examples of blatant dishonesty in his past, too.
Critics of college athletics often throw out blanket statements about breaking rules and cutting corners, but the truth always has been that every school does things differently. In the case of Neuheisel, he ultimately got the job at UCLA, his alma mater, but only after both Duke and Georgia Tech rejected him as a candidate because of his checkered past.
The thinking of some Duke fans was that Neuheisel's NCAA violations were minor and petty, but you can bet that some key people knew more of the situation. Duke associate athletic director Mike Cragg is a Washington graduate and a candidate for the school's vacant AD position. Search committee member Tallman Trask, who served as UW's executive vice president for eight years, also knows people who were at the school when Neuheisel was there.
Nevertheless, Neuheisel actually had some of the committee and certainly much of the fan base listening. Had they lost hope in Alleva and thus were willing to take a chance on what would be deemed a questionable and controversial hire? Neuheisel even sent word that he would defer part of his salary to be monitored in his every-day activity, to no avail.
After Broadway, Duke interviewed Bobby Johnson of Vanderbilt, a long-time Neinas favorite. This passed the smell test only in the narrow sense that Johnson had survived at an academic school in the SEC. But he had little support after his interview, and his ugly record with the Commodores (20-50) would have made it impossible to generate excitement for a "new era" at Duke.
The next prospect to enter the picture was Karl Dorrell, who had just been released by UCLA. Dorrell made a great impression during his interview and (like Broadway) earned a green light from Mike Krzyzewski. Duke's famous and powerful basketball coach participated in many parts of the search process and even placed phone calls to candidates and met with them on the school's behalf.
According to sources, Alleva liked Dorrell a lot and even pushed for him to be hired at one point. Dorrell would have been Duke's first black head coach in any sport, and he had head coaching experience, with some (35-27 with the Bruins) success, along with the desired offensive background.
Duke's power brokers rejected Alleva's recommendation of Dorrell, however, and chose to continue the process. According to sources, the Dorrell-to-Duke scenario was close enough to happening that calls had been made in preparation for a next-day press conference, just in case.
This is where Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe had his chance. One high-ranking Duke source had predicted that Cutcliffe would be the man, even before Broadway's interview, and he proved to be correct.
Still, it was far from a done deal in the eyes of the committee. That changed when Cutcliffe, a grounded, folksy, family-oriented man with an impressive track record on the gridiron and as a man of integrity, went through the interview process. He said all the right things and had a plan in hand.
Cutcliffe seemingly commands loyalty and respect. Witness his long-standing relationships with the NFL's Manning brothers, whom he tutored in college, and their famous father Archie. The fact that the nation's top high school quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, decided to schedule a visit to Duke because of Cutcliffe (who had recruited Pryor for Tennessee) speaks volumes, too.
Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was the final prospect to interview. That was a messy situation from the start, in that his visit was seen as Duke merely going through the motions.
A Cutcliffe offer clearly was in the works, if not already made. That information leaked on a couple of Duke websites and a local radio station, Sports Radio 850 The Buzz in Raleigh. This caused quite a bit of embarrassment.
It didn't help matters that Jackson, who had worked under Spurrier in the NFL and also talked with Duke officials the last time they had a vacancy, had a solid interview. He came in with a detailed plan and system and impressed some on the committee. One person even pushed to hold up the Cutcliffe hiring. But Duke was mostly saving face, wanting the appearance of a tough decision.
Naturally, this prompted some to cry foul, including one local columnist. "Duke made the wrong hire," was the headline, and it was deemed a racial thing. While it is true that Duke officials have yet to hire an African-American head coach, it is inaccurate to say that they were exclusive in this search. Three of the six coaches interviewed were black, and that ratio doesn't happen often.
In the end, Cutcliffe's credentials were the trump card. He had head coaching experience at Mississippi, where he won yet was dismissed. He fine-tuned superstar NFL quarterback Peyton Manning at Tennessee and is known as a great offensive mind. So, while all of the prospects had their strengths, in the end Duke officials hired the man who fit their stated criteria best.
There were several other inquires made, the most unusual of those from 71-year-old coaching legend Lou Holtz. Some said he was truly interested in the job, while others felt he was pushing his son Skip, now at East Carolina. Lou Holtz, a one-time N.C. State coach who pleaded for the Wolfpack job in 2000 before it went to Chuck Amato, wasn't seriously considered by the Blue Devils.
Terry Bowden was another coach who expressed interest, but Duke put him in the Neuheisel category far too much baggage. Logan told intermediaries he would listen to the Blue Devils, but Alleva and other decision-makers ultimately rejected him as a candidate. There was a chance for a time that fired Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey would come in for an interview, but he opted to explore a possible return to the NFL instead.
As it turned out, Duke landed an accomplished football man with successful head coaching experience, strong offensive credentials and a believable vision for the Devils' future. Cutcliffe fit all of Alleva's criteria and, by any reasonable standard, represented a huge upgrade from Franks and Roof.
Perhaps the most positive sign for Duke football is that the school is doing things it hasn't done in the past. It offered close to $2 million per year for Johnson, a competitive rate in major college football today. It will pay Cutcliffe an average of almost $1.5 million per year, about three times what it paid Roof. It gave Cutcliffe a money pool for his assistants that, according to sources in the coaching community, was almost 50 percent more than what Roof had available.
Perhaps new Duke defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre, who was lured from a job in the NFL, best summarized the situation: The Devils are investing in Cutcliffe, who's worth the investment.
"I've had the question about Duke's commitment a number of times the past few days," MacIntyre said. "I told them the stamp of approval I got that Duke was committed was their hiring of David Cutcliffe. I know David so well, and I know that he's had some other opportunities very good opportunities and he didn't go. So when he called and told me they were taking this job at Duke, I knew they were committed. Because I knew he wasn't going to go otherwise."
In the end, of course, it will come down to both Cutcliffe and the university's approach to football. If Duke's commitment stalls again, the identity of the head coach won't matter much.
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