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History Suggests Duke Football Debate Isn't No-win Situation

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Al Featherston
October 10, 2006

DURHAM -- Once upon a time, Duke football was the ACC's crown jewel.

Even though that sounds like the opening line of a fairy tale, it's not. Hard as it may be for young (or even middle-aged) fans to believe, the Blue Devils were a national power when the ACC was formed in the spring of 1953.

In its final Southern Conference season, Duke finished 8-2, ranked No. 16 nationally and won the league title. Coach Bill Murray's Blue Devils won their first 12 ACC games, won or shared the first three ACC championships and humbled some of the nation's greatest programs, including Tennessee (Duke beat the Vols in four straight seasons in the early 1950s), Nebraska (a 34-7 rout of the Huskers in the 1955 Orange Bowl) and Ohio State (Duke's 1955 victory in Columbus cost Woody Hayes a second straight national title).

Contrast that historic success with Duke's current sad state on the gridiron.

The Blue Devils took a 13-game losing streak into mid-October games against Florida State and Miami. That's bad enough, but it's not even close to Duke's longest losing streak in this decade. Former coach Carl Franks lost 23 straight between a late-season victory over Wake Forest in 1999 and a season-opening upset of East Carolina in 2002. The previous coach, Fred Goldsmith, lost 20 of 21 games during one dismal stretch from 1995-97.

Duke has not had a winning year since 1994, its last bowl trip. In the 11 seasons since that Hall of Fame Bowl loss to Wisconsin, the Blue Devils have had three winless seasons, a one-win season, three two-win seasons, two three-wins seasons and -- the best of the lot -- two four-win years. Ironically, both of the coaches fired during that span were dismissed during or after the four-win seasons. Goldsmith was booted after losing the last three games of a 4-7 season in 1998, while Franks was dumped midway through Duke's 4-8 season in 2003.

Duke has become an embarrassment for ACC football. The Devils might not be the worst program in Division I-A, but they are unquestionably the worst in any BCS conference. Duke is 3-48 against ACC competition in this century.

The latest defeat was the most discouraging. The Devils entered their homecoming game against struggling Virginia with high hopes. Instead, one of the most inept offensive performances in memory led to a 37-0 UVa victory.

That disappointment revived the most vociferous critics of the Duke program. That means both the anti-football faction on campus, which deplores any emphasis on athletics, and a growing movement among fans to scale back football and put more emphasis on the sports where Duke has been successful. That's not only men's and women's basketball, but soccer, golf, tennis, field hockey and (despite the well-publicized scandal) lacrosse.

One of the most vocal advocates of that position is author John Feinstein, a Duke alumnus who long has argued that the school should pull out of the ACC in football and try to compete at a lower level. In the aftermath of the Virginia debacle, Feinstein wrote a letter to Duke's student newspaper:

"If anybody at Duke cares -- and I'm not sure anybody at Duke does -- what needs to happen is for the president to show some leadership and call a meeting with the presidents of Tulane, Rice, Army, Navy, SMU and Vanderbilt. He should say, ‘Hey, none of us can compete. Army and Navy are looking for a league; the rest of us are in leagues where we're overmatched. We're not going to ever win those conferences, and we're not ever going to play in BCS bowls. Let's form a league with schools that are academically similar, where we can compete with one another, where our kids will have a chance to win something each year, if they're well-coached and if they work hard.' … I know there are a lot of Duke people who don't want to admit that Duke can't compete in the ACC. The only way for Duke to compete would be to sacrifice its academic standards and to spend money on football that should not be spent at Duke."

Feinstein argues that because Duke basketball is such a big money-maker for the ACC, the league would allow the Blue Devils to pull out of the conference in football, while remaining a member in everything else. His opinion is attracting growing interest in the Duke community -- still a minority opinion -- and it has sparked a debate among fans (if not administrators). Some like Feinstein's proposal for a "Conference SAT," while others would prefer that Duke drop to Division I-AA.

There are a couple of problems with either idea.

It's not nearly as certain as the proponents assume that the ACC would accept part-time membership from the Devils. The league bylaws actually require participation in a number of sports, including football and men's and women's basketball. That position was reiterated two years ago, during the height of the expansion debate. In response to suggestions that Notre Dame should join the ACC as a partial member (in everything except football), the league presidents voted 9-0 to require full participation for every member in the league-sponsored sports.

Even if the ACC were to change its bylaws to allow Duke to drop out in football only, there's another big reason to think that wouldn't happen: money.

Hard as it is for some outsiders to believe, Duke actually makes a profit on football, despite its lack of success. That's solely because of the school's association with the ACC. Duke's share of the current ACC football TV contract comes to more than $3 million a year. In addition, the Devils have received $1.2-1.4 million in each of the last two seasons as their share of league bowl revenues.

It's a lot of money to give up. The ACC football payoff is enough, along with other minor revenues (home ticket sales, radio rights, visiting ticket shares, etc.), to allow Duke football to operate in the black. Dropping out of the ACC in football wouldn't significantly decrease costs (indeed, travel expenses probably would increase in Feinstein's widespread Conference SAT), but it would cut revenue to the point that it would impact Duke's successful non-revenue sports.

It's not going to happen. Duke is going to remain a full member of the ACC, riding the financial coattails of its more successful football partners, while contributing its share to the league through its successful basketball program.

The real question is whether Duke football is doomed to remain the ACC's doormat, or whether the Blue Devils can -- and will -- achieve at least a measure of respectability on the gridiron.


It's fascinating to trace Duke's descent into football hell through the decades.

The Blue Devils were 26-7-1 in ACC play in the 1950s. That's the best league record of any school in that span. In the 1960s, Duke slipped to 38-21-2 -- still good, but only the third-best record in the ACC. In the 1970s, Duke was 22-32-2 -- fifth among the seven ACC schools that competed in the league for most of that decade (after the departure of South Carolina in 1970 and before the addition of Georgia Tech in 1979). Even though Duke improved to 26 league victories in the 1980s, the team's 38 losses left the Devils seventh in the standings for the decade, barely ahead of Wake Forest. With the addition of FSU in the 1990s, Duke dropped to ninth out of nine ACC teams, at 15-63 just one game worse than the Deacons (16-62).

That's a pretty smooth decline -- from the ACC's best record in the 1950s to the third-best in the 1960s to the fifth-best in the 1970s to the seventh-best in the 1980s to the ninth-best in the 1990s.

Of course, it's not really that smooth. There were good streaks and bad streaks hidden in that perfect curve. Duke's record over the last half-century is the cumulative result of the decisions the school's administration made over that time. Not all of those decisions were bad, but the great majority were bad enough to land Duke football in the fix it's in now.

The decline clearly started after the 1965 season, when Murray retired after winning six ACC championships and compiling a 51-12-2 ACC record.

At that time, Duke president Douglas Knight was trying to re-make Duke as an Ivy League school. Instead of allowing Duke's veteran athletic director Eddie Cameron to make the hire -- Cameron wanted to bring in future Oklahoma coach Chuck Fairbanks or promote Murray's right-hand man Ace Parker -- Knight forced Cameron to hire Cornell coach Tom Harp.

Harp, who had some off-the-field problems, was fired in 1970 after going 15-16 in ACC play.

New AD Carl James, a football man who later served as the commissioner of the Big Eight, received applications from a number of prominent men, including young West Virginia coach Bobby Bowden, who claims the Duke job is the only one he ever applied for. Instead, James opted for former Duke star Mike McGee, who had one year of head coaching experience at East Carolina.

McGee, who later would become one of the nation's most respected athletic directors, struggled with Duke's academic, facility and financial problems (which forced some ridiculously difficult non-conference scheduling), as the program's decline continued.

McGee actually was a fairly effective coach, considering the situation at Duke at the time. But in a way, he was like N.C. State's Herb Sendek; he didn't measure up to the program's past glory. The Duke community tired of his middle-of-the-road finishes and, after a minor player revolt in 1978, he was fired.

New Duke AD Tom Butters replaced McGee with Red Wilson. One reason for the move was financial. Wilson worked cheap, and Butters needed every cent he could raise to improve the school's facilities.

In the next decade, Duke refurbished aging Wallace Wade Stadium, built a new press box and completed the Bryan football center. Wilson, a legendary North Carolina high school coach who had won a small college national title at Elon, guided Duke to back-to-back 6-5 seasons in 1981-82.

However, Butters was convinced that the reason for Wilson's success was young offensive coordinator Steve Spurrier, and he knew Spurrier was leaving Duke after the 1982 season for a pro job. So on the very night that Wilson beat bowl-bound North Carolina to conclude his second straight winning season, Butters called his coach to his home and fired him.

That's where the Duke story gets interesting.


Try to forget the intervening years, and envision the sports landscape at Duke and in the ACC during the 1982-83 school year.

Duke's football team wrapped up its second straight 6-5 season that fall, beating Tennessee in Knoxville, South Carolina in Columbia and Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Wilson's Blue Devils routed Virginia 51-17 and scored 46 points on Wake Forest. The Devils, led by strong-armed quarterback Ben Bennett and speedy wide receiver Chris Castor, just missed upsetting Virginia Tech and lost heartbreakers to Navy and N.C. State.

By contrast, Mike Krzyzewski's second Duke basketball team was en route to a second straight 17-loss season that winter. The team lost at home to Wagner. The season ended on a dismal note in Atlanta, when Duke was routed 109-66 by Virginia in the first round of the ACC Tournament.

Clearly, Duke owned a better football team than basketball team in 1982-83. And it's possible to argue that the Blue Devils actually owned a better football program at that moment in time.

Look at the history from that vantage point, at the end of 1982-83. The Duke football team had played in more major bowls (six) than the basketball team's Final Four appearances (four). The football team had more conference championships (17 ACC and Southern titles to 11 for basketball). The football program had produced 57 All-Americans (27 first-team) compared to 23 basketball All-Americans (10 first-team).

Granted, Duke had enjoyed more recent national success in basketball than in football. All four of the team's Final Four trips had come since the last major bowl trip, in the 1961 Cotton Bowl. But despite Bill Foster's successful three-year run at the end of the decade, Duke's ACC basketball record in the 1970s (58-71, 44.9) was just marginally better than its ACC football record in the decade (22-33-4, 40 percent).

Could any reasonable person have looked at the Duke athletic program in the spring of 1983 and predicted that the basketball program was about to become a juggernaut -- and perhaps the nation's top program in the last quarter-century -- while the football program was heading for a total collapse?


Go back to that 1982-83 season and look at another ACC athletic program.

That was the fourth straight season in which Virginia basketball had ridden Ralph Sampson to national prominence. The Cavs spent the entire year ranked in the top five before losing to N.C. State in the ACC Tournament final, then being upset again by Jim Valvano's Cardiac Pack in the NCAA West Regional final.

While Virginia's basketball program was enjoying its run at the top, its football team was continuing its tradition of mediocrity. You think Duke football is bad today? In 1982, Virginia owned the second-worst all-time record in Division I-A football (behind Kansas State) and was one of just two programs that had never been to a bowl game. Virginia owned the worst ACC record of any program in the 1950s (4-24), the 1960s (16-41-1) and the 1970s (11-46). Welsh's first season in Charlottesville was a dismal 2-9.

Was there any doubt that Virginia's basketball program was far ahead of its football program? Could anyone who watched Wilson's Devils rout UVa in Wade Stadium that fall have guessed that the Cavs were about to become one of the ACC's strongest, most consistent teams? Who could have guessed that Duke would never again (after 1983) finish with a better football record than Virginia?

And could anybody who watched Virginia's basketball team manhandle Duke in the ACC Tournament that March have guessed that Duke was about to begin its climb to become a dominant basketball power? Or that from 1984-2006, the Cavs would finish with a better record than Duke exactly one time?


Can anyone put a finger on why the Duke and Virginia programs followed such divergent paths after 1982-83?

The usual answers to such questions are such vague terms as "university commitment" and "facilities," reasons coaches like to toss around as excuses for their failures. It's true that starting in the late 1980s, Virginia began devoting more of its resources to football, while Duke poured money into basketball.

But in both cases, the financial commitment came after the success of the respective programs. Over the history of the ACC, facilities and commitment usually are evidence that success already has been achieved, rather than the cause of that success.

The first big financial commitment to Krzyzewski's facilities came in 1987-88, when Cameron was transformed from a dark, dingy arena into a basketball shrine. Yet that happened after Coach K's first Final Four trip and after the players who would produce his second trip were already on campus. Even then, Duke still had among the worst locker room facilities in the ACC until the competition of the luxurious Schwartz/Butters complex in 2000, long after Krzyzewski had established his program as one of the nation's best.

You can trace a similar path at Florida State, where Bowden first began producing bowl teams when Doak Stadium was little more than a glorified high school field. Its expansion followed -- not preceded -- Bowden's amazing success. Dean Smith clearly benefited from the construction of Carmichael Auditorium in 1965, before his program took off. But that facility was undersized and outdated when it opened. UNC only stepped up to the front in 1986, when the Smith Center opened, and that was after Smith's first national title, seven Final Fours and stars such as Miller, Scott, Ford, Worthy and Jordan.

The same process transformed Virginia's football facilities from the league's worst in 1982 to among the nation's best in 2006. UNC enjoyed some of its greatest football success in the 1990s, before the completion of its Taj Mahal football complex at Kenan Stadium, and has been mediocre ever since. Chuck Amato had his best seasons at N.C. State before the completion of the gorgeous, state-of-the-art Murphy Center.

The clear conclusion is that facilities reflect success, and they don't necessarily cause it. So what does? The right coach at the right time.

Return to that pivotal 1982-83 season. Duke had hired a young Krzyzewski to guide its basketball program. Virginia had just hired George Welsh to build its football program. In hindsight, those two individuals wrought greatness (in Krzyzewski's case) and near-greatness (in Welsh's case) out of unpromising situations. It's the same wherever you look. What was FSU before Bowden? Florida had never won an SEC title -- not one -- before hiring Spurrier in 1989.

That point is reinforced if you compare Duke football with another ACC program, Wake Forest. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the two schools were mired in similar mediocrity. Duke's record was just a bit better in the 1980s, and the Deacons were one game better in ACC play in the 1990s.

But just at the turn of the century, the two programs diverged. Duke collapsed, and Wake became a tough, competitive team. The Deacons haven't won any championships in this decade, but they have averaged more than five wins per season and went 13-27 against the ACC in the previous five seasons.

What suddenly happened in 2000 that made Wake a much better program than Duke?

It wasn't academics. Neither school changed its standards at that time and, if anything, Wake has closed the academic gap on the Devils. It wasn't facilities. While Wake completed a major facility upgrade in the last eight years, Duke matched that with its $22 million Yoh Football Center. It was hardly university commitment. Duke's administration was so committed to winning that it fired the unsuccessful Franks at midseason in 2003.

No, the real reason for the change in fortunes by the two programs comes down to what it almost always does -- coaching.

In 1998, Duke athletic director Joe Alleva, a former star quarterback at Lehigh, fired two-time national coach of the year Goldsmith and replaced him with Franks. Two years later, Wake AD Ron Wellman fired Jim Caldwell and replaced him with Jim Grobe.

In hindsight, Goldsmith (8-32, .200 ACC) and Caldwell (12-52, .188) appear to have been fairly evenly matched. However, the contrast between the coaches who replaced them is striking. Franks was a former Duke player who had served as an assistant to Spurrier but had never been even a coordinator. Grobe had coached six years at Ohio, building that school from the bottom of the MAC into title contention.

Grobe and his staff have made Wake Forest competitive in the ACC. Franks took Duke from mediocrity to ineptitude.

Current Duke coach Ted Roof is still trying to climb out of the hole he inherited from Franks. It's too early to state with certainty that Roof is or isn't the right man to lead the Devils out of the wilderness. He's in just his third full season -- the same point in his career when Krzyzewski finished 11-17, lost at home to Wagner and was blown out by Virginia in the ACC Tournament.

Is football success possible at Duke?

Well, not too long ago, another strong academic school in a powerful football conference was enduring a similar run of frustration. Northwestern lost 34 straight games from 1978-82. A little more than a decade later, the Wildcats won back-to-back Big Ten titles. FSU was 4-29 in the three seasons before Bowden's arrival in 1976. Miami was talking about giving up football before Howard Schnellenberger arrived and starting winning national championships instead.

Obviously, situations are different at different schools. Duke's not likely to contend for any national (or even ACC) championships in football in the foreseeable future. But that doesn't mean the Blue Devils are doomed to be terrible forever. The school's current failure is no more permanent than the success it once enjoyed.

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