October 20, 2003 DURHAM College football is a cyclical game. From the perennial powerhouses to the traditional lightweights, most fall into familiar trends year after year. There are few absolutes in a game with a funny-shaped ball, but there are some undeniable generalities. When a team stabilizes its coaching staff and retains a high percentage of its players over an extended period it usually peaks, as the program gets to the point where it's starting mainly juniors and seniors. When either of those key cycles is broken, there is usually a difficult transition period and/or some disappointing seasons. The height of the peaks and the depth of the valleys obviously vary from program to program, but the basic rules of thumb remain the same.
For a variety of reasons, these principles don't seem to apply to Duke (2-5, 0-4 ACC), and they certainly didn't apply during the disastrous (7-45) five-year era of Carl Franks, who was fired on Oct. 19. (Defensive coordinator Ted Roof was named as interim coach.) In other words, even when the Blue Devils do things by the book keep the scholarship numbers up, retain players, stabilize the staff, etc. they're still one of the worst teams in any of the BCS conferences.
The ACC and NCAA don't keep records of such things, but it's possible that this 2003 Duke team is one of the most experienced in the history of college football. No kidding. In some games this fall, the Blue Devils' starting 24 (including kickers) consisted of 11 seniors, 11 juniors and two sophomores, and it doesn't stop there. The main kick returner is a senior, the main punt returner is a junior, the holder is a junior and the long snapper is a senior. Most college coaches would trade their beach house for such a seasoned lineup.
It's fair to expect more this season, Franks said in the preseason. We still have a long way to go, but we should be more competitive and we should win more games. We have a lot of people who have a lot of games under their belt. Asked if it would be fair to expect not just significant improvement but several more wins over last year's 2-10 record, Franks said: Yes, that would be fair.
Keep in mind, the overwhelming majority of the Blue Devils redshirted at some point in their careers, meaning that most of the seniors are fifth-year guys, most of the juniors are fourth-year guys and most of the sophomores are third-year guys. That's in keeping with long-held traditions at high-retention schools such as Duke and Wake Forest, as well as some national powerhouses that have such quality depth that they rarely need immediate help.
And consider this: In an ACC Sports Journal article published last issue, a league-wide study quantified each team's experience in terms of career starts rather than class (junior, senior, etc.) status. The idea was to differentiate between the number of years in the program, which often is a poor reflection of actual playing time, and the amount of time returning players actually had spent on the field in previous years. Even by that standard, Duke was by far the most experienced team in the ACC and presumably one of the most experienced in the nation. Excluding kickers, the Blue Devils' returning players had a whopping 388 career starts prior to 2003. No other team was even close to that number.
Nevertheless, there has been little or no improvement this fall. The same team that suffered numerous close defeats last season was absolutely annihilated in its first five defeats this year: at Virginia (27-0), Northwestern (28-10), Florida State (56-7), at Maryland (33-20) and Wake Forest (42-13). In each of the four ACC losses, only the sympathy of the opposing coach prevented the scores from being worse in some cases, much worse.
Before the Wake Forest game, a homecoming affair in Durham that quickly became Nightmare On Elm Street (42-0 at the half) for the Blue Devils, Duke athletic director Joe Alleva was asked if he had seen any improvement this season. His one-word answer: no. The AD previously had said Franks must break his ACC-record losing streak (it reached 29 games before his termination) this fall to keep his job, and several Duke insiders said it would have taken a 5-7 or 6-6 season for Franks to be retained.
After the ugly Wake Forest loss, and with only a few winnable games remaining on the schedule, the next step for Duke football became obvious to almost everyone.
We've made some strides in our program under (Franks') guidance the past five years, Alleva said. However, I have not seen significant improvement on the field, which prompted this decision.
Ugly: Pass Offense, Run Defense
Just about everything has broken down at some point. Against Virginia, with redshirt junior Adam Smith throwing to a very experienced receiving corps, Duke simply couldn't move the ball through the air. The Devils' passing attack, which was supposed to be Franks' area of greatest expertise because of his background at Florida under Steve Spurrier, continued to struggle after redshirt freshman Mike Schneider was elevated into the starting role. Against Wake Forest, Duke completed only 23 of 49 attempts, had an interception returned for a touchdown and had four or five other potential interceptions dropped.
Of equal concern is that the Blue Devils haven't been very good in an important area that was expected to be a strength of the team this fall: run defense.
I feel confident that we can stop the run, Franks said in the preseason. Our main concern is improving our pass defense.
The same group that made significant strides under Roof last year gave up huge rushing totals to Virginia (204), Rice (346), Northwestern (286) and Wake Forest (256). The Devils couldn't slow the Cavaliers even though they knew the run was coming, after QB Matt Schaub was knocked out of the game early. They couldn't stop Wake at all, again despite the opponent's obvious intent. The Deacons attempted only four passing plays all day and didn't put the ball in the air a single time in the second half.
Obviously, I'm very, very disappointed, Franks said after the Wake game. Fortunately, we don't have to live with this one as the last game of the year.
Unfortunately for Franks, he does now.
Krzyzewski Embraces Expectations
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, like many great people, tends to draw very extreme reactions from people.
There are plenty of fans and even some media members who worship the coach, zombie-like, to the point that they are angered and disgusted when anyone describes him in terms that threaten the perception of perfection. (The same could be said of the most loyal followers of UNC's Dean Smith, N.C. State's Jim Valvano and others.) Coach K clearly is one of the most accomplished coaches of his era, in any sport, and he deserves all the credit he gets for his amazing record, unquestionable integrity and many charitable causes.
Critics, of course, see other sides to the world-famous coach. Krzyzewski is infamous for his court-side profanity and ref-baiting, although he's softened in those areas in recent years. As he's become basketball royalty, he's adopted a lord-serf approach to the unwashed masses in the media, severely limiting his accessibility to most of those who cover the game that made him a millionaire and saving his best behavior for occasional appearances in the national spotlight. Even some close to the coach admit he can be arrogant and condescending. Former Duke player and national college basketball analyst Jay Bilas had a great line recently, when he said Krzyzewski was working on his latest book: The 10 Greatest Men In History Ö And What I Think Of The Other Nine.
Most objective observers agree that the good far outweighs the bad with Krzyzewski, and one of his characteristics that's hard not to like is his frequent willingness to avoid the dreaded coachspeak and give blunt, honest, unfiltered answers to direct questions about his players and his team. There are exceptions see his delicate public treatment of Chris Duhon and Shavlik Randolph at times last year but generally speaking the coach is much more willing to admit when he has a great team or a great player than most of his colleagues.
Krzyzewski got off to a rousing start again this year, at the team's annual media day. When someone asked the coach a routine question about true freshman forward Luol Deng, the reporters on hand got a lot more than they anticipated.
He'll be as good as anyone on our team right away, Krzyzewski said. Luol is going to be one of the best players not just on our team but in the conference and in the country. He's that good of a ballplayer. Why hide it?
On a team with Duhon, Randolph, junior guard Daniel Ewing, sophomore guard J.J. Redick and sophomore center Shelden Williams, that was saying an awful lot.