I'm sorry this is such a (very) long post about a topic few readers will be interested in, but I've got a couple weeks' worth of thoughts built up.
Last week, I almost wrote a post giving up on Duke football. Their season-opening 13-0 loss to 1-AA Richmond just seemed to be the last straw. It's not that I would have quit cheering for Duke, or hoping for the occasional upset. But I just didn't see a realistic scenario under which Duke could be consistently competitive.
But then they went and changed my mind, a bit, with what can only be called a "moral victory," a 14-13 loss at Wake Forest Saturday. Duke controlled most of the game, shut out Wake in the first half and led up until the last two minutes. Wake blocked a field goal on the last play of the game to preserve a win that Wake coach Jim Grobe admitted the Deacons didn't really deserve. Duke finally seems to have found a quarterback -- true freshman Thaddeus Lewis, who threw for over 300 yards.
I'm still trying to stay tethered to earth here. The Devils had plenty of Duke-type mistakes that cost them the win -- a sure touchdown pass dropped by the receiver, a fumble in the red zone, two missed field goals. Oh, and they let Wake get off an 86-yard punt from its own end zone. (That's probably Frank Beamer's idea of Hell.) And I know that their opponent was the not-so-mighty Demon Deacons, so I'm trying to keep things in perspective. Still, I'd have to say that Duke's offense Saturday looked better than Florida State's has this season, and the Duke-Wake game was a lot more fun to watch than the FSU-Troy tussle.
So, has Duke turned a corner? This week they venture to Lane Stadium, and at least they sound confident
. I'm pleased to hear that, given how demoralizing the Richmond loss could have been. Still, Virginia Tech has looked like the class of the ACC so far this season, so the Dukies have a tall order. Then the Devils have Virginia at home (a game that looks much more winnable after the Cavs' debacle against Wyoming), Alabama on the road (great defense, questionable offense), Florida State and Miami back-to-back at home (next...), then Vanderbilt and Navy at home, with a home game against UNC later on to end the season. I'd give them even odds to beat UNC, given how inept the Tar Holes have looked so far, suggest that wins over Navy (which has only completed three passes
so far this season) and Vandy aren't outside the realm of possibility, and say that stranger things have happened than a Duke team slinging the ball all over the place beating a mediocre Virginia team.
Am I saying that Duke will go 4-8 this year? No. In fact, they're probably just as likely to have some close losses and end up 0-12. But watching the Richmond game, I feared Duke would be no better than a 28-point underdog in all its remaining games. It's hard to overstate how bad they looked, especially compared to how good they looked against Wake. I don't think I've ever seen a week-to-week transformation like that. I'm sure a lot of that can be chalked up to Coach Ted Roof doing whatever had to be done to avoid losing his team. And the switch to Lewis at quarterback obviously was a smart one. Some of the offensive changes might have been borne of necessity, given that Duke's top two running backs were both injured in the opener. So a lot of rollout passes may have been a last resort. But it (almost) worked.
But what is the long-term prognosis for Duke? Are Duke fans destined to suffer through one two- or three-win season after another? Will we treat a five-win season the way most teams would treat a conference title, and a bowl berth like a national championship? Are Duke fans crazy to even expect that middling level of success? And why can't Duke ever get better?
Long-time ACC reporter Al Featherston has a long but outstanding column here
about "choices and consequences at Duke." Featherston notes that the 1982-83 school year was a real turning point for Duke athletics. Duke AD Tom Butters fired football coach Red Wilson despite two back-to-back 6-5 seasons, but kept basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski despite woeful back-to-back 17-loss seasons. In hindsight, it's easy to say that Krzyzewski was the right choice for Duke, and Butters's patience was warranted. And maybe Wilson never would have improved, and might even have dropped off, given that many people attributed his success to departing offensive coordinator Steve Spurrier. (It's also kind of amazing to think, in hindsight, how Duke could have had football coaches like Bobby Bowden in 1970 and Ralph Friedgen in 1998 if some wheels had just turned a little differently.) But the subsequent head coaching choices at Duke -- Spurrier's return excepted -- were largely indefensible.
The other important message from Featherston's take is that Duke's football failures aren't pre-ordained any more than its basketball successes were. Schools like Northwestern and Miami were moribund and there was talk of them dropping to 1-AA before their programs were resuscitated (the Wildcats' liveliness being a bit more sporadic, of course). Duke won the ACC in 1989 and went 8-4 in 1994, so it can be done. We're not asking for return trips to the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, and Orange bowls, like Duke made in the 1930s through the 1960s. But is a Music City Bowl every decade too much to ask?
I'm not old enough to remember the glory days of Duke football, and those folks are getting older and older every year. It might not be long before most Duke fans don't remember anything but misery. There are two aspects of Duke's losing that seem especially galling and frustrating. I'll discuss these, and then touch on two issues that make rebuilding tougher.
First, although this year's ACC might not be the best evidence, it's been difficult to stomach getting walloped by conference teams so regularly. Even Duke deserves the occasional rent-a-win, even if it backfires sometimes with losses to the likes of Richmond and East Carolina. But they shouldn't have to spend money on out-of-conference patsies to get all their wins. Cellar-dwellers like Vanderbilt and Northwestern and Kansas slip up on their big brothers from time to time. Last year, the geographically-incorrectly named University of South Florida (hm...kind of like the geographically-incorrectly named Northwestern) was mathematically alive for the Big East title with two weeks left in the season. At a minimum, this week's 13-10 Alabama victory over Vandy shows that these teams are usually at least competitive. Indeed, Vandy is notorious for making its conference betters win close, ugly games. Duke, on the other hand, typically gets whipped even by the mediocre teams in the ACC. Last year Wake Forest poleaxed the Devils 44-6. Maybe some of the other teams are coming down to Duke's level. But I don't think it's good for Duke or the ACC if the conference turns into eleven haves and one have-not. The addition of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College was touted as a rising tide that would lift all boats. It's particularly upsetting if Duke winds up being the only school with a leaky dinghy.
The other factor that makes Duke's woefulness especially painful is the occasional success of the other football schools in its academic orbit. ESPN's Bruce Feldman noted
on his blog on August 18 (Insider subscription req'd, sorry) how the U.S. News & World Report
college rankings would look if only the Division 1-A schools were ranked. The top 25: Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Rice, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, California, Virginia, Michigan, UCLA, UNC, USC, Wake, Wisconsin, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Washington, Tulane, Penn State, Texas, Florida, Syracuse, Miami, Maryland. Duke fans see schools with similar profiles (smallish, private, high academic standards) like Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Wake, and BC doing well and get incredibly
frustrated that Duke isn't even close in football. Now, I'm not enough of an expert to discuss things like endowments and admission standards and conference revenue-sharing and a whole host of issues that can make this more of an apples/oranges comparison. Some of these schools probably have a lot to offer football recruits, like weather or location or the social atmosphere on campus. But Wake Forest is smaller than Duke, located in Winston-Salem (which makes Durham look like Shangri-La), and is a historically Baptist institution with less football tradition (outside of Brian Piccolo
, I guess) than Duke. As a member of the ACC, it faces the same restrictions Dukes does -- no partial qualifiers, for example. Yet over the last ten years, Wake has gone 46-68 (.404), while Duke has gone a miserable 18-94 (.161), with five seasons of ten or more losses. Yikes. And don't even get me started on Notre Dame.
So why can't Duke do better? Certainly, there are many reasons. As Featherston suggests, I think coaching hires have been a huge factor. Featherston disputes the commonly-held notion that new facilities breed success, pointing out that improved facilities usually follow
success rather than precede it -- they're a symptom of winning, not a cause. (In case Kyle disputes this, I'll ask if Mike the Tiger
got his new digs before or after LSU's national title!) But, in a larger sense, commitment to the football team is a factor holding Duke back. That includes things like facilities and spending money on coaches and, more generally, an attitude that the school will do whatever needs to be done to make the team successful. I think most Duke people would add the phrase "within reason" to the end of that sentence. And I'm not talking about busting the budget or making football the most important thing on campus. But too often the attitude is "Eh, it's just football." That's more of an institutional issue of priorities and vision, and I don't know how to correct that course without wrecking things. I, and I think most Duke supporters, like that football is kept in perspective, and don't want Duke to cheat or anything. But Duke right now seems like the Devil Rays among a bunch of Yankees and Red Sox. The Devil Rays know it's hopeless, given baseball's finance scheme. I think Duke could be like the Twins, or at least the Marlins, and at least have a chance of making it to the postseason every once in a while. But I honestly believe Duke lacks the commitment to making that happen. It's a whole different argument over what shape such a commitment would take, but Duke is never going to improve unless everyone in power at Duke wants to make it happen. Of course, with Duke, it's a whole different argument over whether that attitude shift should happen at all. My guess is that if this keeps up, the ACC will step in and mandate certain levels of "commitment" (facilities, investment, etc.) for all the member schools, even if the move is clearly aimed at Duke.
Ah, but the monkeywrench -- the other big factor that will hold back Duke football. It's Duke lacrosse. The ongoing, neverending Duke lacrosse team scandal -- the accusation of gang rape at a team party -- will affect everything about athletics at Duke. Whether the rape allegations are true or not, there is a strong sentiment around campus that the lacrosse team was feeling a sense of entitlement and power. There's going to be a hefty backlash if the athletics department tries to create a first-class citizen status for the football team. It's going to make it tougher to wiggle on admissions standards. It's going to make it tougher to recruit athletes with any problems in their past -- basketball player Shelden Williams faced false sexual assault allegations when he was in high school; do you think Coach K would be recruiting him now? Even if Krzyzewski has enough goodwill and capital to take a chance on a kid like that (who, I should be quick to add, never had any problems at Duke), there's no way the football program has that same ability. Whether it's right or wrong, there are too many people at Duke (including, probably, the president) who simply will be unwilling to let the football team achieve the kind of BMOC status that their opponents have. I think we'll be seeing the fallout of the lacrosse mess for a long time at Duke.
Again, I think there are a lot of reasons why Duke is struggling, a lot of reasons why it will be hard to change things. And after the Wake game, I'm not hopeless. Maybe once QB Lewis and super-recruit freshman DT Vince Oghobaase get some more games under their belts, I might be buying bowl tickets. I feel better than I did last week, when I was preparing a "Duke football is dead" post. I've noted that there are deep and significant problems with the program, and it will be a tough row to hoe to get back to winning. If I knew how to get it done, I'd be the AD. Frankly, I don't think current AD Joe Alleva is the guy to do it. But that's a whole different argument, too.
To avoid alienating the one or two readers who have made it this far, I'll promise that this will almost certainly be the longest post I'll ever run here at The Wishbone
, and almost certainly the last Duke football post of any substance I'll have. I appreciate your indulgence as I got all this off my chest. I'll leave you with the stirring refrains of the Duke fight song:Fight, fight Blue Devils,
Fight for the white and blue!
Break on through --
There's a touchdown there for you!
Duke is going to win tonight --
Carolina go to Hell!
So turn on the steam, team --
Fight, Blue Devils, fight!