Just A Bump In The Road

The loss to Richmond certainly hurts, but Duke is on the right track for the first time in decades.

The coach suffered a heartbreaking loss to a team that his should have beaten easily.

Less than four years into his tenure as an ACC head coach, wins had been hard to come by. The last thing he needed was an upset loss.

Over his first three years at the helm, he won a total of 8 games, and lost three out of every four ACC conference games. His teams gave up more than 40 points seven times.

Those blowouts weren't as bad as the heartbreaking loss to a lesser team.

"It was one of the lowest times of my life," the coach said of the upset. "I felt we had better players. I felt we should have won the game."

The date was September 30, 1989. North Carolina head coach Mack Brown had just lost to Navy 12-7.

Brown started his UNC coaching career with twin 1-10 seasons and won just two road games in his first three years. It took him until Year Five to make a bowl game, and his first 10-win season Year Six to win break .500 for his record at the school. In Year Nine, he cracked the top 10 in the polls, and the following season, his last, he finally moved over .500 in ACC games.

More recently, another head coach faced the possibility that his short tenure was nearing the end. In his first three years on the job, he'd managed just 11 wins, including three road games. Against his in-state rival, he'd come close but no cigar more times than he could count.

He struggled to win even against the hand-picked sure things, going just 1-2 on homecoming. At the start of Year Four, he lost a tight opener, dropping to 1-3 in openers.

Recruits reacted with surprise when assistant coaches told them they were a I-A school. The athletic director worried about his ability to fill their on-campus stadium, and, after another close loss at home, fans shouted "Good bye" to him.

The year was 1992, and Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech team had just lost to UVa for the fifth time in six years.

That was Year Six. The Hokies were on their way to a 2-8-1 record. It was another year before he made a bowl game, and it took until Year Nine to win 10 and crack the top 10. That was also the year his career record at Virginia Tech broke even.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe knows how Beamer and Brown felt. "I'm glad the team didn't have to see me Sunday morning," Cutcliffe said of the fallout of last weekend's Richmond loss.

For the third time, Duke dropped a season opener to the FCS team, this time one that had replaced their coach a week and a half earlier and had their campus strafed by Hurricane Irene the previous weekend.

Fans, hoping this would be the season the Blue Devils broke their bowl drought, which is now old enough to get a drivers' license, reacted with anger and frustration.

However, other than the lonely Sunday mornings, when Cutcliffe stays incognito, he doesn't seem to acknowledge the possibility that he might be on a hot seat.

"If it weren't for difficult times," Cutcliffe said, "there would be no need for leadership."

The fact of the matter is that if Cutcliffe's seat is even the slightest bit warm, it shouldn't be. As Brown and Beamer would attest, program building is slow work, and there are plenty of setbacks along the way.

In three full seasons, Cutcliffe has more wins (12) than the program managed in its previous eight years (10), tripling their winning percentage. After his two predecessors went 3-42 on the road since 2000, Cutcliffe's Duke teams have gone 5-11.

In three years, Cutcliffe has also produced more ACC wins, ACC road wins, wins over BCS schools, 40-point games, and crowds of 30,000 plus at Wallace Wade Stadium than the program saw in the eight years before he arrived on campus. Those numbers are also better than the ones posted by Brown and Beamer over their first three seasons.

With only five of the 39 spots on the two-deep depth chart manned by players that were here before Cutcliffe arrived, Duke is gradually becoming his team. And the team is becoming something else entirely.

"You really become a program in your fourth, fifth and sixth year," Cutcliffe said before the Richmond game. "I think we're further along than where I thought we'd be."

In year four, Cutcliffe has a team with a great deal of young talent, but the emphasis is on young.

"67% of our roster is made up of Freshmen and Sophomores," Cutcliffe said during preseason practice. "There are 15 or 16 Freshmen or redshirt Freshmen who will play a significant part in our game. We've added depth and athleticism…We're significantly deeper, significantly faster, and systematically, people know what they're doing."

Talking about the defensive line, Cutcliffe could have been referring to the entire team when he said, "Are we as grown up as we'd like? No. We're a work in progress. People are flashing, but that's just it. They're flashing. We're not consistent. Still, we're well ahead of a year ago."

After the game, Cutcliffe's mantras of hard work and making plays didn't change. If anything, the mistakes that cost them the opening game underscored his lesson to the players.

"There's always going to be people to tell you what's wrong and say, ‘Here they go again,'" Cutcliffe said after his own personal Navy game. "We're not going to listen to them."

"Don't give up on this football team," he added.

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