Changing a culture

The Duke football program is thriving thanks to the attention to detail of David Cutcliffe.

On a sunny afternoon in late November, Bobby Saunders braves the chill to look back in time.

Bobby enters the seating bowl of Wallace Wade Stadium on the campus of Duke University and takes a seat on the metal bleachers in Section 27, Row BB.

"As near as I can tell," Bobby says, "this is where I sat at the first Duke game I ever went to. I was 10 years old"

The date was October 29, 1960. "I didn't remember that. I had to look it up in a media guide," Bobby says apologetically. He did remember that Duke was on its way to a berth in the Cotton Bowl, and he remembers names and jersey numbers of most of the team.

"I don't sit in my seats when I come to games anymore," Bobby says. He gestures over his shoulder, several rows back. "The players from the Cotton Bowl team sit up there, so I come up and talk to them. They're just happy to have somebody that still remembers them!"

The alumni seats are just one Wallace Wade landmark pointed out by Bobby. He gestures across the field, using two light towers as a reference point. "The light towers weren't there back then, though," he clarifies. "We didn't get those until the ‘80s."

"Over there, and there," he says, turning to point to one end zone, "they used to have big bleachers set up, like 25 rows tall." The areas are bare now—empty areas on the concourse filled by food trucks and inflatable bounce castles on game days, the space that was once used to increase Wallace Wade's capacity to satisfy the public's demand to see Duke football is now devoted to gimmicks in an attempt to lure people through the gates.

Back then, Duke football was a tougher ticket than basketball. My son graduated from Virginia Tech. I tell him Duke used to be what Virginia Tech is now. He doesn't believe it."

Bobby pauses to think, then corrects himself. "I mean, he believes it. You can look it up and see. But it just doesn't ... register."

He points a few sections to his right and shows where he sat with his wife a few years back, when he finally convinced her to come to a game. She took out a romance novel in the second half and began to read, earning a snide comment from the woman sitting in front of her. "It was frustrating, because it reinforced the stereotype of Duke people," Bobby says. "And they're not like that."

Locations are important to Bobby, and so are anniversaries. On October 29, 2010, Bobby walked down to the field at 2:00. "That's what time kickoffs were back then," he says. "It was exactly 50 years after my first Duke game started." Bobby took a photo of the Cotton Bowl team and stuck it under the tarp covering the field, right at the 40 yard line. Fifty years later, the 1960 Blue Devils were lined up for kickoff.

Bobby also stops talking abruptly and looks at his watch. "President Kennedy was shot exactly 50 years ago," he says. "The days lined up just like they do this year. It was a Friday, just like today. The Duke Carolina game was supposed to be the next day, but they postponed it a week."

Bobby turns to his left and points to a corner section. "I remember the newspaper had a photo showing a single fan, sitting right there, reading a paper with the headline ‘Kennedy Shot' for the story about the game being postponed."

Bobby was born and raised a Duke fan. Growing up an hour and a half away, in Martinsville, Virginia, he got to come to one or two Duke games a year. He went to basketball camp in Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1963 and 1964. "Those were Duke's first Final Four teams," he points out proudly.

His blood may be Duke blue from childhood, but it's not pure. He turned down an offer from Duke coach Tom Harp to walk on the football team. Instead Bobby went to the University of Tennessee, which was less of a financial challenge for his family. He graduated after watching football for four years rather than playing it. Since then, his sports loyalties have been split, and he dreads the day that the Blue Devils play the Vols. Sitting in his old seat, Bobby's split loyalties are visible in his accessories. He wears a Duke Football cap on his head and a Tennessee class ring on his right hand.

Fate eventually brought Bobby back to the Research Triangle in North Carolina, looking for a career change at age 52. Much to the chagrin of his wife, there was only one place he wanted to apply, and he wouldn't take no for an answer.

"I kept track. They're all listed at home," Bobby says. "I applied for 732 different jobs at Duke. Most I never heard anything back."

He received one job offer—with University Parking—but it was a night shift, and, as much as it broke his heart to do so, Bobby turned it down. "I couldn't do that to my wife," he says.

It took two and a half years, but his wife's patience finally ran out. "I had a few more I was waiting to hear back from," he recalls, "but I told her, ‘If they don't work out. I'm done. I'll look somewhere else.'"

The last few applications weren't any more successful than the first 60 had been, but, as it so often does, fate ran a trick play.

A Duke employee spoke to a friend's wife, who worked at the school's medical clinic. She was having trouble finding someone to fill a position, and he happened to remember a very determined applicant who was desperate to do anything for the school he grew up loving.

For more than a decade, Bobby has checked in patients for Duke Sports Medicine. He parks on the Wallace Wade stadium concourse, and the building where he works overlooks the field, doubling as the press box for home games.

Going to work every day less than a punt away from Section 27, Row BB gives Bobby a chance to immerse himself in Duke football. He considers himself a student and a historian, despite the fact that it's a history with far more valleys.

Bobby considers Bill Murray—"not the actor"—the best Duke coach ever, not stopping to consider the fact that a name now known for comedy represents the high-water mark of Blue Devil football. He was coach when Bobby's love affair with Duke began, and in the early days, the Saunders family was not a fan.

"My dad complained about Coach Murray's offense," Bobby says. "He always said it was too vanilla, he always said. I remember riding back to Martinsville after the Carolina game in 1965, we were on I-86, between Hillsborough and Danville, and it came on the radio that Coach Murray retired."

"My dad had to pull the car over to celebrate," Bobby continues. "Two years later, he'd have given anything to have Coach Murray back."

The university decided to deemphasize the program, slashing funding and leading to a dark period for Duke football. Bill Murray's last team finished 6-4. It would be 23 years before another Duke squad finished two games over .500. That was Steve Spurrier, whose time at the helm Bobby calls a "three-year burp."

"People think he built the program, but he really only had one good year," Bobby says with disdain. Spurrier stayed with Duke long enough to earn an offer from Florida, where he won a national championship and a shot at an NFL job.

The program continued to spiral in the post-Spurrier era. Bobby watched four winless seasons and two others with just one win in an 11-year span.

"The stands were empty," he says. "There was no one here. No one cared."

Even the players, who Bobby got to know when they'd check in for treatment on post-game Mondays, felt the frustration. "There are only so many times you can go out there knowing you have no chance to win before it begins to wear on you," he says. "You'd hear them talking about only having three games to go and hoping to get through without getting seriously hurt."

Bobby didn't know that things were about to change when Duke hired a new football coach in December, 2007. All he knew was that the name David Cutcliffe sounded familiar. Coach Cut was the offensive coordinator at Tennessee when Peyton Manning was throwing passes in Knoxville.

"When you're as big a fan as I am, you remember the assistant coaches too," Bobby says.

Duke coaches occasionally stopped by Bobby's station at the Duke Clinic, either to check on players getting treatment or for their own appointments.

Bobby is two years younger than Duke's Hall of Fame basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, and a friend from his Martinsville childhood graduated from West Point the same year as Coach K. One time, when a clinic elevator was slow in arriving, Bobby worked up the nerve to ask Krzyzewski if he remembered his friend.

"He thought for a minute and then said, ‘Southern boy, right?'" Bobby drawls. "Of course, I told him I grew up with him, so he probably could have guessed that."

Bobby thought their shared connection to the Vols would be a good icebreaker if Cutcliffe ever stopped by, and the opportunity presented itself.

He didn't get the chance, because Coach Cut beat him to the punch.

Just before Christmas, in his first week on the job, Cutcliffe showed up in the clinic. "He was going around campus, introducing himself to everyone," Bobby says. "He wasn't the first coach to do that, but it was definitely rare."

Cutcliffe introduced himself to the clinic staff, and, while shaking hands, he noticed the orange T on Bobby's Tennessee wristwatch.

"We talked about Tennessee a little bit," Bobby says. "Every once in awhile, he'd stop by for five or 10 minutes to talk football. He had plenty of people on campus to talk about Duke, but I was his Tennessee guy."

Cutcliffe, a man who texted the Manning brothers during the week leading up to their Super Bowl appearances, continued to visit his new friend at the Duke Clinic's reception desk on a regular basis. That August, as Cutcliffe prepared for his first game as Duke coach, Bobby stopped by the football office.

"I was going to pick up some more pocket schedules," he says. "We like to have them to give to patients."

Coach Cut stepped out of his office as Bobby arrived, and the two friends chatted for the first time on Cutcliffe's turf instead of his. As Bobby left to head back to work on the other side of the stadium, Coach Cut extended an invitation.

"He told me, ‘I'm having a press conference at lunchtime. Come on by,'" Bobby recalls.

Bobby points at the Yoh Football Center, a building on the outskirts of the Wallace Wade concourse that houses the football offices. "The Tuesday media luncheons were on the second floor back then," he says. "Where the Duke Football Museum is now. They moved them to the Brooks Building (part of the new practice facility erected in Cutcliffe's second year) after it was built."

Bobby attended the new coach's game-week press conference, sitting in the back of the room, behind the small crowd of local reporters in attendance.

"I didn't say anything or talk to anyone," Bobby says. "I didn't even think Coach knew that I was there."

Bobby wasn't entirely sure whether he had a standing invitation, but he went back on the following Tuesday.

"I went for the first five weeks," Bobby says. "I never quite knew what he thought or if he even knew."

A smile crosses Bobby's face, and the gleam in his eyes rivals the one he had when discussing the Cotton Bowl team.

"My wife and I spend a week at the beach every October," he says.

After jumping out to a 3-1 record, the Blue Devils were shut out by Georgia Tech, 27-0 the previous Saturday, and the Miami Hurricanes were coming to town. Coach Cutcliffe certainly had plenty to worry about as he met the media that Tuesday, the first media luncheon that Bobby missed.

"I came back to work the next Monday (after Duke lost to drop to 3-3) and everyone came up to me, all excited," Bobby says. "They said, ‘Coach Cut was here looking for you!' He came into the clinic first thing Wednesday morning to check on me and see why I wasn't there."

"I felt 10 feet tall," Bobby says, quietly. "Not only did he notice me every week, but he took the time to come over here."

"That's the kind of man he is," he concludes.

Six years later, Bobby still attends the media luncheon every week, missing only the one each year that conflicts with his October vacation.

A football team needs plenty of help to get the work done during game week. An Army of managers, trainers, sports information staff, and facilities people are in the background of any team event. Any beat writer or TV sports anchor that saw Bobby, standing on the fringe of the weekly lunch in his Duke football cap and Duke Sports Medicine windbreaker, would assume he's one of the anonymous staffers making life easy for coach and players, not a special guest of the head coach.

When the players arrive to conduct group interviews after lunch, many stop to greet Bobby, recognizing him from their post-game treatment sessions.

A sub chain provides the food for the media, and most of the press heads to the table where the boxed lunches are stacked before picking up the information packet that will help them write their stories.

Many of the reporters open several boxes and paw through them, finding the flavor of chips and cookie that they want. The few times that the delivery man was late with the food, the media unleashes a chorus of good-natured complaints. "Why do you think we come to this?" they ask, then provide the answer, "the free food!"

It's a joke, but with an edge, evoking one of Bobby's memories from Cut's first few months on the job.

"I was here watching spring practice," he says, "and the basketball team was still playing. They had some type of (media) event at Cameron. After practice, a few of the reporters were waiting for Coach Cut by the tunnel. Cut saw them and said, ‘Oh. Basketball must be over, so you came down to see me!' He was joking, but you could tell he also meant it."

Duke is the only local ACC school that provides food for the media at the weekly press conference. NC State doesn't, and North Carolina doesn't even offer free parking. With years of modest football success, including bowl appearances more often than not, and with large alumni bases in the area demanding coverage of their alma maters, the simple fact is that they don't need to. The media will come to their press events. That hasn't always been the case at Duke.

Members of the press take their seats and eat their free subs, while trading war stories and gossip. Veterans remember fondly the days that teams would give them free game tickets for the families and when every paper paid their guys to travel to road games.

Meanwhile, in a corner of the room near the door, Bobby opens his lunch—a brown bag ham sandwich and can of Caffeine Free Diet Coke that he brought from home.

In six years, he's never eaten the free food, even the weeks when turnout is low and there are boxes of uneaten lunches stacked up on the table.

"You don't take something unless it's offered," Bobby says. "Coach invited me to come listen to him speak. He didn't invite me to eat."

When he notices the rapt attention he's getting from his small audience, a look of concern crosses Bobby's face. "You can't say that," he says. "Don't put that in."

"If Coach reads that, he'll feel bad," Bobby explains. "He'll tell me, ‘Of COURSE you can eat!' I don't want him to do that. That's not why I'm there."

Bobby finally relents after he's told that the detail shows what type of men he and Coach Cut are. Both were raised in the South at about the same time—Bobby points out that Cutcliffe is four years younger. Coach Cut would understand why Bobby doesn't take the food.

"Just make it clear that I'm not asking to be invited to eat," he warns. "It's just how we were raised. If you're offered something, that's fine, but you never ask."

"People will ask me, ‘How well do you know Coach Cut?'" Bobby says. "They usually want me to ask him if he can get them basketball tickets. I tell them, ‘No. I don't ask Coach for anything.' He's given me things, but I never ask."

Bobby realizes too late that he's opened the door to a subject he wishes he'd avoided.

"I don't know that they're from Coach," he admits. "The coaches all wear those Duke golf shirts on the sidelines. I remember the first year, they were blue. Midway through the season, someone brought me a package at the clinic, and it was one of those shirts."

"The next year, they were white," Bobby continues, "and I got sent one of those too. The trainers will never admit that they're from Coach Cut, but ..." He leaves the obvious conclusion unspoken.

Perhaps Cutcliffe's biggest gift is the breath of life he's given to Bobby's favorite program. Six days earlier, Bobby sat with his childhood Cotton Bowl idols and watched Duke rush for 358 yards and beat No. 23 Miami. Three different Duke running backs broke free for rushes of more than 20 yards as the Blue Devils beat a Hurricanes team that had been in the Top 10 earlier in the season by 18 points.

"I never thought I'd see the day when Duke had better athletes on the field than Miami," Bobby says. "But we do."

Even more striking than the physical improvement in the Blue Devils is the upgrade in the team's attitude. No one on Duke is waiting for the season to end any more, or hoping to merely survive with their health intact.

"The players tell you (in the media) that they think they can win the ACC Championship, but it's not lip service," he says. "They really believe it."

"I see them on Mondays, when they're at their worst," Bobby adds. "Even then, they truly think they can win. Coach has convinced them that they can beat anyone."

"Duke could be playing the New England Patriots next, and after talking to Coach ... Well, let me back up. First of all, Coach himself would believe that they could beat the New England Patriots. He'd have the players convinced they could beat the New England Patriots. And, after talking to him for a little while, you'd come away thinking, ‘You know what? I think Duke can beat the Patriots this week.' I've never seen someone who had the ability to make people believe like he does."

Cutcliffe won ACC Coach of the Year honors in 2012 for turning around the program. Unlike the rest of the nation, however, he wasn't aiming for "good for Duke" status, and, in 2013, he showed that the Blue Devils can compete on a national level.

Long overdue stadium improvements are in the plans for the near future, but no one is bringing back the old auxiliary bleachers just yet. "It's not all the way back to where it was with Coach Murray," Bobby says. "If you move into a house that's been neglected for years, it'll take awhile to get it the way you want it, but it's getting there."

All it took was finding an honorable Southern man with a brilliant football mind, a man who learned under Bear Bryant and taught Peyton and Eli. It took a man who believed he could do the impossible and is able to convince others to come with him. It took a man that was raised to work hard and ask for nothing.

It took a man who pays meticulous attention to detail, right down to noticing a familiar face missing from the back of the room, and thinking it's important to find out why.

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