Q&A with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe
Q&A with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe (cont.)
DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke coach David Cutcliffe has a folksy drawl, an excess of Southern charm and, at 58, the dust of countless football sidelines on the soles of his shoes. As he's wound his way through the SEC -- he had extended stints at Tennessee and Ole Miss -- before his final act at Duke, Cutcliffe has remained one of the game's straight shooters. And he's in the midst of a stunning and underappreciated revival in Durham, one that can be best judged via the streaks being broken. He snapped a 12-game losing streak to Wake Forest, brought Duke to its first bowl game since the 1994 season and last weekend had a Blue Devil selected in the NFL draft (quarterback Sean Renfree, in the seventh round to the Atlanta Falcons) for the first time since 2004. Now, he's planning to continue the program's recent climb. "We're capable of beating everybody on our schedule," he said in a lengthy interview in his office last week. "When's the last time you could say that without really being laughed at at Duke? But it's a fact."
This should be a fascinating season in Durham. Walk into Cutcliffe's office and there are Tennessee and Ole Miss jerseys signed by Peyton and Eli Manning, his prized protégés. But Duke is set to morph into a full-throttle spread team this season under new starter Anthony Boone, who resembles a young David Garrard. "We've produced pro quarterback after pro quarterback, but we're trying to win games at Duke," Cutcliffe said. "And you don't need to let your ego get in the way of that."
In a wide-ranging interview with SI.com, Cutcliffe touched on his Knowology degree from Alabama, his mastery of making homemade blueberry ice cream, Duke's recruiting uptick and why college football is "close to being governed by television."
SI: Let's start with the recent news. What does the Grant of Rights mean for the ACC?
David Cutcliffe: I don't think lot of people were saying it, but you knew as the football coach at Duke [conference realignment] could go a lot of directions. It could put us in -- I don't want to use the word, "basketball league" -- but more of a league defined by basketball. Maybe that's the way to say it. It was obviously something that I kept a close eye on. We're on our way to being a significant part of the league. I asked [former ACC commissioner] Gene Corrigan this, and his comment to me was that the ACC found its footing initially because of Duke football. Oddly enough. In that era, Duke football was one of the more dominant sports of all the ACC members. We're trying to go full circle in that regard.
SI: Following last year's bowl berth, have you seen changes on the recruiting trail?
DC: Yes, without a doubt, recruiting took an upswing and did it in a hurry with the bowl game. More than you might think. More than I thought it was going to. It's already continued into our 2014 class. It's moving faster than we maybe even want it to. You know we get more and more traffic. Our unofficial visit numbers here are probably 10-times as many as when we've started, of legitimate prospects. It's not even just basketball games. When they are on spring break, this is one of the destinations. We're getting them in from California. ... Suddenly, people from the East and Midwest. We're getting traffic from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. They're flying in and driving through and we haven't had that.
SI: I saw you had six verbal commitments for the 2014 class, according to Rivals.com. I know you can't talk specifically about your prospects, but in terms of pace, how many did you have at this time last year?
DC: One at the most. And we're only going to sign 12 or 14 people this year. Our guys are doing well, and they don't leave. You see what I'm saying. You do the math, eventually you're going to have some small classes. Our guys are doing well. We don't lose anyone academically, and people don't want to transfer.
SI: Now for some hard-hitting stuff. I've heard you're a homemade ice cream maestro. I need the scoop.
DC: (Laughs.) Literally. I am a master homemade ice cream maker. I enjoy it. I'm not a chef, but that's my one thing -- if I can make kids smile. I've made it for our players and prospects. I certainly make it for the family as a summer beach treat. That's how it's evolved. How can you not like ice cream? I grew up in the South, and we had the old wooden crank and I watched my dad and his brothers make ice cream. I thought it was kind of a man's job. I can make whatever you want. I do a lot of the different fruits. I love the blueberry ice cream that I make. I make a Reese's ice cream and a really good cookies and cream. Just about anything you want, I can put it together.
SI: What can you tell me about your Knowology degree from Alabama?
DC: When you're here at Duke, among all these people that are truly so intelligent, I kid with my wife, that I may have gone to the University of Alabama, but I have a degree in Knowology. I know everything. That is jokingly said, believe me.
SI: We all know you coached the Manning brothers. After a career of emerging as the consummate drop-back pro-style quarterback guru, what has the switch to the spread offense and the zone read been like?
DC: The one thing that we've tried to do through the years is call our offense a chameleon. With that said, nothing is more important in a system than personnel. It's time. Our personnel here. ... Where we're headed to be successful until they change the rules, you have to be fast and spread the field and [run] at quarterback. We've produced pro quarterback after pro quarterback, but we're trying to win games at Duke. And you don't need to let your ego get in the way of that.
SI: Peyton and Eli and a big crew of their receivers came to Duke a few weeks ago to work out. You've known them for so long and coached them so much, what's your role now?
DC: I coach 'em. One hundred percent. They come in and they start individual drills. We have a little meeting time. Sit and talk. Their comment to me is always, "Coach us like you did in college." ... We start with fundamentals. We coach effort. Every bit of it. I think it blew Wes Welker's mind. He said, "I thought it was a joke when Peyton sent the itinerary of his practice schedule. Really?" But it's fun for them, and it's certainly fun for me. If Victor Cruz is getting a rep with Eli Manning, I let him know, "This rep, this practice, these five reps on this particular route may be the difference between you being in the Super Bowl and not being in the Super Bowl."
SI: What do the Mannings think about your offense going to the spread?
DC: They love it. They run a lot of our offense. These are things that they believe in that they've taken and renamed and reused. They're fine with it. They know the difference in what we have and who we have.
SI: Duke hadn't had anyone picked in the NFL draft since 2004 until Sean Renfree was selected in the seventh round by the Atlanta Falcons this year. What does it mean to end the streak?
DC: It's not the reason we do what we do. But it is an indicator of what you're recruiting. We've been able to get better with some really fine young men. We've had some people make the NFL as free agents -- Thad Lewis, Vinny Rey and Matt Daniels are pretty prominent in that regard. But [draft picks] are the real indicator that things are changing. We needed some draft choices, and we have some draft choices in every class right now. I do pay attention to that. ... I told our squad this, and this is the truth still and always will be. The best way to win a league is to be the best team in August. Still. It's not the only way to win a league. But it's still the best way.
SI: There's no BCS team on your schedule that had a winning record in 2012 until the final weekend in October. AD Kevin White and deputy director of athletics Stan Wilcox delivered you a very user-friendly schedule. What's your take on it?
DC: It's the best schedule we've had yet. By far. Not even close. None of them are easy. ... It's nice to not have Florida State and Clemson. We've played both of them since we've been here. Both of them twice I guess now, and both weren't very pretty games. Obviously we haven't found ourselves ready for the elite. But I think this team that we have, as I look at our schedule or otherwise. We're very competitive in every game we're going to play. We're capable of beating everybody on our schedule. When's the last time you could say that without really being laughed at at Duke? But it's a fact.
SI: A hot topic lately has been the notion of football schools breaking away from the NCAA. Do you have any thoughts on that?
DC: I don't really think that's healthy for the environment for all of college athletics. My comment would be, if the NCAA is not going to be the governing body, who is? There's nothing negative about this comment, but we're close to being governed by television because that's who is paying the bills across the board. ... The only way someone could do it is through television money. It would be all of a sudden if ESPN decided that it wanted a super league of football, I'm assuming that they could probably pull it off. I don't know if ESPN wants to take that on. I kid with a few of them, the guys that work there, I call them "the owners." They are the owners of all college football. They've been great to college. It's been a great marriage. All these ideas they've had to this point have worked.
SI: Is this your most athletic team at Duke?
DC: Not even close. By far, just in general, you would call it the most athletic Duke team we've had and that would include strength, speed and the ability to change directions. They're a good-looking football team when they walk on the field now. We used to be a little worried when you looked at one end in the pregame warm-up and then looked at the other. We've started looking like a good football team.
SI: What's Anthony Boone, your new starting quarterback, like?
DC: He's obviously charismatic. He's fun. He's going to have a lot of fun playing football. He's extremely well liked by his teammates and I would call him explosive athletically. He can run and is really strong and he's a guy where you say, "He's got a cannon." He is an explosive 235-pounder. He's a linebacker in some regards.
SI: Is he like David Garrard when he played for Steve Logan at East Carolina?
DC: That's exactly who he reminds me of. And you know he was just an explosive playmaker when he was young. That's who he is. Garrard is a Durham product, by the way. Southern Durham High School.
SI: We know more about Hud Mellencamp's dad, John, than we do about Hud. Tell me a bit about your freshman walk-on with the famous last name.
DC: Hud is a super young man. I think the world of John. I met John first when he brought Hud down here to consider walking on. He'd never been on a football team before that. He'd been a boxer before that. He was a state champion in Indiana in Golden Gloves. He's a tough young man.
SI: So the first time he strapped on a helmet was here?
DC: It's an interesting story. But it doesn't surprise you once you get to know the Mellencamps. John is that kind of guy. He played a little football. They're aggressive and tough people. I've gained a great deal of respect for John and developed a great friendship with him. I'm proud of what Hud is getting done. He's just finishing his first year doing this. He's a guy who can run and is tough and could eventually be a special teams guy.
SI: The offense will look different, obviously. What about the defense and your 4-2-5 scheme?
DC: We probably made more changes on defense this spring than we did on offense. I spent a lot of time with our defensive staff, I mean long hours of time and energy and thought. We've got a great group and a great deal of experience on defense. We felt like we needed to do something drastic to be real honest with you.
SI: Without giving away state secrets, what kind of changes are you talking about?
DC: Our coverage package is going to change. A lot of what we're doing as far as movements and gap control and techniques up front are geared more to what you have to do to stop spread offenses. We've done a study of spread offenses and studied it and studied it. You just can't keep giving up 560 yards a game in certain games and expect to win. We're competitive in some of those games because our offense can turn the numbers. It ends up demoralizing your kids.
SI: Another tough question: What kind of prospects are your grandkids?
DC: They're both capable of playing right now. They're genetically gifted. They'll definitely end up with Knowology degrees, I know that. They'll get official Knowology degrees from their grandfather. It's been great. It's hard that they're in Mississippi. My son is coaching at Oxford High School, where he was the quarterback. He married his sweetheart. He worked for me two years here and said, "Dad, I don't want to move all over the country." They live in Oxford and had babies. They have Shivers (age two in June), which is his mom's maiden name. Then they have Bennett (two months). Shivers is already an athlete. He can throw a ball. He can do it all.
SI: Last question. About 10 years ago, after the ACC added Miami and Virginia Tech, there was a lot of chest thumping about the ACC being a dominant league. It simply hasn't happened. Can the ACC catch up?
DC: We're getting better. The bar has obviously been set high. For years the ACC has been perceived as more of a basketball conference. We all know that, and that's good. We do have great basketball. I think also you've got to remember, the ACC is different. We are built differently. It's OK to be different. I don't think we need to be the SEC. You look at our institutions, they're built different. It doesn't mean we can't have great football and great national championship teams. ... Be the best ACC we can be and it may identify itself as the epitome of football student athletes across the country. That's the goal, isn't it?