How did Duke get to this point?
Today - as November turns into December of 2005 - there is a
wider disparity between Duke's football program and its basketball program
than that of any other school trying to compete at the top level in both
major sports. True, there are some prominent basketball powers than don't
play Division 1-A football - Marquette, Georgetown, St. John's come to mind.
But out of the 119 schools that compete in both Division 1 basketball and
Division 1-A football, where is there another gap between success and
failure that's even close to Duke's?
Kentucky, Indiana and Washington are all pretty mediocre in
football, but none of the three is nearly as bad as Duke is this season or
has been in recent years. And while all three are strong hoop contenders,
none is ranked as high as the Blue Devils are in the early polls.
Right now, I could argue that Duke has the best basketball
program in the nation - based on the last two decades. I know UNC, Kentucky,
Kansas and/or UConn might debate the point, but it's still a viable
argument. On the other hand, a Duke critic could argue that the Blue Devils
have the nation's worst Division 1-A football program. Again, I could argue
the point - for what it's worth, Sagarin rates Duke 11th from the bottom in
Division 1-A, mostly ahead of MAC and WAC schools such as Buffalo, New
Mexico State, Idaho and Florida International. But the Blue Devils do rank
dead last among BCS conference members.
The question I keep asking is, how did Duke come to have such an
incredible disparity between the two major sports?
I can't help thinking back just over two decades to the 1982-83
season. At that time, I don't believe anyone would have argued that the
current state of Duke athletics was inevitable.
Duke's football team wrapped up its second straight 6-5 season
that fall, beating Tennessee in Knoxville, South Carolina in Columbia and
Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Red Wilson's Blue Devils routed Virginia 51-17 and
hung 46 points on Wake Forest. The Devils, led by strong-armed quarterback
Ben Bennett and speedy wide receiver Chris Castor, were just inches from
upsetting Virginia Tech and lost heartbreakers to Navy and N.C. State.
By contrast, Mike Krzyzewski's second Duke basketball team was
en route to a second straight 17-loss season. That Blue Devil team lost at
home to Wagner. The season ended on a dismal night in Atlanta, when Duke was
routed 109-66 by Virginia the first round of the ACC Tournament.
Clearly, Duke owned a better football team than basketball team
in 1982-83. And it's possible to argue that the Blue Devils actually owned a
better football program at that moment in time.
Look at the history from our vantage point at the end of the
-- Duke's football team had played in six major bowls. The
basketball team had played in just four Final Fours.
-- Duke's football team had won 17 conference championships (10
Southern and seven ACC), while the basketball team could claim just 11
league titles (five Southern and six ACC).
-- Duke football had produced 57 All-Americans, including 27
that could claim first-team honors. Duke basketball coast boast 23
All-Americans and 10 with first-team credentials.
Look at facilities:
-- Cameron was the oldest facility in the league and although it
had been remodeled in the late 1970s, it was still a cramped, unattractive
arena (and would remain so until the brass rails and wood paneling were
added during the 1988 refurbishment). Duke's locker rooms were the worst in
the ACC. The team shared weight room facilities with the football team.
-- Wade Stadium was also old, but the university was starting to
pour money into it for renovation. The new press box was opened a year
earlier and the Bryan Center, which would host the football team until the
completion of the Yoh Center, was in the planning stages.
Look at the coaches:
-- Mike Krzyzewski was working in his third season. He was young
and without a reputation. The greatest jewel on his resume was a NIT trip at
-- Red Wilson was a legendary North Carolina high school coach
who had won a small college national championship at Elon. In his one season
as Mike McGee's chief recruiter, he had brought in what was regarded as the
best recruiting class in modern Duke history (including future NFL players
Charles Bowser and Cedric Jones).
Granted, Duke had enjoyed more recent national success in
basketball than football. All four of the team's Final Four trips had come
since the last major bowl trip in the 1961 Cotton Bowl. But despite Bill
Foster's successful three-year run at the end of the decade, Duke's ACC
basketball record in the 1970s (58-71, 44.9) was just marginally better than
its ACC football record in the decade (22-33-4, 40.0 percent).
Now here's where the story gets interesting.
On the night of Nov. 20, 1982 - just hours after Duke's 23-17
victory over No. 18 North Carolina (a team that would beat No. 8 Texas in
the Sun Bowl) -- Tom Butters called Red Wilson to his home and fired him.
Think about that one for a second: A Duke football coach completes his
second straight 6-5 season and gets fired on the night of a satisfying
victory over the school's biggest rival.
I can assure you that there was no behind-the-scenes hanky-panky going on.
Wilson ran a clean program, graduated his players (he won Duke's first CFA
Trophy in 1981 and his last recruiting class won Duke's second graduation
award in 1985) and was untouched by scandal. Some people thought he was a
little clownish and at times his conversation did become a bid convoluted,
but the guy had a Masters in Education from Davidson - he was no dummy.
No, Wilson was fired because he didn't meet the expectations Butters had for
the football team. It's also interesting that Butters, who assumes the
hero's mantle in the Mike Krzyzewski story for standing by his man during
tough times, was quick to stick the knife in Wilson's back. To be fair, he
thought Wilson's success was largely due to the work of offensive
coordinator Steve Spurrier, who was leaving to take a pro job. And he
replaced Wilson with a major hire - luring the celebrated Steve Sloan, once
assumed to be Bear Bryant's successor at Alabama, to Durham.
How did that work out?
Let's go back to that 1982-83 season and look at another ACC program.
That was the fourth straight season that Virginia's basketball program rode
Ralph Sampson to national prominence. The Cavs would spend the whole year
ranked in the top five before finally losing to N.C. State in the ACC
Tournament finals, then being upset again by Jim Valvano's Cardiac Pack in
the NCAA West Regional finals.
While Virginia's basketball program was enjoying its run at the top, the
Cavalier football team was continuing its tradition of mediocrity. You think
Duke football is bad today? Well, in 1982 Virginia owned the second worst
all-time record in Division 1-A football (behind Kansas State) and was one of
just two programs that had never been to a bowl game. Virginia owned the
worst ACC record of any program in the 1950s (4-24), the 1960s (16-41-1) and
the 1970s (11-46). Welsh's first season in Charlottesville was a dismal 2-9.
Was there any doubt that Virginia's basketball program was far ahead of its
Could anyone who watched Wilson's Blue Devils rout Virginia in Wade Stadium
that fall have guessed that the Cavaliers were about to become one of the
ACC's strongest, most consistent football programs? Who could have guessed
that Duke would never again finish with a better football record than
And could anybody have watched Virginia's basketball team manhandle Duke in
the ACC Tournament that March have guessed that Duke was about to begin its
climb past UNC to become the ACC's dominant basketball power? And that from
1984 to 2005, the Cavs would finish with a better record than Duke exactly
Can we put our fingers on why the Duke and Virginia programs followed such
I've always been skeptical of such terms as "university commitment" and
"facilities" - reasons that coaches like to toss around as excuses for
their failures. It's true that starting in the late 1980s, Virginia began devoting
more and more of its resources to football, while Duke poured money into the
But in both cases, the financial commitment came AFTER the success of the
respective programs. When you look at the history of the ACC, you'll see
that that facilities and commitment have little to do with success and are,
in fact, usually evidence that success has already been achieved.
As already noted, the first big financial commitment to Krzyzewski's program
came in 1987-88, when Cameron was transformed from a dark, dingy arena into
a basketball shrine. Yet, that happened AFTER Coach K's first Final Four
trip and after the players that would produce his second trip were already
on campus. Even then, Duke still had among the worst locker room facilities
in the ACC until the competition of the luxurious Schwartz/Butters complex
in 2000, long after Krzyzewski had established his program as one of the
You can trace a similar path at Florida State, where Bobby Bowden first
began producing bowl teams when Doak Stadium was little more than a
glorified high school field. Its expansion followed - not preceded -
Bowden's amazing success. Dean Smith clearly benefited from the construction
of Carmichael Auditorium in 1965, before his program took off. But that
facility was undersized and outdated when it was opened - UNC only stepped
up to the front rank in basketball facilities in 1986, when the Smith Center
opened ... and that was after Smith's first national title, seven Final
Fours and such stars as Miller, Scott, McAdoo, Ford, Worthy and Jordan.
And I'm sure it's just a coincidence that UNC enjoyed its greatest football
success in the 1990s before the completion of its Taj Mahal football complex
at Kenan Stadium (and has been mediocre ever since) or that Chuck Amato had
his best seasons at N.C. State before the completion of the gorgeous,
state-of-the-art Murphy Football Center (let's see, he's 11-11 since moving
in; 34-17 before).
My conclusion: facilities reflect success ... they don't cause it.
So what does?
I would suggest that it's simple: coaches create success. The right coach at
the right time.
Go back to 1982-83 and look at two people. Duke had hired a young Mike
Krzyzewski to guide its basketball program. Virginia had just hired George
Welsh to build its football program. In hindsight, we can see that these two
individuals wrought greatness (in Krzyzewski's case) and near-greatness (in
Welsh's case) out of unpromising situations. It's the same wherever you
look - what was Florida State before Bobby Bowden? Miami was talking about
giving up football before Howard Schnellenberger arrived and laid the
groundwork for the nation's strongest program (at least over the last
quarter-century). Florida had never won an SEC title - not one! - before
hiring Steve Spurrier in 1989.
I would suggest that successful coaches fall into two categories: the first
are the builders, then second are the sustainers.
Obviously, the first group are the hardest to find. When you look at any
great program, you usually find one great coach who first lifted that school
to prominence. Adolph Rupp did it at Kentucky. John Wooden did it at UCLA.
Bowden did it at Florida State. And although Frank McGuire had won a
national title at UNC in 1957, I believe Dean Smith inherited a slumping,
probation-ridden, scandal-plagued North Carolina program and lifted the Tar
Heels to the front rank of college programs. True, the Tar Heels had success
before Smith - but before Smith, nobody would have mentioned UNC in the same
breath with Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana or UCLA.
The same applies to Krzyzewski at Duke. The Blue Devils had national success
under Vic Bubas and briefly under Bill Foster. Eddie Cameron and Hal Bradley
produced solid winners in the 1940s and 1950s. But before Coach K's run of
success starting in the mid-1980s, nobody ranked Duke's program in a class
with Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana, UCLA and North Carolina.
After the builders are the sustainers. Give Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson,
Butch Davis and Larry Coker credit at Miami, but understand that they are
just maintaining the program that Schnellenberger built out of nothing.
Tubby Smith is doing a great job at Kentucky, but he's merely following in
the footsteps of Rupp - via Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton and Rick Pitino. Roy
Williams was a great coach at Kansas and he'll be a great coach at UNC - but
in both cases, he inherited well-established powers.
Once a program has tasted ultimate success, it will never been happy with
failure or moderate success again. That explains why UNC had such little
patience with Bill Guthridge (who caught an amazing amount of flack for a guy
who reached the Final Four in two of his three years) and Matt Doherty,
while giving the mediocre John Bunting so much leeway. It helps explain why
N.C. State fans love Chuck Amato, while keeping basketball coach Herb
Sendek - who has actually have more ACC and national success - on the hot
seat. N.C. State has never played in a major bowl or finished in the top 10
in football. On the other hand, plenty of Pack fans still recall the glories
of Everett Case and Jim Valvano. After watching David Thompson slay UCLA and
cut down the nets after winning a national championship, are they supposed
to be happy reaching the Sweet 16 and finishing second in the ACC?
Wolfpack basketball fans are afraid that their legacy of greatness will be
lost in time. That can happen - it happened to Duke football.
The Blue Devils had a great program builder in Wallace Wade, who not only
lifted Duke to national prominence, he also built Alabama's first dynasty -
a dynasty that Bear Bryant sustained brilliantly. Wade was succeeded at Duke
by Bill Murray, who sustained the program well through his retirement in
It was at that point that Duke's football program derailed.
Certainly academics played a part. So did the decline in the school's
facilities. But what really hurt was a series of misguided coaching hires
-- In 1965, Duke president Douglas Knight was trying to remake Duke as an
Ivy League school. Instead of allowing Duke veteran AD Eddie Cameron to make
the hire (Cameron wanted to bring in future Oklahoma coach Chuck Fairbanks
or promote Murray's right-hand man Ace Parker), Knight forced Cameron to
hire Cornell coach Tom Harp, who brought an Ivy League mentality to Durham.
-- After Harp was fired in 1970 (as much for on-the-field issues as his
mediocre record), new AD Carl James received applications from a number of
prominent coaches, including young West Virginia head coach Bobby Bowden
(who claims the Duke job is the only one he ever applied for). Instead,
James opted for former Duke star Mike McGee, who had one year of head
coaching experience (at East Carolina). McGee, who would later become one of
the nation's most respected athletic directors, struggled with Duke's
academic, facility and financial problems (which forced some ridiculously
impossible non-conference scheduling) as the program dropped.
McGee was actually a fairly effective coach, considering the situation at
Duke at the time. But in a way, he was like Sendek - he didn't measure up to
the program's past glory. The Duke community got tired of his
middle-of-the-road finishes and, after a minor player revolt in 1978, he was
-- New AD Tom Butters hired Red Wilson on the cheap. Butters, a brilliant
financial manager, saved money on the coaching staff so that he could spend
the savings on the facilities. Give him credit - it was Butters who
suggested that Wilson hire Spurrier as offensive coordinator after the
former Heisman Trophy winner was fired as an assistant at Georgia Tech.
-- In hindsight, it's easy to blame Butters for firing Wilson after the
completion of its second straight 6-5 season in 1982. It's understandable to
credit Wilson's success to Spurrier, who was leaving for a pro job. And with
the famous Steve Sloan available, Butters thought he had to make the move.
It should be noted that even in the early 1980s, the lingering memory of
Duke's former football greatness was still strong enough to color the
perception of Wilson's record. Those back-to-back 6-5 seasons were not
appreciated at the time. In fact, they were seen as disappointing because of
the near misses that might have led to even greater seasons.
-- Sloan was once touted as a successor to Bear Bryant at Alabama. He
probably would have done a good job in Tuscaloosa. He was a classic
sustainer. But by the time he took over the Duke job, there was little to
sustain. His innate offensive conservatism helped spoil Ben Bennett's last
season. He built some solid defensive teams in the mid-1980s, oversaw a
dramatic improvement in facilities and recruited many of the players who
would later win under Spurrier.
Sloan left after the 1986 season to become athletic director at Alabama.
-- Butters' hire of Steve Spurrier after the 1986 season was without doubt
the best move Duke football has made since Murray's retirement in 1965. At
the time, Duke football was not the laughing stock that it is today, but
clearly it had been a mediocre program for more than two decades. Spurrier's
7-3-1 season in 1988 and his 1989 ACC co-championship restored Duke to the
upper levels of the ACC - temporarily.
-- If Butters' hire of Spurrier was the best football move made by a Duke
administrator in the last third of the 20th century, then the decision to
replace him with Barry Wilson was the worst.
It was at that moment that Duke football stepped off the precipice and began
its calamitous fall.
Spurrier's success had briefly elevated Duke football to the point where it
would not have been hard to find an adequate replacement. Instead, Butters
handed the reigns to the colorless Wilson, a fine man who had neither the
charisma nor the coaching acumen to sustain the upswing in the program that
Spurrier had begun. That became evident as Duke's momentum disappeared in
the early 1990s and the program fell so far so fast that when Wilson
resigned near the end of the 1993 season, Butters found himself with few
Time out for a moment to explain one thing - disappointed fans are always
anxious to pull the trigger on a disappointing coach, but they rarely give
much thought to who will replace him. Or rather I should say they rarely
give much rational thought to the subject. Instead, you get UNC fans sure
they can hire Frank Beamer or Steve Spurrier or Wolfpack basketball fans
convinced that Rick Barnes is chomping at the bit to come to Raleigh.
When Barry Wilson quit/was fired in the fall of 1993, Butters found out how
tough it can be to find a replacement. He was turned down by almost every
top candidate he approached, including (initially) the man he ended up
hiring, Fred Goldsmith. The first candidate he offered the job to - Virginia
offensive coordinator Jim O'Brien (now at Boston College) - ended up turning
the job down.
-- For one magical season, the stars aligned right for Fred Goldsmith, who
changed his mind and jumped from Rice to Duke. Everything went right in 1994
and Duke enjoyed its last memorable season - eight wins and a trip to the
Hall of Fame Bowl. But that was a junior/senior laden team, recruited in the
wake of Spurrier's success (and proving what a window of opportunity was
there if Butters had just made the right hire in 1989).
A year later, Goldsmith was left with a strong senior class and little else.
Injuries crippled his 1995 team and by 1996, there was nothing left except
the youngsters Goldsmith had started to bring in. That wasn't a bad group
and after the team hit rock bottom with a winless 1996 season and a 2-9 year
in 1997, the team showed progress in 1998 - routing Northwestern early and
getting to 4-4 with a home field victory over Clemson.
That was the high point. A week later, an injury-crippled Duke team lost a
heartbreaker in double overtime at Vanderbilt, then didn't show up in
season-ending losses to Maryland and North Carolina. New athletic director
Joe Alleva, a football star himself during his playing days at Boston
University, fired Goldsmith and without any search, he hired Florida
assistant Carl Franks.
-- Personally, I think Alleva fired Goldsmith one year too early. The team
that he had so painstakingly put together was coming back nearly intact in
1999 (or would have without the coaching change) and Goldsmith - a two-time
national coach of the year - deserved a chance to try and achieve the
success that he had barely missed in 1998. However, I agree the point is
debatable - the team clearly quit on Goldsmith after the disappointment at
Vanderbilt and there's no guarantee that he could get them back.
But if firing Goldsmith was a defensible move, hiring Franks was not.
Understand, that the former Duke tight end - a Spurrier protege who had
never even been a coordinator - was hired without even a pretense of a
coaching search. Ralph Friedgen, then the highly respected offensive
coordinator at Georgia Tech, claims he tried to apply for the Duke opening
that fall, but couldn't even get an interview.
Franks was a disaster who clearly wasn't ready to head a program - much less
revive the kind of mess that the Duke program had become. He recruited
poorly and soon lost the respect of his players. That much was evident
midway through the 2003 season when he was fired and the team responded so
well to interim coach Ted Roof.
-- At that point Alleva was forced to reap the bitter fruits of his 1998
mistake. Although he told the media that they would be surprised by the
quality of coaches interested in the Duke job, in the end, he ended up with
three distasteful choices - Bobby Ross, a big name coach who was 67 years
old in 2003; former Duke linebacker Dick Biddle, a small-college success at
Colgate, who had never coached in Division 1; or Roof, the former Georgia
Tech linebacker who had trained under George O'Leary and had turned in a
surprising 2-3 mark (including Duke's first win over UNC in 14 years) as the
interim successor to Franks.
In the end, Alleva probably made the right choice. In his two seasons as
head coach, Roof has assembled a respected staff, he's recruited amazingly
well and he's retained the respect of his players. True, none of that has
paid off on the field yet, but remember he's trying to dig football out of a
deep hole that's almost a quarter century in the making.
Can he succeed? Some cynics suggest that Duke can't possibly win in football
and should give up the sport - or at least drop to Division 1-AA or lower.
Sounds like the talk at Miami before the 'Canes hired Schnellenberger or at
Northwestern when the Wildcats were losing 34 straight games (by a combined
score of 505-82) between 1978 and 1982. Try to keep in mind that failure,
like success, is not necessarily permanent. Georgia Tech went from
back-to-back 1-9-1 and 1-10 to 9-2-1 under Bill Curry. UNC went from back to
back 1-10 seasons to seven straight bowl games under Mack Brown. Florida
State was 4-29 in the four seasons before Bowden's arrival in 1976.
The right coach can turn even the worst program around. I'm not saying that
I'm sure Ted Roof is the right coach, although he deserves at least two more
years (maybe three) to prove whether he is or not. I am saying that the
right coach is out there and if Roof doesn't prove to be the program's
savior, Duke needs to look somewhere else.
A quarter century ago, Tom Butters found the right coach to make the Blue
Devil basketball program something special. At almost the same time, the
Virginia administration found the right coach to energize Cavalier football.
Both outcomes appear pre-ordained in hindsight, but neither was obvious in
I love to play with counterfactual history (I'm trying to get my novel about
Bill Veeck's 1943 Phillies published) and one of the scenarios I've thought
about is to speculate about the different choices Tom Butters could have
made in the early 1980s. Specifically, what would the Duke sports landscape
look like today had he elected to retain his football coach who had just
turned in back-to-back winning seasons and fire his unproven young
basketball coach after the worst back-to-back seasons in Duke history.
There are no easy answers to that one, but I'd be willing to argue that had
that happened, there wouldn't be the wide gap between the football and
basketball programs that exist today. I don't believe he could have found a
better coach to lead the Blue Devil basketball program than Krzyzewski ...
and I doubt that any other sequence of football coaching fires and hires
would have worked out so badly as it did.
Think about it for awhile ...