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Featherston On Duke Football: The Lost Legacy

The year 1960 is a dividing line in Duke sports history.

Before that calendar year, Duke was a football school - the best football school in the ACC and one of the best in the South. The entire culture on campus revolved around football.

Hall of Fame coach Wallace Wade, the guy Duke hired away from Alabama to build its football fortunes, had been retired a decade and still managed his Angus beef farm just north of Durham. He would still show up at practice occasionally and was always available to talk to young sports writers about the glory of Duke football. Eddie Cameron, who had taken over for Wade during World War II and had beaten Alabama in the 1945 Sugar Bowl, was still the school's athletic director and was maybe the most powerful man in the ACC. Bill Murray, a former Blue Devil running back, was just starting his 10th season at the school and had won four conference titles and twice played in the Orange Bowl - beating Nebraska there on Jan. 1, 1955.

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The 1960 season would be his greatest team - and the last Duke team to finish in the AP top 10 and to win a bowl game.

In contrast, 1960 would be Vic Bubas' first season as basketball coach and he was fighting an uphill battle to make the Duke community appreciate basketball.

Oh, the school had always had a respectable program under Cameron, Gus Gerard and Hal Bradley. Between 1938 and 1946, Duke won five conference titles. Duke was almost always one of the eight teams (out of up to 17) that qualified for the Southern Conference Tournament before 1954. In the first six seasons of the new ACC, Duke never finished worse than third in the regular season and twice won what was then the non-existent "regular season championship". But the Devils had not won an official conference title since 1946 and had never made much of a national impact - Duke's lone NCAA appearance came when the Devils replaced probation-ridden N.C. State in 1955 and made a quick tournament exit, losing to Villanova in the first round.

Worse, there was nowhere near the passion for Duke basketball as there was for football at the school. Duke Indoor Stadium (which would be renamed Cameron in 1972) was rarely filled. When the Devils upset No. 7 Kentucky in 1957, there were more than 2,000 empty seats and Coach Adolph Rupp used the occasion to rip the Duke fans for their failure to fill the stands. Sometimes the arena would fill up when N.C. State or North Carolina came to town, but that was only because thousands of visiting fans would invade Duke Indoor Stadium.

Bubas, who had played a large role in helping Everett Case make N.C. State the ACC's dominant power in the 1950s, knew he had to change the culture at Duke. Fortunately, he was taught by the greatest salesman in ACC history - the Wolfpack's Case.

The smooth, articulate young coach from Gary, Ind., copied many of Case's innovations (just as an example, spotlighted player introductions) and he added a few of his own (the first pep band in the South). He was tireless that first year as he crisscrossed the area, selling basketball to any civic or social group that would listen. He even staged a special clinic for the ladies.

Of course, his greatest selling point was his success on the court. In the spring of 1960, his first Duke team caught fire in the ACC Tournament, upsetting ACC co-regular season "champs" North Carolina and Wake Forest to win Duke its first ACC title. That unheralded team (just 12-10, 7-7 ACC in the regular season) won the first NCAA game in school history by beating Princeton in Madison Square Garden, then returned to the new Charlotte Coliseum (the silver-domed one on Independence Blvd.) and upset St. Joseph's in the Sweet 16 before losing to NYU in the East Regional title game.

A year later, Art Heyman arrived on the varsity and Duke basketball was off and running.

It's not absolutely clear when basketball surpassed football as the prime sport on the Duke campus. As much success as Bubas had, in 1960, the football team had more. Murray, who had been renowned as a conservative run-oriented coach (he had Sonny Jurgensen for three seasons and the future NFL Hall of Fame QB attempted just 155 passes in his career) shocked everybody in 1960 when he unveiled a wide open passing game that highlighted All-American end Tee Moorman and a trio of strong-armed quarterbacks - Don Altman, Walt Rappold and Gil Garner.

Duke got off to a 5-1 start (losing only at Michigan) and was ranked No. 13 nationally when the Devils upset No. 4 Navy and stopped Heisman Trophy winning running back Joe Bellino in front of 46,000 fans at Duke Stadium. The Blue Devils earned a bid to the Cotton Bowl (at the time one of the four major bowls) and a matchup with Arkansas, despite losing its final two regular season games. When No. 10 Duke upset No. 7 Arkansas (with star wide receiver Lance Alworth) in Dallas, it looked like Duke would remain a football school forever.

No one would have guessed that within a decade - even less than that - Duke football would be mired in mediocrity. Murray had two more exceptional years - his '61 team won seven games, routed Notre Dame in the finale and finished No. 20 in the nation; his '62 team finished 8-2 (losing 14-7 at national champion Southern Cal), beating Florida and California and finishing 14th in the nation. He would actually win his 8th ACC title in 13 years in 1965 (although the ACC would later strip the title because South Carolina cheated - it's a long, convoluted story … let's just say Duke won it on the field).

But replacement Tom Harp, who had one winning season in five years, was a disaster. By the time former Duke star Mike McGee inherited the program in 1971, Duke's football glory was a fading memory. The new coach had little support from an administration that was more interested in establishing the school as a southern branch of the Ivy League than in pursing excellence in athletics.

The decline that started under Harp continued for more than 40 years with just a few positive blips (the Spurrier years, 1994) along the way. During that same period, the basketball revolution that Bubas ignited continued to grow, despite a few negative blips (the Bucky Waters years; the first years under Mike Krzyzewski). Football was largely mediocre through the mid-90s, when the program fell off the face of the earth - between 2000 and 2007, Duke was probably the worst BCS program in the country. Basketball didn't achieve consistent excellence until then mid-1980s - in the last 30 years, Krzyzewski has made Duke the best basketball program in the country.


A few years ago, I made up a chart tracking the ACC performance of the ACC's football schools by decade. The updated chart is below. Note: the records are the official ACC records with vacated and forfeited wins included:


1. Duke (26-7-1) .779
2. (tie)

Clemson (24-10-1) .700
Maryland (24-10-1) .700
4. UNC (22-22) .500
5. South Carolina (22-23) .489
6. Wake Forest (13-29-1) .386
7. N.C. State (9-24-2) .257
8. Virginia (4-24) .167

1. N.C. State (44-21-2) .671
2. Clemson (42-20-1) .667
3. Duke (38-22-2) .629
4. Maryland (31-36) .463
5. South Carolina (27-33-3) .452
6. UNC (29-37) .439
7. Wake Forest (19-45-1) .300
8. Virginia (16-41-1) .284

1. Maryland (40-16-1) .711
2. UNC (38-20-2) .650
3. N.C. State (35-20-3) .629
4. Clemson (32-24-2) .569
5. Duke (22-33-4) .407
6. Wake Forest (19-39-1) .331
7. Virginia (11-46) .193

1. Clemson (40-12) .769
2. Maryland (41-18) .695
3. UNC (33-30-1) .523
4. Virginia (31-32-2) .492
5. N.C. State (29-35-1) .454
6. Georgia Tech (17-24-1) .417
7. Duke (26-43-1) .379
8. Wake Forest (19-46) .292

1. Florida State (62-2) .969
2. Virginia (51-26-1) .660
3. UNC (46-31-1) .596
4. Clemson (45-32-1) .578
5. Georgia Tech (44-33-1) .571
6. N.C. State (40-38) .513
7. Maryland (23-55) .295
8. Wake Forest (16-62) .205
9. Duke (15-63) .192

1. Virginia Tech (38-10) .791
2. Florida State (49-25) .662
3. Boston College (26-14) .650
4. Georgia Tech (50-30) .625
5. Clemson (47-33) .588
6. Miami (25-23) .521
7. (tie)

Virginia (41-39) .513
Maryland (41-39) .513
9. N.C. State (34-46) .425
10. Wake Forest (32-48) .400
11. UNC (24-48) .333
12. Duke (7-73) .009

1. Virginia Tech (19-5) .792
2. (tie)
Florida State (17-7) .708
Clemson (17-7) .708
4. Georgia Tech (14-10) .583
5. (tie)

Miami (13-11) .542
N.C. State (13-11) .542
7. UNC (12-12) .500
8. Wake Forest (9-15) .375
9. (tie)

Virginia (8-16) .333
Boston College (8-16) .333
Maryland (8-16) .333
12. Duke (5-19) .208

The decline in Duke's fortunes is dramatic - a steady fall from first in the ACC to third to fifth to seventh to ninth to 12th. The percentages dropped every year too, reaching rock bottom in the first decade of this century. And while Duke remains last in the ACC through the first three years of the second decade of the 21st Century, the winning percentage has risen.

It's the first sign of progress in Duke football in half a century.


Pardon the history lesson, but I just wanted to explain the generational divide in Duke athletics.

I was 11 years old in 1960 and was on hand in March for Bubas' ACC Tournament triumph in Raleigh and in early November for Murray's historic victory over Navy. Fans as old as I am grew up in an era when Duke was all about football. We've seen - and appreciate - the rise of Duke basketball. But we've agonized over the long decline of Duke football.

Yet, in my twilight years, things have changed again.

It happened in December of 2007 when Ted Roof was fired and David Cutcliffe was hired. Not only was Cutcliffe an excellent hire - a brilliant offensive teacher with an engaging personality and the energy to sell Duke football to a disinterested fan base - but behind the scenes there was a revolutionary shift in the attitude of the school's administration. For the first time since the Bill Murray era, the university committed itself to pursue excellence on the football field.

It hasn't been easy for Cutcliffe - he inherited the worst program in the ACC (indeed, arguably the worst in BCS football). He still had to recruit student-athletes without the benefit of phony classes to bolster their academics. He still had to overcome the perception - built over 40 years - that Duke didn't care about football. He still had to sell recruits who made their visits and saw the embarrassing crowds that often left ancient Wade Stadium half-empty.

In that context, Cutcliffe has done a remarkable job. He's sold the program to the community as evidenced by the rising home attendance over his first five years - indeed, last fall's UNC's sellout was a milestone, especially since the large majority of the crowd was pro-Duke and not made up of invaders pulling for the Tar Heels. He's sold the program to recruits, bringing in a steadily rising quality of athletes.

He's also had success on the field, culminating with Duke's first bowl trip in 19 years last season. There are two ways to look at his five-year record. On the surface, his five-year mark of 21-40 (9-31 ACC) is not that impressive … but compare it to the five years before his arrival when Duke was a cumulative 8-50 (3-37 ACC). Has any team in college football improved its record that much in the last five years?

Of course, Cutcliffe has gotten a lot of help from the administration. The school has gifted him with three major expenditures - a new, full-sized practice field; the Brooks Building (a practice facility and visiting locker room) and the Pascal Field House, an indoor practice facility. Less visibly - but maybe more importantly - Cutcliffe has gotten the money to hire and retain a first-rate staff. That's been a huge bugaboo for previous Duke coaches - Fred Goldsmith was a particular victim of Duke's refusal to compensate talented assistants.

Then there's the upcoming project to remodel Wade Stadium. Scheduled to begin as soon as this season ends, Duke will tear up the track around the field, lower the field and drop the stands to field level; build a tower with luxury suites and a new press box, remodel the concourse and finally close in the open end of the stadium.

That project is a visible commitment that Cutcliffe can show to recruits.

All that praise is not meant to suggest that Duke football has arrived, only that for the first time in half a century, it's on the right track.

Cutcliffe probably summed the situation up best earlier this moment when he said:

"We've gone from irrelevance to relevance … now we've got to go from relevance to being very good."

Cutcliffe and his players keep talking about winning conference championships and going to a bowl every year. That sounds farfetched, but go back to 1960 and try to tell a Duke football fan from that era when Blue Devil football would be like in the first decade of the 21st Century. He wouldn't believe you.

Look at the breakdown of ACC records by decades. Track N.C. State, which was just about the worst ACC program in the 1950s, yet was the best in the 1960s. Look at Virginia, the Cavaliers were the absolute worst program in the ACC for 30 years But starting with George Welsh's third Virginia team in 1984 through his retirement at the end of the century, Virginia was the best of the original ACC programs - only the 1992 addition of FSU displaced Virginia as the ACC's best team in that era.

Things change. Anyone who has lived through Duke's transformation from ACC powerhouse to ACC patsy knows that in his or her bones. For most of the last half-century, the changes have been for the worse for the Blue Devils.

I'm hoping that the clear progress that Cutcliffe has made in the last five years means that the wheel is turning again - in our direction this time.


by Al Featherston