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Former Duke Football Star And Coach Mike McGee Remembered

A good man who was in a tough spot as Duke’s coach

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Goalposts Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Mike McGee died Friday at the age of 80, regarded as one of the best football players in Duke history. No one doubts that. I also feel like he is one of the most underrated football coaches in Duke history.

More on that later.

McGee came to Duke from Elizabeth City. Sort of. His father was a coast guard captain and the family moved around a lot. But McGee graduated from high school in Elizabeth City.

He played at Duke during limited substitution rules. In other words, you played offense and defense.

McGee was an interior lineman. He won the 1959 Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s top lineman. He remains the only Duke player to win an individual, national football award.

It’s not easy to win something like that on a 4-6 team, especially one that ends its season losing to its arch-rival 50-0 on national television.

It helped that Duke’s legendary SID Ted Mann knew everyone and worked all of those connections on McGee’s behalf. And we don’t have much in the way of defensive stats-just interceptions-from those days. But McGee was considered a ferocious hitter, smart, athletic, cerebral. He earned that award.

The Chicago Cardinals--yes, it was a long time ago--made McGee the 14th pick of the 1960 NFL draft. Duke was in the habit of turning out top-tier pro players in those days-Al DeRogatis, Ed Meadows, Sonny Jurgensen, Wray Carlton, Mike Curtis, Bob Matheson, et. al. There’s no reason to think McGee wouldn’t have joined them. But a neck injury ended his career after three seasons.

McGee went into coaching, an assistant at Duke, Wisconsin and Minnesota. He became head coach at East Carolina in 1970, only 31 years old. The Pirates went 3-8 that season.

That also was Tom Harp’s last season at Duke. His contract was not renewed after going 22-28-1 over four seasons.

Why did Duke pursue McGee? Certainly, his Duke connections helped, along with his NFL experience. He wanted the job.

But McGee also took over when a series of disturbing trends made the Duke job unattractive to many. Duke was making the move up from regional academic powerhouse to national academic powerhouse and they weren’t sure they wanted to bring football with them. Many of the new, Ivy-League educated professors were openly hostile to big-time football. In fact, the Faculty Senate voted to de-emphasize the sport, a recommendation never followed.

But, still; try selling that to recruits.

The move to unlimited substitution in the 1960s required more players and more money. But Duke continued to run a 1970s program on a 1950s budget, under-paying coaches, short-changing recruiting budgets and allowing the infrastructure to languish.

And the ACC was a tougher neighborhood in the 1970s. Three times in the 1960s the ACC did not have a single team with more than six overall wins. In 1964 no ACC team had a winning record.

That changed. McGee had to compete with revitalized programs at UNC (Bill Dooley), NC State (Lou Holtz), Clemson (Charlie Pell and Danny Ford) and Maryland (Jerry Claiborne), all state-supported universities willing to spend money on football.

And don’t get me started on the non-conference schedule. Sure, schedules are set years in advance. But in eight seasons McGee played Florida (three times), Stanford (twice), Alabama, Washington (twice), Tennessee (three times), Southern Cal, Michigan (twice), Purdue (twice) and Pittsburgh (twice).

McGee always had talent. He inherited defensive backs Ernie Jackson and Rich Searl, running back Steve Jones and lineman Ed Newman from Harp and recruited talent like quarterback Mike Dunn, linebacker Carl McGee, center Billy Bryan, defensive back Bob Grupp and running back Tony Benjamin, among others.

Talent. But not enough. Duke was chronically depth-deprived and when the injuries hit--and they always do-the talent level dropped significantly.

McGee had two great what-if-seasons at Duke. His first Duke team began the 1971 season with wins over Florida, South Carolina, Virginia and Stanford, the Virginia game the only one at home.

The win over Stanford was one of the best wins in post-Bill Murray Duke history. Stanford was ranked 10th and on its way to a 9-3 season and a Rose Bowl win. And Duke went out west without Jones, injured after an automobile accident. But Jackson got a pick-six and Duke kept Stanford out of the end zone, winning 9-3.

Duke jumped to 14th in the following AP poll, still the program’s highest ranking since 1962.

But Duke traveled to Death Valley, with Jones still ailing, and fell to Clemson 3-0. After a win over NC State Duke coughed up a 14-0 fourth-quarter lead against Navy in a driving rain and lost 15-14 on a two-point conversion. Quarterback Dennis Satyshur was lost for the season with a broken arm in game nine and McGee replaced him with Searl, a great defensive back who had not played quarterback since high school. Searl was 16-for-47 over three games, 221 yards and four interceptions.

Duke fell to 6-5, losing 38-0 at home to North Carolina to end the season.

Truth be told, McGee never did warm up to the forward pass. He grew up during the era when it was said that three things can happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad.

But he did elevate the offense. Dunn led the ACC in total offense in 1976 and was runner-up in 1977, Tom Hall led the ACC in receptions in 1976, Tony Benjamin rushed for 674 yards in 1975.

But the defense couldn’t keep up. Instead of losing games by scores like 3-0, 7-3 and 9-7, Duke started losing games by scores like 39-38, 44-31 and 37-32.

And yes, by scores like 52-0 and 56-13.

McGee’s second near-miss season came in 1974. Duke went to Clemson with a 4-1 record. Duke dominated the game, a 25-10 edge in first downs. But they couldn’t convert yards into points, kept turning it over in the red zone and dropped a 17-13 heart-breaker.

Duke ended the season at Chapel Hill. Trying to run out the clock with a 13-7 lead, Duke lost a fumble and then the game, 14-13. Duke finished 6-5, two plays from an 8-3 season.

By 1978 McGee was under pressure. As an AD he later became adept in the schmoozing-the-donors-arts. But he was still refining those skills in his 30s and he struck some boosters as aloof. His relations with the media were professional, even cordial but nowhere near warm-and-fuzzy.

Duke actually started that 1978 season 3-1, the loss 52-0 in Ann Arbor. But a four-game losing streak sealed McGee’s fate. He won his last game at Wade, 3-0 over a truly bad Wake Forest team, hardly the kind of outing to inspire support.

His last game summed up the almost-made-it-theme of McGee’s Duke tenure. Duke led North Carolina 15-3 late in Chapel Hill. But the Tar Heels scored twice in the final three minutes, Amos Lawrence taking it in from 11 yards out with 13 seconds left for the 16-15 win.

It was McGee’s third one-point loss to Carolina--along with a tie-in a five-year span.

Ironically, his only win against Carolina came with his worst team, a 2-8-1 1973 team.

McGee ended his Duke career with a record of 37-47-4, the fourth-longest tenure of any Duke coach and the fourth most wins. And, yes, the third most losses.

McGee went back to school, reinvented himself and got on with the second part of his life. He was the athletic director at Cincinnati, Southern California and South Carolina, yes, the AD at both USC’s . McGee was the only Southern Cal AD without previous experience at the school. He had great success in Columbia, hiring such notables as Steve Spurrier and baseball’s Ray Tanner.

McGee is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the Duke Athletics Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Several of his four children ended up living in Colorado and the last time we talked he told me was moving to that state to be close to his grandchildren.

Mike McGee was professionally associated with seven different universities over a career that spanned a half-century. But the half-dozen or so times I interviewed him he always made his love for Duke abundantly clear. He leaves as one of the school’s all-time greats.

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