It’s easy to think of Duke football in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s as one long, miserable slog through mediocrity or worse, with the occasional Steve Spurrier sighting to liven things up.
And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But the clouds did part and the sun did shine for a magical month in the 1971 season, one that demonstrated both the brilliance of which Duke football was still capable and the structural flaws that limited the long-term accomplishments of that occasional brilliance.
Bill Murray retired after the 1966 season. Duke curiously replaced him with Tom Harp, fresh off a 19-23-1 stint at Cornell. But Harp was an Ivy-League guy at a time when portions of the Duke academic community challenged Duke’s emphasis on big-time football.
Yes, seriously. Over-emphasis on football.
And Harp did seem to understand the passing game. Under Al Woodall in 1967 and Leo Hart in 1968, 1969 and 1970, Duke threw the ball with unprecedented success.
But they couldn’t stop anybody. Harp and Hart’s last game at Duke was in Chapel Hill, November 21, 1970, with the ACC title at stake. Hart threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns, as Duke piled up 34 points.
And lost 59-34. That brought Harp’s record to 22-28-1. His contract was up and Duke had seen enough. They needed a defensive-oriented coach.
They found one about 100 miles to the east where Mike McGee had just coached East Carolina to a 3-8 mark in his first season as a head coach.
But McGee was Duke royalty. He had won the 1959 Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman. He was only 32. And he was willing to work for a pittance for a program already showing signs of wanting to run a program on the cheap.
Hart graduated, along with ace receiver Wes Chesson. But McGee inherited a team that included running back Steve Jones, cornerback Ernie Jackson and lineman Ed Newman. Like McGee, all three are in the Duke Athletics Hall of Fame. Defensive back Rich Searl was on his way to becoming a three-time first-team All-ACC selection. Defensive tackle Bruce Mills was also a returning All-ACC player.
Loaded, right? Not exactly. Duke teams of this era had a fatal flaw. Depth. Duke’s starters were as good as anybody’s in the ACC. But since the introduction of two-platoon football Duke struggled to recruit depth. Injuries were the program’s kryptonite.
McGee looked like Superman for a month. But then the the kryptonite kicked in. Big time.
McGee had played under Murray and like Murray he believed in the adage that three things could happen when you threw the ball and two were bad. In his eight years at Duke he never had a quarterback pass for more yards in a season than the 1,239 Mike Dunn reached in 1977.
That could work if your running game, defense and special teams were good enough and they were for awhile.
Duke opened against Florida, in Tampa. The Gators had the much-hyped pass-catch combo of John Reaves and Carlos Alvarez. But Duke held Alvarez to 53 receiving yards and forced six turnovers, while sacking Reaves five times..
On the other side of the field Jones rushed for 204 yards on 40 carries. At the time it was the second-best single-game rushing game in Duke history and still ranks sixth. Florida kept Duke out of the end zone but David Wright kicked four field goals and Duke won 12-6 after the defense forced four straight incompletions from the Duke 16 on Florida’s final drive.
Wright was the first Blue Devil to kick four field goals in one game.
Duke then came home and beat 19th-ranked South Carolina 28-12. Duke gained only 180 yards. But Jackson returned a punt 74 yards for one score and an interception 30 yards for another.
Passing? Who needs it? Dennis Satyshur inherited Hart’s staring spot at quarterback. He was a senior and a good game manager. But he threw for only 39 yards against Florida, 50 against South Carolina and 61 against hapless Virginia, a 28-0 victim in Duke’s third game.
By this point Duke was ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1962.
Stanford was next, in Palo Alto. Stanford was undefeated, coming off a Rose Bowl the previous season, ranked 10th in the AP poll and playing at home. They were always going to be favored. But a few days before the game Jones was banged up in an automobile accident and didn’t even make the trip.
Duke opened as a two-touchdown underdog.
Turned out they barely needed their offense at all. Jackson had a pick six a few minutes into the game. Wright’s PAT was blocked but he added a field goal on a drive that included 17 and 13-yard completions by Satyshur.
Duke made it hold up. Searl got an interception on the Duke 20 to stop one drive and Ed Newman sacked Don Bunce deep in Duke territory, forcing a field goal.
Duke won 9-3 and jumped to 14th in the AP poll.
McGee was 4-0. He would never again be 4-0, never again be ranked that high. In fact no Duke team has been ranked that high in the almost half-century since. Duke wouldn’t beat another top-10 team until beating seventh-ranked Clemson in 1989 and still haven’t defeated a non-conference top-10 team since then.
It didn’t last.
Bruce Mills was injured early in season and didn’t play the rest of the way. Defensive ends John Ricca and Randy Chambers started missing games with injuries. Duke moved Newman to defensive line, while keeping him at offensive line. Running back Bob Zwirko was lost for the season. David Wright was in and out of the lineup.
And don’t forget Steve Jones, pretty much the entire offense early on.
Duke simply didn’t have the depth to absorb this kind of roster carnage. The Blue Devils followed the Stanford win with a trip to Death Valley.
Don’t be fooled. This wasn’t a great Clemson team. They came into the Duke game 0-3 and would end the season 5-6. And Duke kept them out of the end zone, allowing a single field goal.
But absent Jones, Duke’s offense was beyond inept. The running game ground to a halt. Satyshur threw for a career-high 130 yards (8-17) but also threw three interceptions. A lost fumble made it four turnovers.
The final was 3-0.
Duke dropped out of the polls.
Duke hosted 1-4 NC State the following week and seemed to have righted the ship.
But the revamped offense came in large part by shifting Jackson to running back, while also keeping him on defense. Was that sustainable?
By the end of the first quarter Jackson had two touchdown runs, the second set up by his 46-yard punt return. Two State turnovers led to short-field touchdown drives and Duke led 28-7 at half. Bill Thompson had a 63-yard run to set up his own TD run and Satyshur threw a TD pass. He was 7-10 for 133 yards, without a turnover. It was the best game of his career.
Maybe the season could be salvaged after all. Duke was 5-1, back in the AP poll (19th)with 1-5 Navy, next, at Navy.
But the revival was short-lived. Once again Duke laid an egg on the road.
The 1971 Duke-Navy game was played in a steady rain that turned the field into a muddy mess. That helps explains Duke’s seven turnovers, three of them interceptions.
But it was raining on the other team.
Jones was out again and Jackson again went both ways. He was beyond spectacular, rushing for 181 yards on 17 carries and catching a 21-yard pass. His 83-yard run set up a short TD run by Thompson and his 17-yard run put Duke up 14-0 early in the third quarter.
But Navy got a touchdown and converted a two-point conversion. Trying to run out the clock, Duke lost a fumble at their 29, with four minutes left. Navy took it in and kicked the PAT for the 15-14 win.
Punched it in against a team whose best defender was exhausted after being on the field virtually the entire game.
Georgia Tech was next, in Atlanta. Tech was 3-4 and Jones was back, after missing four games. He rushed for 123 yards. But that wasn’t nearly enough. Too many holes were being patched with duct tape. A blocked punt led to an early Tech score, Searl lost a punt deep in Duke territory leading to another Tech TD, Wright missed two field goals and Satyshur was 6-14, 97 yards and another interception.
The final was 21-0 and Duke was 5-3.
After a disastrous two-game road swing Duke came back home to host a 6-2 West Virginia team coached by Bobby Bowden.
Duke found its old mojo. It was the old formula, rushing and defense. Unheralded John Johnston rushed for a career-high 123 yards, Jones rushed for 98 yards—all in the first half—and Jackson added 76. Duke rushed for 340 yards.
But Duke lost Satyshur with a shoulder injury. He was out for the season.
Satyshur ended the 1971 season completing 41-of-84 passes for 631 yards, with two touchdowns and eight interceptions.
That hardly seems irreplaceable.
But he was a good game manager and was the winning pitcher, so to speak, in some big wins.
More importantly, Duke did not have a viable option.
How do you not have a backup quarterback?
Richard Giannini was Duke’s SID in 1971. Here’s what he wrote in the preseason.
“He [Satyshur] will be backed by junior John Spokanetz [sic] and newcomers David Kraft and Chuck Mohn.”
It’s probably not a good sign that Giannini misspelled Spoganetz’s last name.
I was a senior that season and none of these names ring a bell. Spoganetz did play briefly against West Virginia. He threw one pass. It was intercepted.
He was a wide receiver the next season.
I have no idea what happened to Mohn. Kraft threw four passes in 1972, completing one for 17 yards and throwing an interception.
Makes Satyshur look pretty good.
McGee did have Brad Evans on the roster. Evan was a highly-touted football/basketball prepster at Durham High School, better known in the former. He surprised most pundits by joining Vic Bubas’ basketball team. But after his junior year (1970) he left hoops and joined the football team.
Evans was a quarterback/safety in high school and likely would have been a safety had he elected to play football right out of high school. McGee made him a wide receiver. Evans caught five passes that season. So, he was hardly irreplaceable at that position.
Instead McGee went with Rich Searl, who already had a full plate as a defensive back.
He joined Jackson and Newman as two-way players.
Searl was a senior and hadn’t played quarterback since high school.
It was a big ask, probably an impossible ask and it is not to his discredit to suggest that he fell short.
Duke went to Wake Forest with a 6-3 record, a bowl bid still possible.
Duke took a 7-0 lead early when Searl scored on a 38-yard keeper.
It stayed that way until the third quarter. The Deacons were coached by Cal Stoll and he was no dummy. He used a hurry-up offense in an attempt to wear down the depleted Duke defense and by the third quarter Duke was out of gas. The Deacons put together three long, debilitating touchdown drives to take a 20-7 lead. Searl then lost a fumble at the Duke 34, setting up a field goal.
Wake rushed for 214 yards in just the third quarter.
On the other side of the field they loaded the box to shut down Duke’s rushing game. Searl was able to complete only 5-of-15 passes, for 72 yards.
The final was 23-7.
Duke finished at home against North Carolina. Duke burned over 10 minutes on an early drive that ended when future UNC head coach John Bunting blocked Wright’s field goal attempt.
It was all downhill after that, as UNC completed a perfect ACC season with a 38-0 trouncing. Duke could muster only 274 yards of total offense. Searl was 8-for-24 for 111 yards, with three interceptions.
Duke limped to the finish line 6-5, that 4-0 start a mirage fading in the distance.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what went wrong. I’ve focused on Jackson, Newman and then Searl but injuries and lack of depth forced McGee to use other players on both offense and defense. The guys who played on one side of the ball barely rested. Duke’s inability to replace Satyshur with anything resembling an ACC-level signal caller was crucial.
But one injury stands out. Perhaps injury isn’t the right word. Jones was involved in a single-car accident on Campus Drive. There was no indication of alcohol or substance abuse or anything like that, just inattentiveness.
But that put arguably the ACC’s best running back on the sidelines for four games, one of which was a 3-0 loss to a team with a losing record, the other a 15-14 loss to a team with a losing record. It seems likely that a healthy Jones would have put Duke over the edge in those two games and perhaps kept Jackson exclusively at cornerback, a position he played well enough to last eight seasons in the NFL. Maybe a fresher Jackson is sharper at the end of the Navy game. Maybe a healthy Satyshur would have been enough to push Duke past Wake Forest.
Duke wasn’t going to beat North Carolina.
Still, we’re talking 8-3, even 9-2.
Or maybe not. Any football team that relies so heavily on a handful of key players is courting disaster. Players get hurt and you have to have options. Jones led the ACC in rushing in 1972, when he was named ACC Player of the Year. And Duke went 5-6. Duke passed for 867 yards that season, two years after Harp’s last Duke team passed for 2,265 in the same number of games. Certainly can’t blame that on Jones. In fact, despite coaching such notables as Mike Dunn, Carl McGee, Billy Bryan, Troy Slade, Tony Benjamin, Keith Stoneback, Bob Grupp and others, McGee only had one more winning season at Duke, a 6-5 season in 1974.
So, it’s McGee’s fault.
Or maybe it’s a broader trend. The NCAA eliminated substitution restrictions in 1964, initiating two-platoon football and greater specialization. A program needed more quality players to remain competitive. This happened at a time when Duke was transitioning from a regional academic powerhouse into a national academic powerhouse, a transition requiring higher academic standards in the recruit pool. Duke needed to spend more money on coaching salaries, recruiting budgets and infrastructure upgrades, while reducing the onerous non-conference schedule.
Duke did none of these. McGee was in his first year at Duke in 1971 and certainly can’t be blamed for the depth issues that doomed his first team. And truth be told the teams that followed. That onus falls on a Duke administration that allowed the program to go into football season after football season without the resources to compete. That first glorious month in 1971 could have been the harbinger of great things to come. Instead it was a bright, shining, illusion.
But it was still fun. While it lasted.