Hiring Steve Spurrier might have been the best hire Red Wilson ever made at Duke. Wilson hired Spurrier as his offensive coordinator to spruce up Duke’s moribund passing game; remember Stanley Driskell? He led Duke with 721 passing yards in 1979. That was Wilson’s first year at Duke.
Spurrier’s arrival in 1980 coincided with that of California gunslinger Ben Bennett and together the duo rewrote school and conference passing marks. They even won some games. Duke went 6-5 in 1981 and 1982, with a 1982 road win over Tennessee on their resume.
But Wilson was let go after 1982 and replaced by Steve Sloan.
On paper, Sloan looked like a good choice, maybe even a great choice if you wanted a buttoned-down, corporate type. He played quarterback at Alabama and the NFL and was head coach at Vanderbilt, Texas Tech and Mississippi prior to coming to Duke.
But the fact that he was available to Duke speaks volumes. Sloan never had any sustained success at any of his previous stops after a 10-2 season at Texas Tech in 1976 marked him as an up-and-comer.
Sloan coached at Duke like he had a big talent advantage, which he did not. He went 13-31 in four years and even worse, his teams were boring.
He did not get a fifth season.
Spurrier had been coaching the Tampa Bay Bandits in the USFL and his play-calling skills were even more advanced when he took over for Sloan before the 1987 season.
And the cupboard wasn’t empty. To the credit of Sloan and recruiting coordinator Tommy Limbaugh left Spurrier the results of some of the best recruiting classes in modern Duke football history.
Talent and coaching. The perfect recipe. But the wins were slow in coming. Spurrier won his first three games, as Duke defeated Colgate, Northwestern and Vanderbilt. But the losses started, first a 42-17 loss to Virginia and then a series of close setbacks, each one more agonizing than the other. Duke lost at Rutgers 7-0, in a game played in a torrential rainstorm. Duke led Maryland 22-7 in the middle of the fourth quarter and lost 23-22, as Maryland converted two long drives into touchdowns and two-point conversions. Steve Slayden passed for 458 yards and three touchdowns against NC State and Duke still lost, 47-45. Clemson beat Duke 17-10, Wake Forest 30-27.
That’s right. After starting 3-0, Duke dropped six of seven games, five of those defeats by seven points or less.
Duke had one chance to redeem Spurrier’s first season. In Chapel Hill.
North Carolina entered the season finale at 5-5. But three of those losses were to top-10 teams, Oklahoma, Auburn and Clemson. Clemson was Duke’s only top-10 opponent that season.
Carolina head coach Dick Crum was under fire. Would his team rally behind him?
Despite the late-season slump, Spurrier did have a pretty good college quarterback, Slayden, a senior from Atlanta. In fact Duke’s only win in the above-mentioned seven-game span was 48-14 over Georgia Tech, a game in which Slayden threw for six touchdowns.
` Three of those touchdowns were to sophomore Clarkston Hines, a wide receiver so gifted that he eventually would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Doug Green gave Slayden another target at wide receiver, while running back Roger Boone led Duke in rushing yards and total receptions; Hines led in receiving yards, with 1,057. Current Duke lineman Jacob Monk’s father Stanley also started at running back.
Duke could score points.
But Duke had to stop a Tar Heels offense that was led by quarterback Mark Maye, whose son Luke would later star for UNC’s basketball team.
And there was running back Torin Dorn, whose son Torin, Jr. would play hoops at Charlotte and then NC State.
It was a cold, clear and windy late-autumn Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill. A crowd of around 46,000 largely filled Kenan Stadium.
The Tar Heels drew first blood. They drove to the Duke 8 on the game’s opening possession before a penalty pushed them back. Kenny Miller kicked a 34-yard field goal.
Was it a bad sign for Duke that the Tar Heels scored so early? Or a good sign that Duke’s defense kept them out of the end zone.
To be determined.
Duke answered with a drive that reached the Carolina two-yard line. But no further, Doug Petersen’s field goal tied it.
Duke took its first lead on a 30-yard TD strike from Slayden to Hines near the midpoint of the second quarter.
“It was a corner route,” Hines said after the game. “They weren’t expecting it. I had a lot of room to work with in the corner of the end zone.”
But usually-reliable sophomore place-kicker Doug Peterson missed the extra point.
Would it come back to haunt Duke, as the TV announcers always seem to predict?
It looked that way when Dorn scored on a short run and Miller converted the PAT.
Duke drove to the Carolina eight but an apparent TD pass to tight end Bud Zuberer was called back on an ineligible man downfield penalty. The penalty was on Hines who was adjudged to have lined up on the line of scrimmage, giving Duke eight linemen.
On the next play Slayden rolled out under pressure and tried to throw across his body.
It was 10-9 Tar Heels at the half.
Few suspected that would be their high-water mark on the afternoon.
Duke took the second-half kickoff and marched 74 yards in eight plays. The last 27 came on another TD pass from Slayden to Hines.
“It surprises me that people squat on us,” Slayden said. “We’ve been passing the ball over people’s heads all season.”
Slayden was sacked on a two-point attempt, leaving Duke up 15-10.
A long kickoff return and two runs and North Carolina had a first down at the Duke 36. poised to regain the lead.
At which point Duke linebacker Andy Andreasik made the biggest play of the game. He buried Maye on a blind-side blitz. Randy Sally recovered the ensuing fumble. More importantly, Maye was knocked out for the remainder of the game with a knee injury.
Duke couldn’t move the ball but Peterson more than atoned for his earlier miss, with a 55-yard field goal.
Duke put it away in the middle of the fourth quarter. Slayden connected with Hines for 33 yards, a spectacular diving catch that enabled Hines to overtake former Duke star Wes Chesson for the most receiving yards in ACC history to that point.
Slayden snuck in from a yard out.
Backup Dan Walkowiak led Carolina to the Duke 4-yard line late. But linebacker John Howell batted away a fourth-down pass and the game ended 25-10.
Slayden ended the game and his college career 23-36 for 276 yards.
Boone added 121 yards rushing on 18 carries.
“Our defense gave up some pass plays,” Spurrier summed up, “but in the second half it seemed like we made the big plays when we needed to. Obviously, we are very happy to win the ballgame.”
Spurrier and losing coach Dick Crum passed each other in opposite directions in this game, figuratively if not literally. Crum was fired shortly afterwards, a year after an appearance in the Aloha Bowl, six years after a 10-2 season, which was preceded by an 11-1 season.
Crum ended up at Kent State the following season, where he went 7-26 in three miserable seasons that ended his coaching career.
Spurrier had told the Duke faithful before the season that anything short of a winning season was unacceptable. He didn’t get that. But that season-ending beat-down of Duke’s biggest rival helped jump start his coaching career. Duke went 7-3-1 in 1988 and 8-4 in 1989, the latter year producing an ACC co-championship and Duke’s first bowl game since the 1960 season.
Florida lured Spurrier away after 1989. It was his alma mater and it gave Spurrier football resources Duke couldn’t come close to matching.
But after 1987 Spurrier wouldn’t have another losing season in the college ranks until his last, in 2015. That includes a national title in 1996 at Florida.
But it all started at Duke.