David Cutcliffe's sterling credentials paying dividends for Duke football

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David Cutcliffe was the first coach in 30-plus years to guide Ole Miss to five straight winning seasons. He won a Cotton Bowl, tutored the most accomplished quarterbacking brothers in history and as an offensive coordinator earned a national championship ring.

In short, not the sterling credentials you'd expect to find at a tin-can program.

No offense to the school that gave Steve Spurrier his first college big-whistle gig. But other than a Hall of Fame Bowl aberration in 1994, Duke football had been a bottom-feeder since the Ol' Ball Coach exited for Florida after sharing the 1989 ACC title with Virginia.

Illustrations abound of Duke's futility, but here is a particularly jarring one: In the first 43 years of ACC football, from 1953-95, only five teams endured winless seasons. The Blue Devils suffered through four 0-fers from 1996-2006.

Enter Cutcliffe, who brings Duke — contender or pretender? — to Virginia Tech for a critical Coastal Division game Saturday.

Critical for the Hokies (3-3, 1-1 ACC) as they seek to reverse a stunningly weak start.

Critical for the Devils (5-1, 2-0) as they attempt to sustain unexpected early success.

Before anointing Duke as Stanford East, understand that the Devils' four Bowl Subdivision victims — Florida International, Memphis, Wake Forest and Virginia — are a combined 7-16. In fact, Duke lost 50-13 at then-No. 25 Stanford in its only encounter with a ranked opponent.

But when 21 of your last 22 seasons have been downers, 5-1 is encouraging, regardless of opponents.

Most important, the Devils' start is a tangible dividend of progress Cutcliffe and his staff have helped engineer in performance, recruiting and commitment.

Performance: Duke is 20-34 in Cutcliffe's five years. In the previous 12 seasons, the Devils were 19-117.

Virginia Tech has seen the improvement first-hand. From 2004-07, pre-Cutcliffe, the Hokies' average margin of victory over Duke was 33.5 points. Since, it's 14.3, and three of the four games weren't decided until the final quarter.

"Their record is good, and they are good," Tech coach Frank Beamer said.

Recruiting: Minimal injuries were enough to decimate past Duke teams. Not in 2012. The program's depth, to date, has produced capable replacements for injured starters at linebacker, defensive line, secondary and quarterback.

Last week, for example, sophomore Anthony Boone subbed for senior Sean Renfree (elbow) and, in his first college start, threw four touchdown passes without an interception in a 42-17 rout of Virginia. Two of those scoring passes went to Conner Vernon, the ACC's career leader in receptions with 239.

"We have had to adjust our personnel," Cutcliffe said in comments published by the ACC Sports Journal. "We have had to adjust how we practice, and nobody has batted an eye. That's a big part of the formula for success. … Athletically, we're better. This is the strongest, fastest team we've had — even if it is hurting."

Then there's receiver Blair Holliday, who suffered traumatic injuries in a July jet-ski accident. His steady recovery has inspired not only Duke's team but also its campus at-large.

"That's about as good as it gets right there," Cutcliffe told the Raleigh News & Observer after Holliday, walking in street clothes, led the Blue Devils onto the field for their game against North Carolina Central.

Commitment: Duke announced last week that it has earmarked $250 million for athletics facility upgrades, a majority for Wallace Wade Stadium, the ACC's most decrepit football venue. Renovations include luxury suites, additional end-zone seating and an entrance plaza.

Such improvements don't guarantee a recruiting windfall, but without them, long-term success was a longshot.

"It's just a big statement made by the university as we move forward, what Duke's quality is going to be," Cutcliffe said. "I think it's huge. … The facelift is needed, and it is going to be done respectfully to the original structure of Wallace Wade Stadium."

Cutcliffe, 58, is further evidence of Duke's determination to compete.

He was the offensive coordinator of Tennessee's 1998 national champions and prior to that coached Vols quarterback Peyton Manning. As Mississippi's head coach, and thanks in large measure to Eli Manning, Cutcliffe became the first since Johnny Vaught in the 1960s to lead the Rebels to five consecutive winning seasons.

But after a 4-7 finish in 2004, and just a year removed from a Cotton Bowl victory, Ole Miss fired Cutcliffe, in part because he refused to remake his staff.

Cutcliffe's record in Oxford was 44-29. Since, the Rebels are 37-54.

Think Duke is glad to have him? Think Devils fans see a roster with only 13 scholarship seniors and envision even better seasons?

"This team is capable of competing with most teams in the country," Cutcliffe said Sunday on his weekly teleconference. "But what I will say about this, when you talk about turning the program, the program is where it needs to be. I would put our program up against any program in the country.

"People to people, what is going on every day, the quality of the people who work with our players, the quality of the program, and I have been doing this for a long time, is as good if not better than anything I have ever been a part of, and I think we are all very proud of that."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/ teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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