David Cutcliffe knows what Curtis Johnson is going through.
The football coaches at Duke and Tulane share an abundance of occupational similarities. They are responsible for football programs at small, private institutions who built a reputation for losing games — lots of them.
But when the coaches go head-to-head on Saturday in Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium, it’s just another opportunity to put their programs’ pasts behind. It’s a task both have worked to bury since Day One on the job.
“We couldn’t really recruit in North Carolina when we got here because our brand was so down and protecting it is now our top priority,” Cutcliffe said. “When we first started, the line we heard outside of here was, ‘We didn’t even know Duke had a football team.’ So it was hard to people to believe.”
Before Cutcliffe’s 2008 arrival in Durham, North Carolina, his predecessors (Ted Roof and Carl Franks) combined to win 13 games over nine years. Not since Steve Spurrier departed — after magically winning the ACC title in 1989 — has a Blue Devils coach left the program winning more than 31 percent of his games.
“Anybody that knew where we were, knew it wasn’t short-term fix,” Cutcliffe said. “You can’t take an easy path. You have to look at the things that fit with your school and your coaching style, and it takes time to do it and to get it right. I look at Tulane, and I’m not in their staff meeting, but based on what I’ve seen, it looks like they have a plan and they look completely different from when we faced them in 2011.”
Outside of two winning seasons under Tommy Bowden in the late 1990s, Tulane’s recent coaching history was almost equally sour. Buddy Teevens, Chris Scelfo and Bob Toledo combined for a 67-148 record over 19 seasons against schedules far less demanding than what Duke faced in the ACC.
Overcoming that kind of history takes a plan, then the patience and determination to execute it.
After being fired from Ole Miss just a year removed from the school’s first 10-win season in 41 years, Cutcliffe was attracted to Duke in part because it understood the importance of patience. He also knew the results would be sweeter to those who had waited.
“If there’s anything I know in this business, it’s that David Cutcliffe is going to get the job done one way or the other, and he needed a place that was willing to let him do it and do it right,” said former Tennessee coach and close friend Philip Fulmer, who handed the reins of the Volunteers offense to Cutcliffe on two different occasions. “I’ve been out to see his teams at Duke a few times, and you can just see the difference in talent level and the way they fit what he wants to do now. It wasn’t like that when he got there.”
Cutcliffe started his tenure with four consecutive losing seasons and just six ACC wins in that stretch. But the pieces were starting to come together.
His faith in the program was tested in 2010 when Tennessee called to fill its vacant head coach position in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s resignation. But, despite Cutcliffe’s myriad connections with the school, he denied the overture to remain with historically downtrodden Duke.
“In our profession, it’s getting to the point where it’s less and less popular to commit to a place when you’ve signed a contract,” Cutcliffe said. “I believe it’s the right thing to do. To me, it’s been rewarding because it takes a lot of stress off. When you’re going into a recruit’s home or dealing with people in the building, they know you’re being honest and that means a lot to me.”
In 2012, that faith started to pay off. The Blue Devils raced to a 6-2 start and clinched their first bowl appearance since 1994 by snapping an 11-game losing streak to archrival North Carolina. Cutcliffe earned ACC Coach of the Year honors but still finished with a losing record after Duke dropped its final five games.
The Blue Devils were more prepared for success in their second successful campaign, compiling a 10-2 regular-season record and winning the ACC’s Coastal Division championship. Now, three lopsided wins into the 2014 season, the perception around the Blue Devils has shifted, and Tulane’s coach has taken notice.
“He went out and got the players he wanted and that fit Duke,” Johnson said. “He’s a very smart guy and a great quarterback coach. I think he’s done a great job of finding kids from all over the country. He runs a great offense. He’s beginning to pick guys from other schools — North Carolina and Florida State — and he’s not afraid to recruit against them. He’s done a fantastic job.”
The road to this point has been an arduous one, and Cutcliffe said the ultimate goal is still far in the distance. But to reward the place that had faith in him gives the 60-year-old coach a reason to swell with pride and, when he looks across the sideline Saturday, he’s all too familiar with the journey Johnson is on.
“What they’re doing is obvious, and the positive direction they’re in is obvious,” Cutcliffe said. “To be honest with you, it doesn’t surprise me because I thought it was a good hire to get someone who is native and who understands the city. You need to have a dynamic personality to win there, and that’s what he is.
“There’s nothing easy about trying to do it at a place like he is, but it certainly can be done. Patience is important.”