Here’s to the Fighting Cutcliffes

This wasn’t big news in Mississippi last weekend, but it was in North Carolina and in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It deserves some mention in the Magnolia State.

Last Saturday, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, who coached six seasons and five bowl games at Ole Miss, won his 100th game as a college football head coach, and he did it in style.

The Fighting Cutcliffes, as Duke teams are sometimes now called, rallied to win at North Carolina 27-17 and go to 4-0 on the season. That’s right. Duke, the basketball school, has defeated North Carolina Central 60-7, Northwestern 41-24, Baylor 34-20 and North Carolina by an average margin of about 25 points per game.

We’re talking Duke football here. Duke.

Before Cutcliffe got to Duke, the Blue Devils had won four games total over the four previous seasons. Cutcliffe won four in his first season at Duke and has averaged six over nine full seasons. There’s more, plenty more.

Before Cutcliffe’s arrival, Duke had been to two bowl games over the previous 47 seasons. Two! Cutcliffe’s Duke teams have been to four bowl games in just nine seasons.

Before Cutcliffe’s arrival, Duke hadn’t had a nine-victory season since 1941. He’s had two, including a 10-win season, and seems headed for a third.

Before 2012, Duke had defeated North Carolina one time in the 22 previous meetings. The Fighting Cutcliffes have now knocked off North Carolina four times in the last six years.

Long-time readers of this column know of my respect for Cutcliffe and the job he did at Ole Miss before he was fired in 2004. “Coach Cut” – as his Ole Miss players called him – was 44-29 at Ole Miss. He had five winning seasons and then was let go after a 4-7 record in 2004.

I thought it was a mistake at the time – and still believe it was. Besides his winning record, Cutcliffe ran an honest, clean program that graduated players at a high rate without a hint of NCAA problems. The Rebels are on their fourth head coach in the 13 volatile years since.

The victory over North Carolina makes Cutcliffe 56-61 overall at Duke, a record that sounds infinitely better when you know the football culture he inherited at Durham, which was a running joke in the ACC. More to the point, he is 35-21 over his last four-plus seasons. Duke is no longer a football joke.

But Duke, like Ole Miss (or Mississippi State), is a job where you simply can’t win eight, nine or 10 games every season. You are going to have some down seasons there because you are competing in a division and in a league where your conference brethren have built-in advantages over you.

Ole Miss and State must deal with Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Arkansas, Texas A & M, and each other in their own division. Duke must deal with the likes of North Carolina, Miami, Georgia Tech, Pitt, Virginia and Virginia Tech. All have distinct advantages over Duke.

The difference is Duke folks seem to understand the situation.

Duke fell to 4-8 last season after going 10-4, 9-4 and 8-5 in the previous three seasons. Unfazed, the Duke administration extended his contract two years through 2021. By comparison, when Cut fell to 4-7 after five straight winning seasons at Ole Miss, he was gone.

The Rebels’ loss has proved to be Duke’s gain. This Friday night, undefeated Duke plays host to undefeated Miami on ESPN. No matter the outcome, Duke football is light years better than it was before David Cutcliffe went there.

So, from at least one admirer in Mississippi, here’s to the Fighting Cutcliffes of Duke...

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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