Pitt's opponent faces Herculean task

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In 1982, a 27-year-old David Cutcliffe had just wrapped up his second season as the head coach at Banks High School, his alma mater, with a regional title. The former Alabama player and Birmingham native was living the good life in his hometown.

Then he got a call from his friend, Phillip Fulmer, at that time the offensive line coach for Tennessee, imploring him to join the Volunteers and head coach Johnny Majors.

"We used to joke that he had a Cadillac and a bass boat, gave them both up to come up there and be a graduate assistant," said former Pitt coach Walt Harris, who joined the Volunteers a year later as their offensive coordinator.

Cutcliffe, now Duke's head coach, quickly turned that graduate-assistant job into a full-time position and climbed the coaching ladder until, more than 20 years later, he is now trying to inject life into the Blue Devils football program as head coach.

When Cutcliffe arrived in 2008, Duke did not have an indoor practice field. The Blue Devils had two outdoor fields, neither of regulation length.

In the five years since, Duke has invested millions of dollars into its football program to build an indoor facility and make the outdoor fields full length.

The investment has started to pay dividends.

Last season, Duke had its most wins (six) since 1994 and made a bowl game for the first time in 18 years.

While the improvements in facilities have played a role, plenty of credit goes to the man overseeing the uptick.

"People believe in him, and he's done a great job," Harris said. "They gave him a chance to have a chance. He gave the school a chance because they haven't been very good at football in a while."

Harris said that when the two were assistants at Tennessee together from 1983-88, he could tell that Cutcliffe was head coaching material.

"He was such a good football coach and so smart about football and a lot of things, you knew he was on a track if he got the chance and opportunity," Harris said.

For his part, Cutcliffe denied that there was any magic recipe for being successful at an unconventional location. The key to winning at Duke is the same as at Tennessee: old-fashioned hard work.

"I've been involved with places that are traditional winners, and you'd better work your rear end off," Cutcliffe said.

"There's not much different in that regard. We've got to stay hungry, keep getting better, keep getting better. The thing here is that it was really buried -- other than a couple of blips on the radar screen -- we were buried for 50 years."

Of course, there are some differences at Duke.

Because of the university's stellar academic record, Cutcliffe must deal with more stringent admissions policies than all but a handful of Division I-A coaches.

In the year before Cutcliffe arrived, former coach Ted Roof signed the 78th-best recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals.com. In six years, Cutcliffe's classes have an average ranking of 55.3. It's not a meteoric rise, but it is progress.

"You don't go in looking at this as a hindrance," Cutcliffe said. "There are plenty of people that are great athletes -- you just look around the country -- that have incredible qualities in other areas and desires in other areas to excel, including academically."

The easiest way for Cutcliffe to improve that recruiting ranking, of course, is to keep winning. After its 6-7 campaign last season, Duke (2-1) is hoping to make back-to-back bowl games for the first time in its history.

It mostly will be tough going without quarterback Anthony Boone, the starter coming into the year who broke his collarbone in Duke's second game. But, Cutcliffe, who coached both Peyton (Tennessee) and Eli Manning (Mississippi), knows a thing or two about developing quarterbacks.

Just like when he gave up his boat and Cadillac to take a low-paying graduate assistant job at Tennessee, Cutcliffe is eager to face the task ahead of him.

"It's fun to take that challenge to get it there," he said. "This generation thinks that tradition is a four- or five-year span. We need four or five bowl games in a row, and, all of a sudden, we're traditionally a winner."


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published September 20, 2013 4:00 AM


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