Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Since their last winning season in 1994, the Duke Blue Devils have been an doormat in the Atlantic Coast Conference, winning a total of 37 games in the 17 seasons from 1995-2011.
Over the last two years, however, head coach David Cutcliffe has brought an end to the losing culture in the Blue Devils' locker room, proving that Durham, North Carolina is far more than just a basketball town.
Cutcliffe found success as the head coach at Ole Miss from 1998-2004 (44-29) and served as an assistant at both Notre Dame and Tennessee before taking over at Duke in 2008. The Cutcliffe hiring came on the heels of the Blue Devils' darkest days, as they finished a dreadful 4-42 under Ted Roof from 2004-07. Suffice it to say, the new head coach had his work cut out for him, and he made big strides in his first year by going 4-8, matching Roof's four-season win total.
However, minor improvements aside, Duke was still an afterthought on the college football landscape, putting together lackluster seasons in 2009 (5-7), 2010 (3-9) and 2011 (3-9) before finally breaking free last year with a 6-6 regular season ledger, making the squad bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. Although it lost in the Belk Bowl to Cincinnati (48-34), the mere fact that the Blue Devils got that far was a huge.
The start of the 2013 season brought a whole new set of challenges for Cutcliffe, as he was out to prove that his team's bowl appearance was anything but a fluke, and through eight games, he has effectively hushed all doubters.
After a promising 2-0 start to the season, the Blue Devils came stumbling out of the gate to open their ACC slate with home losses to Georgia Tech (38-14) and Pittsburgh (58-55), but since then they have been one of the hottest teams in the nation, ripping off four straight wins to climb to 6-2 overall, becoming bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time since Steve Spurrier coached the team back in the late 1980s, although the team has never before played in two straight bowl games, a feat that now seems inevitable.
Duke went on the road on Oct. 19 and picked up an impressive win over Virginia, 35-22, but its crowning achievement came the following week when it went into Blacksburg and upset 16th-ranked Virginia Tech, 13-10. The victory was a historic one for the Blue Devils. Not only was it their first win over a nationally-ranked opponent on the road since 1971, but it was their first triumph over any ranked foe since 1994.
"The thing we did, among all the good things we did in this game, we competed and hit them the entire game," Cutcliffe said following the win. "We stayed intense the entire game and I couldn't be more proud of the players and coaches for how we played."
The program's success has been a testament to Cutcliffe's style and patience, as well as the patience of the athletic program for allowing him to stick around for six years to implement his theories and practices. Recruiting and team-building is always a challenge, even more so at universities not typically known for it prowess on the football field, but even without being able to wrangle some of the nation's top talent, Cutcliffe's criteria runs much deeper than what shows on the field of play.
"One of the keys in coaching is to locate guys that are talented and convince them they are a little bit better than what they are," Cutcliffe said. "If you are a winner inside then that approach will work. Our guys may believe in each other more than they believe in themselves. They strongly believe in each other."
The coach's willingness to put absolute faith in the players he has brought on board has certainly rubbed off in a positive way, both on and off the field. With all the hard work paying off and all the misery seemingly in the past, players are basking in the glory of the new era of Duke football.
"This is the reason each one of these players came to Duke," left guard David Harding said. "We came to Duke when it wasn't the cool thing to do ... There's no luck involved."
"Being a part of a change in the program is the most amazing feeling you can have," linebacker David Helton added. "It feels out of this world."
The Blue Devils' journey is far from over, however. After receiving votes in the latest Top 25 poll, they have an opportunity to catch the eyes of even more voters over the last month of the season. After sitting out with a well- deserved bye this week, Duke will play three of its remaining four games against intrastate rivals NC State, Wake Forest and North Carolina, and it holds a better record than all three at the moment. The club will also have one more opportunity to prove it's a giant killer when nationally-ranked Miami-Florida comes to town on Nov. 16, and a win in that matchup would truly put the Blue Devils in the ACC's upper echelon.
Can the Blue Devils sneak into the Top 25 by season's end? It'll certainly be a tall order, and a historic one to boot. Since 1962, the team has only appeared in the polls in three seasons (1971, 1989, 1994), and since 1994 it has been excluded from 253 straight AP polls. But, ultimately, Duke's season has to be considered a rousing success already, regardless of what happens down the stretch. Considering how far the program has come in a relatively short amount of time, it deserves to enjoy the fruits of its labor, and Cutcliffe deserves all the credit in the world for bringing positive change to Durham.