Given the way he’s molded the program and shifted public perception in so little time, it’s hard to fathom that David Cutcliffe has only been at Duke for less than a year. It’s even more difficult to imagine someone else in the largest office of Yoh Football Center, but if Duke had lured its first choice to Durham, Cutcliffe might still be in Knoxville, Tenn. (or waiting to find a new job at this point, but that’s irrelevant).
Exactly 12 months ago yesterday, Duke President Richard Brodhead, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask and former athletic director Joe Alleva flew to the Washington, D.C. area to court Navy head coach Paul Johnson, the architect of the the Midshipmen’s vaunted triple-option offense and the hottest coach riding the yearly carousel. Even in a 24-hour news cycle of conjecture, it became clear that Duke wanted Johnson to replace Ted Roof, and, at one point, was prepared to give him $2 million to move South. Johnson weighed lucrative offers from Duke, Southern Methodist and Georgia Tech before finally balking at the Blue Devils and traveling even farther South—all the way to Atlanta to take over a middling Yellow Jacket program.
Less than two weeks later, Cutcliffe was introduced on a rainy Saturday and the memory of Johnson’s public rebuke had been long forgotten. It was only mentioned this season when Cutcliffe and Johnsons’ teams met on the field in October, with the Yellow Jackets trouncing the Blue Devils 27-0. Both teams, to be fair, had seasons that exceeded expectations. For Johnson, recently named the ACC Coach of the Year, and Georgia Tech, that meant a 9-3 record, an appearance in the Chick-fil-A bowl, a rivalry win over Georgia. For Duke and Cutcliffe, the so-called Dawn of a New Day amounted to four wins, an away victory over a bowl-bound SEC team, the first ACC win since 2004 and the elimination of complete apathy and pessimism from the fan base.
On the one-year anniversary of Duke players’ short flight, though, it’s worth revisiting the situation: Knowing what it knows now, would Duke rather have Cutcliffe or Johnson?
The win-loss disparity seems to favor Johnson, but as Cutcliffe has reminded us incessantly, a new coach’s first year has to be judged on more than his team’s final record. On-field performance is just part of the formula for building a program. Comparatively, Cutcliffe was more instrumental to his team’s newfound success, and his squad’s turnaround was more transformational than Georgia Tech’s. After all, the Yellow Jackets won seven games in 2007 and even went to a bowl game. The only mention of a bowl for the 1-11 Blue Devils was a supposed renovation of Wallace Wade Stadium’s toilets.
Johnson certainly deserves credit for the Yellow Jackets’ surge, but he earns superfluous praise because of the uniqueness of his offense. Some saw his maiden season as a test of the triple option’s effectiveness in a BCS conference, regardless of the fact that Navy consistently won with lesser athletes against quality teams with Johnson at the helm. Indeed, the offense didn’t lose a beat in the transition, and moreover, proved more potent with better athletes, led by sophomore B-back Jonathan Dwyer, the ACC Player of the Year. By the time the Yellow Jackets beat the Bulldogs between the hedges last week, the triple-option naysayers were about as quiet as the Georgia crowd. Their whispers had been overwhelmed by another question: Why don’t more teams employ the triple option?
That doesn’t mean, however, that Johnson would have enjoyed the same success in Durham this year. In fact, Cutcliffe’s pro-style offense was a better fit for Duke’s personnel. Thaddeus Lewis, who quietly enjoyed one of the best seasons of any ACC quarterback, is ill-equipped to run the triple option. His backup, Zack Asack, is a more natural runner and racked up 84 yards on the ground when Duke resorted to the junk offense against Virginia Tech Nov. 22, but it would have been an immense waste of talent to keep Lewis on the sideline. The Blue Devil running backs would have embraced the run-happy system even if the offensive line didn’t, but one of Duke’s offensive strengths was its stable of wide receivers. Defensive coordinators wouldn’t have had to scheme to neutralize Eron Riley, because the offense would have done the job itself.
And then there’s the issue of intangibles—Cutcliffe has revitalized a fan base by simply interacting with students, showcasing his gregarious nature to anyone who will listen and refusing to confuse short-term victories with long-term progress. Wins are necessary (and four would have sufficed for any Duke fan this year), but mediocrity will not be tolerated for much longer in Wallace Wade, and Cutcliffe seems to understand that he can establish other hallmarks of his desired program while the wins aren’t quite there yet.
The state of Duke Football last year was unlike almost any other program, and Johnson likely wasn’t interested in such a fixer-upper. The ability to competently diagram X’s and O’s or manage timeouts wasn’t—and still isn’t—the only prerequisite for winning at Duke, especially when the football program still remains in the shadow of a certain coach who just led the best NBA players to a certain gold medal. It’s not Johnson’s fault that being a cheerleader, at least for some time, wasn’t an attractive part of the job. It probably wouldn’t have appealed to many. The fact that Duke found a man who could both coach and drum up support, even when he had no proof that his promise of a looming revival was no more than coachspeak, was—and still is—a testament to the University’s search process.
In the end, comparing the merits of Cutcliffe and Johnson is a pointless, speculative debate. If the past year has proved anything, it’s that Johnson has thrived at Georgia Tech and Cutcliffe belongs at Duke—and everyone is better off for hopping off the carousel when they did.