Every time I start a sentence by wondering, `Is it just me, or. . .’ I’m invariably interrupted by those who know me best.
“Yes,’’ I’ve been advised time and again, “it’s just you.’’
Undaunted, if nothing else, I’ve been wondering lately if it’s just me or is David Cutcliffe beginning to resemble Jim Grobe more with every passing Saturday?
I’m obviously not talking about a physical resemblance. They’re close in age, Grobe being 65 and Cutcliffe 63, but Jim looks more like the ex-linebacker from Virginia and Cutcliffe comes across as, shall we say, a tad more professorial.
But watching Duke lose to Pitt Saturday for its fourth-straight setback underscored how closely Cutcliffe’s tenure with the Blue Devils is starting to mirror the trajectory of Grobe’s 13 seasons at Wake Forest.
Anyone who knows any history of ACC football know what both of these men accomplished. Both moved mountains to turn perennial doormats into programs nobody in the conference wanted to play. Both succeeded where so many of their predecessors had failed.
Both will be remembered among the greatest football coaches in the ACC.
The best coach during my four decades of covering ACC football was George Welsh of Virginia. Before he took over the reins in Charlottesville before the 1982 season, the Cavaliers had enjoyed one winning season against conference competition, that being a 3-2 mark during a 1968 campaign shortened by two ACC games.
George could be a real curmudgeon, but the man knew how to coach football – as he proceeded to prove by directing Virginia to 16 winning seasons in 19 tries, 12 bowl appearances and a share of the ACC title (with Duke, of all programs) in 1989.
But Welsh performed his miracle at a state school with all the support and financial advantages a stage school has to offer. What made the accomplishments of Grobe and Cutcliffe so impressive is not as much what they did as where they did it.
Programs have bad seasons, and they have bad decades. The case can be made (I know, because it’s one I made on a number of occasions) that Wake Forest had the worst century of any college football program from the resumption of the program in 1908 through 2000.
The stats are grisly. Over 93 seasons, Wake Forest managed a winning record 28 times. Another 30 seasons, the Deacons could win no more than two games.
But the factoid I find most fascinating is that on the day Jim Grobe was announced as Wake Forest’s head football coach in December of 2000, eight of the nine ACC schools had, over the course of history, won more games than they had lost.
The outlier, Wake Forest, checked in with 350 wins and 542 losses, for a winning percentage of 39.6.
Within two seasons, Grobe had led Wake Forest to two winning seasons and a bowl victory. Over 48 previous ACC seasons, the Deacons had managed to win as many as three conference games all of 15 times. Grobe’s teams won at least three in 10 of his 13 seasons.
Within six seasons, the Deacons had won their first ACC title in 36 seasons and their second ever. Within eight seasons, they had fashioned five winning seasons – three of them in a row – and played in four bowl games.
And, of course, in the halycon season of 2006, Grobe was named coach of the year not just for the ACC but the nation as well.
When Cutcliffe took over at Duke before the 2008 campaign, the Blue Devils were stuck in the Marianas Trench of college football. His predecessor, Ted Roof, had won six games (and lost 45) in four seasons. The program had enjoyed only three winning seasons over 25 campaigns and more to the point, hadn’t won an ACC game in three seasons.
Rolling up his sleeves, Cutcliffe broke ground that had been fallow for decades. The nine victories over his first two seasons fell like raindrops on parched soil, and allowed him to easily weather the back-to-back three-win seasons of 2010 and 2011.
But the real bumper crop came in 2013, when Duke shocked the college football world by storming to 10 victories and winning the Coastal Division. And for his efforts, Cutcliffe, like Grobe seven seasons before, was presented the Bobby Dodd Award for best coach in college football.
Cutcliffe, like Grobe, was doing what so many said just couldn’t be done.
Like at Wake, the momentum carried Duke through two more magical seasons as the Blue Devils reeled off nine victories in 2014 and eight in 2015.
Then came the fall-off to 4-8 last season, which was way-too-reminiscent of Wake’s tumble to 3-9 by 2010. And with the four straight losses this season, I imagine there are those around the Duke program hoping beyond hope that the Blue Devils won’t continue the same slide into mediocrity for which Grobe’s final four seasons at Wake are, unfortunately, remembered.
Dave Clawson succeeded Grobe before the 2014 season convinced that he too can move mountains. And maybe he can. He has proven over his career to be a good football coach, and there’s a school of thought that the landscape of college football is changing in ways that benefit the smaller, private programs.
The buzzword of the 21st century is niche, as in niche art, niche fashion and niche economy. Maybe Wake and Clawson can fashion a niche that appeals to the player – or more likely his parents – who feels he can have the best of both worlds. He can play Power Five football while earning a quarter of a million dollar education.
But the problem facing both programs is not how they play, but who they play. For all the improvements that have been made in facilities at both Duke and Wake Forest – and they are considerable, believe me – there are other rivals in the league who want for practically nothing when it comes to administrative, financial and fan support.
Of all the sports, football is the ultimate numbers game. And when I see a game at Wake or Duke with sun reflecting off empty bleachers, I can’t help but compare it to the 80,000 strong that turn out religiously to see the likes of Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech play football.
Maybe I’m wrong. And I wouldn’t mind seeing Duke win five in a row and finish 9-4. Cutcliffe, as I’ve been told by those on the Blue Devils’ beat, is a good man who cares about those around him. That’s another way in which he reminds me of Jim Grobe.
My suspicions, however, are that as hard as it is to move mountains, it’s even harder to have that mountain stay put and not slide back into the rut where it has spent one previous decade after another.
But maybe it’s just me.