In the early years of his tenure, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe came to quickly understand his place amongst the gothic stone buildings on campus.
There was really no escaping it, of course — even on recruiting trips. He would travel across the country to meet football players — say, take a trip to California — and the kids all knew about Coach K and Cameron Indoor Stadium and the NCAA titles.
They knew Duke basketball, knew the brand. Sometimes, they even understood the university’s gleaming reputation for academics. Duke football? Well, this was going to take some work.
“It’s very definitive when you say Duke,” said Cutcliffe, now in his seventh season at the private school in Durham, N.C. “You don’t even have to add a second word. So we try to take that brand and associate football with it.”
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In his third season at Kansas, where basketball is a 12-month devotion, Charlie Weis has attempted the same maneuver. If you can’t change 100 years of history, you might as well try to squeeze some tangible benefit from a school’s basketball obsession.
“He’s got Coach K and I’ve got Bill Self,” Weis said, before adding: “You can feel like a second-class citizen or you can play into it, and I totally play into it.”
These are the sorts of things you say when you are a football coach at a basketball school — when your daily surroundings dictate your place in college sports power structure.
On Saturday afternoon, Kansas will face Duke in a football game at Wallace Wade Stadium. In the minutes after the 2:30 p.m kickoff, Twitter will likely flood with jokes and snark about the great basketball matchup at Cameron Indoor Stadium. (Oh wait.) Two schools with a combined 29 Final Fours will play a sport where, despite Weis’ protests, they generally are treated like second-class citizens.
If history suggests it’s difficult to win big in football at a basketball school — also see Indiana and North Carolina — Cutcliffe and Weis certainly don’t want to buy into the theory.
In his first six years at Duke, Cutcliffe turned one of the nation’s worst power-five conference programs into a 10-win team that played in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game last season. Just seven seasons ago, Kansas won the Orange Bowl. So it’s certainly not impossible. But if you adhere to precedent, there is no guarantee that a school such as Duke or Kansas can find staying power in the national football rankings.
“I don’t look at it like that at all,” Weis says.
Weis would prefer to look at Cutcliffe and Duke as a model — an example that rebuilding projects can be successful if you stay the course and stick to a plan. During Cutcliffe’s first four seasons at Duke, the Blue Devils went a combined 15-33, including 3-9 records in both 2010 and 2011. Cutcliffe finally led Duke to a bowl game in 2012 and a 10-4 record last season.
“He put in a plan,” Weis said. “He recruited, recruited, recruited, got guys he can get into Duke — which is not the easiest thing to do — stuck to the plan, had support from the administration (and) didn’t waver.
“When people were saying, well, where is this heading, and all of a sudden year six they go and win 10. That’s the way it happens a lot of times.”
In general ways, the coaching careers of Weis and Cutcliffe have run on parallel tracks — with one brief intersection. They are men of the same generation — Weis is 58, while Cutcliffe is nearing 60. They each graduated from traditional football powers — Weis at Notre Dame, Cutliffe at Alabama — while never playing a snap of college football. They started their respective careers in the high school ranks. And each man can claim an iconic quarterback as a protégé; Cutcliffe mentored Peyton Manning during his college days at Tennessee, while Weis coached Tom Brady during his early days with the New England Patriots.
In 2005, the paths collided for a short time at Notre Dame. During his first year at the school, Weis hired Cutcliffe to join his staff, but Cutcliffe resigned before the season after a slow recovery from heart surgery.
“There’s just no way I’m going to be capable of being what you deserve,” Cutcliffe remembers telling Weis.
More than nine years later, each man still holds the other in high regard — Weis for the way Cutcliffe has built up Duke; Cutcliffe for the way Weis handled his departure at Notre Dame.
“They make you execute,” Cutcliffe said of Weis’ teams. “They make you play well.”
Now the two will meet on the field for the first time, and perhaps they can commiserate a little about their respective jobs. It’s not easy to bring five-star football recruits to Duke or Kansas, nor is it easy to convince a naturally skeptical fan base. During his news conference on Tuesday in Durham, Cutcliffe politely asked Duke fans to pack Wallace Wade Stadium this Saturday.
It didn’t sound like desperation. More like friendly realism. The kind that sets in at a place like Duke or Kansas.
“I’m more than content with our basketball team competing for a national championship every year,” Weis said. “I just want to get our (football) team to where we’re winning more than we’re losing on an annual basis.
“When we get to that point, you can ship me out of here. I don’t want to do it once. I want to make sure we’ve got that set.”