Duke's rise from college football oblivion to the doorstep of the ACC championship game has perplexed fans and pundits who simply didn't think a basketball school could compete with the likes of Miami. If Duke beats North Carolina this Saturday, it will have its first-ever 10-win season in the same week as its first-ever BCS ranking. There are several on-field reasons for the Blue Devils' revival, but there are also some unexpected off-the-field reasons. Like a dress code.
This is not for the players, however. It's for the coaches. Head coach David Cutcliffe, who authored this comeback story, also authored rules for how assistants should dress on the recruiting trail.
"We ordered things to wear," Cutcliffe told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. "Sport coat, open collar. Wear a tie when appropriate. I have a manual."
The manual includes dress pants and dress shoes in meetings with families and in principals' offices. "You know my age," says Cutcliffe, who is 59. "We're going to be appropriate to my age."
The idea is to trumpet the Duke football brand. That may seem crazy when Mike Krzyzewski has built one of the most respected brands in sports across campus, but Cutcliffe isn't trying to compete for attention with Duke basketball. The coach is simply trying to establish that Duke had a football team – a fact that Cutcliffe was surprised to find that a lot of people didn't know when he arrived in Durham, N.C. Cutcliffe would meet with high school coaches and get a list of their third- and fourth-tier players, even though his team was in the ACC. So he wasn't just trying to convince the Duke campus to pay attention to football; he was trying to create an image for a team that was shockingly anonymous.
"I had to change how people thought of us," Cutcliffe says. "Everything we do has to be done with great quality. Be memorable. Be the best dressed, most polite, most informed person that comes into any school. We had to make sure we had to brand Duke football."
Cutcliffe knew teams with more established reputations also had more established recruiting tracks. He had to build his own. He wanted 15 or 16 players each year who fit the brand and had no concerns about working hard. Conditioning had to get better – a lot better. Speed too.
"I tell prospects, if you don't want to run and be pushed and conditioned, you don't need to come here," Cutcliffe says. "It's not for the weak-minded."
It's taken years to build minds, and the path has included some breakdowns. Last year, Duke was leading Virginia Tech 20-7 at halftime before allowing 34 unanswered points to end the game. This season, the team traveled to Blacksburg and won, 13-10. That was the day, Cutcliffe says, when he knew something had changed about Duke football.
"Last year we couldn't maintain the physicality, the mentality," he says. "This year we absolutely went toe-to-toe with them in intensity and focus from wire-to-wire. It was an eye-opening experience for our squad. We grew up a lot that day."
The weak minds (and bodies) were gone: Duke is 3-0 this month after winning one of its previous 31 November games.
Duke's win over Virginia Tech changed that other perception too – the outsider's perception. Duke has at least temporarily entered the conversation with Stanford, Northwestern and Baylor as programs that have academics-first reputations and successful football programs on top of it. If the Blue Devils beat rival North Carolina this weekend, they earn a trip to the ACC conference title game. Cutcliffe's crew will have a new national stage to recruit those 15 or 16 players for the next class. It's almost impossible to imagine Cutcliffe matching what Krzyzewski's done, but it's not that difficult to imagine Duke as an ACC stalwart.
That's something Cutcliffe imagined from the get-go. Cornerback Ross Cockrell, one of the coach's first recruits, says Cutcliffe laid out a plan to get to the ACC championship even before Cockrell enrolled.
"I expected to win an ACC championship," says the redshirt senior. "He laid it out. He told me about the process, and what he was wanting and expecting to do."
So with his team's new profile, would Cutcliffe entertain the thought of wearing a suit on the sideline? He calls it an "art that's lost," and references Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno, who both wore ties during games.
Don't expect him to make the switch yet, though. "I kinda like being comfortable during games," he says.
He's earned the right to wear whatever he wants. It's true the clothes can make the program, but it was the coach who made this one.