Blue Devil Football: First and Long

From Wallace Wade to Carl Franks, football has had its ups and downs. Its future depends on the three A's—academics, athletics, and the ACC.

In late August, there is still a feeling of anticipation for fans of Duke football. When the season is young, they come to Wallace Wade Stadium holding on to a hope that this season will be different. Unlikely heroes will emerge. The sum of the team will be greater than the whole. The magic of 1989 and 1994 will be recaptured.

It didn’t take long for Louisville to dampen those feelings. The Cardinals’ defense smothered each Duke possession, and Louisville’s star quarterback, Dave Ragone, methodically picked apart the Blue Devils’ defense.That was the atmosphere on a warm, August evening early in the 2002 season as the Blue Devils prepared to take on the Louisville Cardinals. The crowd stirred with excitement. Voices rose in eager chatter and, now and again, clusters of people erupted in laughter. The roar from the crowd when the Duke players ran out of the tunnel and onto the field was more than just a reflex action. There was a sense of possibility about this game and this Duke team. The Blue Devils had just snapped their twenty-three-game losing streak with a stunning upset of East Carolina the week before, and now both the curious and the true believers were out to see if maybe, just maybe, Duke football had something new to offer.

Eventually, the boisterous crowd grew silent. It became easier to notice that large sections of the stadium were still empty, despite the exciting win the week before. Those who stayed until the end of the rout—those who really, deeply cared—were left with the same questions they’d had almost every season for the last three decades.

Will Duke ever be able to field a truly competitive Division I football program? What will it take for the Blue Devils to reach that level? And will the price of football success be worth paying?

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Now, almost a year later, with the Atlantic Coast Conference on the verge of adding the University of Miami and Virginia Tech and becoming a football super-conference, those questions seem even more pertinent. In recent months, Duke has made moves—seismic shifts to some, baby steps to others—toward improving its chances of competing in Division I football. The Harold “Spike” Yoh Football Center, a $22-million, 70,000-square-foot structure paid for as part of the Campaign for Duke, opened its doors last fall. A gleaming new structure filled with offices, meeting rooms, an indoor practice field, and a spacious weight room, the Yoh Center was meant to serve as physical proof that Duke was taking its football program seriously.

At the same time, Duke announced that it was making changes in its admissions process for football players. Administrators were at pains to make clear that the university was not lowering its admissions standards for recruits—rather, it was giving coach Carl Franks a few more opportunities each year to bring in players whose academic qualifications were on the bottom end of Duke’s admissions spectrum.

“ We’re not asking them to stretch any further,” says Duke athletics director Joe Alleva. “They’re not going to stretch any further. What we’re asking them to do is to admit more kids at that level.”

What those changes will mean to Duke—to the university and to its football program—is the foundation of an ongoing debate with a central question: Can big-time football and big-time academics co-exist at Duke?

To Franks ’83, who played for the Blue Devils football teams from 1980-1982, the investments now being made in the football program are long overdue. “It wasn’t a priority,” he says. “It wasn’t a priority as some people thought it should be. As I thought it should be.” By Franks’ reasoning, that lack of commitment really came back to haunt Duke when Florida State entered the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1992. In the quarter-century before the arrival of the Seminoles, the Blue Devils hadn’t had much success, but they’d at least had a chance at respectability. That all changed once the conference brought in one of the nation’s football powerhouses.

“ Here was big powerful Florida State, that had all these advantages, that had all these great athletes,” Franks says. “Now everybody in the conference says, ‘If we’re going to compete in this conference, we’ve got to catch up.’ ”

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The ensuing pursuit of the Seminoles was viewed as raising the level of ACC football by its proponents but termed an athletics arms race by its critics. From whichever side the race was viewed, it was apparent that Duke wasn’t much of a participant. One only needed to see back-to-back 0-11 seasons—in 2000 and 2001—to understand that. Now, though, through its construction of the Yoh Center—named for the former chair of Duke’s board of trustees, Harold “Spike” Yoh B.S.M.E. ’58, who donated $5 million to the project—and through its revisions of admissions policies, Duke is entering that race.

It’s a race that has spun out of control, according to William Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina and former co-chair of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Friday directs no specific criticism at Duke or any other school in the NCAA. Rather, he faults a system that he says has become too concerned with winning seasons and financial bottom lines. As a result, universities have wandered too far astray from their academic core missions—some with disastrous consequences.

“ I know of one institution that was denied membership in Phi Beta Kappa for ten years because of its reputation in intercollegiate sports,’’ Friday says. “There are ways that judgment gets rendered. It doesn’t get done in seven-column streamers, but it gets done in ways that are costly.”

Duke football coach Carl Franks

Franks’ assessment: trouble began when Florida State joined ACC.

Ole Holsti, the George V. Allen professor emeritus of political science, shares those concerns, but applies them more specifically to Duke. He views Duke’s recent changes in football as a misguided attempt to enter a contest it simply can’t win. “I think we’re headed in the wrong direction,” he says. To Holsti, Duke faces several options for its football future. It could try to become a powerhouse and court the off-the-field problems that have plagued universities like Oklahoma and Florida State. It could hold to its status quo and continue on with a failing team sticking out in an athletics program that is successful in almost every other scholarship sport. It could drop the sport. Or it could scale back its ambitions—the choice that makes the most sense to him.

“ The option I like, frankly, is the option that Davidson does,” says Holsti. After years of struggling in the Southern Conference, a powerful Division I-AA league, Davidson College dropped down to play Division III opponents in football. It also left the conference. The Wildcats were later readmitted to the league—except in football—during a period of expansion. As Alleva points out, however, one of the prerequisites for membership in the ACC is fielding a football team. According to conference spokesman Brian Morrison, no school has even brought up the idea of dropping football during the league’s fifty-year history.

(It is interesting to note that not all conferences require their college members to field teams in all sports. In the Big East, for example, Georgetown’s and Villanova’s football teams compete in Division I-AA; their basketball teams in Division I. That divergence reflects the fact that the conference was founded as a basketball league and only later added football. By contrast, football has been a part of the ACC since it was founded.)

Then there is the matter of ACC expansion—a move that most observers believe revolved around the desire to raise the conference’s profile in football. De-emphasizing football at Duke would run directly counter to that plan. Still, Holsti believes that Duke is valuable enough to the conference, thanks to its academic reputation and its men’s basketball team, that the ACC might be willing to accommodate the Blue Devils’ football wishes. “I think Duke holds some really important cards,’’ he says. “Obviously, this stuff is being driven by television money. What does the basketball contract mean if Duke isn’t in it?”

Holsti does not speak for the Duke faculty, but neither is he a concerned voice in the wilderness. Rather, he represents one of several viewpoints on football held by the university’s professors. “I have never attempted any scientific survey of the faculty, but I suspect the majority have little interest in football and no idea what Duke is doing, or why,” says law professor Paul Haagen, director of Duke’s Center for Sports Law and Policy. “Some people clearly believe that intercollegiate athletics has developed in ways inconsistent with the goal of the university, that Duke has already gone too far in making concessions to football, and that we should be going in the other direction. Some like to go to games and want us to win.”

Entering freshmen Zach Maurides and Aaron Fryer think they can deliver those wins for Duke. They aren’t interested in the athletic sins in Duke’s past. Nor are they worried about the obstacles the Blue Devils face in attempting to play football on a level field with their opponents. To them, and other incoming recruits like them, Duke is headed in the right direction in football; they want to be a part in its rebirth. “Schools have cycles on the football field,” says Maurides. “It seems like Duke is on an up cycle.”

Maurides, a six-foot-six, 250-pound offensive lineman from Glenview, Illinois, chose the Blue Devils over several Big Ten schools, including Wisconsin, Illinois, and Purdue. He says he considered the stellar academic reputation that Duke offered, and “it wasn’t comparable to any of these schools around here.” He did acknowledge that if Northwestern University, the academic star of the Big Ten, had shown more interest, his decision would have been more difficult. But he says he still would have chosen Duke “just because the facilities, overall, at the school are better.”

Fryer, a five-foot-eleven, 205-pound running back from Tampa, Florida, shared Maurides’ outlook. Rated as one of the best running backs in a state where talented runners seem to grow on trees, Fryer chose Duke over Boston College and the University of South Florida. He was impressed by the Yoh Center and saw Duke’s academic reputation as an opportunity, not a deterrent. “For me to pass up a chance to attend a school a lot of other people will get turned down from would not make any sense,” Fryer told The Tampa Tribune upon signing with Duke.

Those are the kinds of answers that Franks and his staff are looking for from the nation’s best high-school football players—or at least the ones who can meet Duke’s academic standards. Are there enough of those players out there? Will they be interested enough in Duke? Will Duke’s decision to allow Franks to recruit more academic “stretches” pay off? Will the move blow up in Duke’s face?

The answers to those questions are anxiously awaited by many at the university who lie somewhere between Franks and Holsti on the matter of Duke football. Those who fall into this category have at least a passing interest in the team. They agree that the Blue Devils’ recent performances have been an embarrassment at a school that prides itself on achievement in all areas. They agree that something needed to be done. For now, they’re biding their time, watching the recent changes and closely monitoring what impact the renewed emphasis on football might have on the university at large.

“ Football’s being given a chance,” says Kathleen Smith, a professor in the biological anthropology and anatomy department and chair of Duke’s Athletics Council. “Can you recruit the kids that will make a difference on the field and get through school?”

There are three steps the football team must take in order to answer that question affirmatively. The first—the construction of the Yoh Center—has already been taken. And while it is a marked upgrade from the football team’s previous home in the Murray Building, as well as the physical embodiment of the school’s commitment to the program, the Yoh Center has its doubters. Some look around the ACC, where many of Duke’s rivals are pouring even more money into grandiose structures, and wonder whether the Yoh Center will have any significant effect. Others look at the longstanding budget crunch in the school of arts and sciences and question the wisdom of raising millions for a football building—although it cannot be assumed that those who gave money for the Yoh Center would have given money to an academic program instead.

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Then there are those who wonder how spending money on buildings can be justified in the age of Title IX, when there is a greater emphasis on sharing resources among men’s and women’s programs, and football already consumes a significant portion of those resources. Some of football’s defenders have gone so far as to argue that the large number of scholarships for men needed by football has helped create new teams—and scholarships—for women, in order to keep the university in compliance with Title IX.

Second, the players brought in during this new era of Duke football will have to keep up the program’s tradition in the classroom. Even when the football team was woeful on the field, it was a consistent national leader in graduation rates. While the football program has been given additional wiggle room with admissions this year, its players’ classroom performance likely won’t be given much slack. “This is not a slippery slope,” says Peter Lange, Duke’s provost, “and I’m determined to see that that’s not the case.”

Ironically, Duke’s sterling graduation rate—perhaps a tool for opposing schools that would want to portray the Blue Devils as all books and no football—can help ease the concerns of recruits who wonder whether they can meet the university’s academic standards. That’s usually the first question senior safety Terrell Smith gets when he hosts a recruit during an on-campus visit. “I tell them it’s hard, but Duke graduates almost 100 percent of its players and has been doing it for years,” Smith says. “So it’s not too bad.”

If Duke can get those pieces in place—building and maintaining modern facilities that rival opposing schools and landing talented recruits, without compromising the school’s academic mission—then the Blue Devils will need to add the final, most elusive ingredient. Duke needs to start winning.

“ I think it will start with us, if we win games this year,” says Smith. “Then we’ll have something to build off of. But we’ve just got to start a base.”

For the first time since he became head coach four years ago, Franks will have an experienced team made up of players he helped bring to Duke. “The whole process is about getting talented players to come here,” Alleva says. “Carl inherited a team that wasn’t that talented. In each one of his recruiting classes, he’s brought in more and more talented kids.”

What if Duke does win, say, six games next year? Then again, what if the Blue Devils continue their losing ways? In the grand scheme of the university, does a successful football team really matter? As Holsti points out, if every varsity sport at Duke were replaced with intramurals, the university would still have an outstanding medical center. For every Duke, Stanford, or Northwestern, there is a Wash U., a Chicago, or a Johns Hopkins—schools with nondescript athletics programs but top-notch academic reputations.

Those in favor of the push for football improvement argue that a poor football team is antithetical to Duke’s way of doing things. “Duke wants to be successful in everything it does,” says Franks. “Why can’t we have a football program that’s successful?”

Franks also likes to point out that Wallace Wade Stadium, where thousands of seats go unclaimed for almost every Duke home football game, is a large, untapped source of revenue. Thanks to the ACC’s tradition of revenue sharing, through which all nine universities have shared equally in the payouts given to the league’s representatives in bowl games, Duke’s football program has been turning a modest profit. However, as a December 2002 New York Times Sunday Magazine article, “Football is a Sucker’s Game,’’ pointed out, sometimes the line between football program costs and general athletics department expenses can become blurred, painting a rosier picture of football finances than is actually the case.

However one does the math, it cannot be denied that Wallace Wade Stadium was filled several times during Duke’s last successful season, in 1994, when the Blue Devils went 8-4. For an athletics department that loses money on most of its other sports, that additional revenue stream could prove important. Also, when the ACC does expand, and if Duke remains a football-playing member, there could be a financial windfall from a conference title game—if the ACC can successfully petition the NCAA to change its rule that only leagues with twelve teams can hold such an event. Additional profits could come from a more lucrative post-expansion television contract—provided that the monetary increases outweigh having to split the revenue with more conference members.

Then there is another argument, one that is difficult to quantify, about the educational benefits that come from football, and athletics in general: sharing a commitment, working toward a common goal, learning to deal with success and failure, cultivating leadership. “Athletics enhances the whole academic experience,” Alleva says.

That belief appears to have credence still in the university community. It can be seen in Duke’s updated athletics policy, which discusses how Duke fits into the changing world of college athletics. The policy, reaffirmed by the board of trustees in May, recommends that Duke maintain its current “middle course” in athletics, seeking to remain competitive without sacrificing its educational ideals. Before the document discusses money or graduation rates or Title IX, it begins with a statement from former Duke president William Preston Few, made nearly a hundred years ago: “There is good in intercollegiate athletics, when properly conducted. They have made considerable contribution to American college life and deserve to be saved from the perils that threaten them and the evils that now actually beset them.”

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