Duke University Alumni Magazine

When Losing is Winning
by Debra Blum

    s a Duke alumna, I am proud of our football team's record-breaking season this year. No other team in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference has ever gone 0-11.

         My husband thinks I am crazy. A graduate of an institution that plays sports in the Patriot League, he had long craved the hype and televised games of big-time athletics. One of the perks of our relationship, he is known to say, is that he is able to lay claim, by marriage at least, to one of the nation's finest, most popular, and winningest sports programs. A true-blue adopted Devil, he is. Then why, he begs with the fervor of the converted, am I so callous? Why do I respond to Duke's shut-out football season with a self-satisfied grin?

         One answer is easy: There's always basketball.

         The other is more obscure: It's all part of the mystique.

         The more Duke loses on the football field, the more its reputation as a top-flight academic institution grows. To me, the sacrifice is worth it.

         I'm not a conspiracy theorist, however. I don't believe that the football team's dismal performances are engineered by an administration bent on preserving Duke's place among the academic elite, or hungry to climb the U.S. News & World Report rankings. But I also don't believe it is a coincidence that the only three institutions that the magazine ranked higher than Duke this year are Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. Its formula for choosing the cream-of-the-higher-education crop seems to be based on how lopsided a given Division I football team's game against regular-season, number-one-ranked Florida State University might be. A match between the Seminoles and, say, Yale's Elis scores pretty high on the laugh meter. Yale, it is no surprise, is U.S. News' top-rated school.

         Now, I don't mean to suggest that good academics and good football are as a rule mutually exclusive. Having a winning football season doesn't mean that there's jelly underneath the players' helmets. And even the decidedly cynical on that point can take a lesson from last season: Northwestern University's team added brawn to its brainy reputation when it won the Big Ten Conference title and took a trip to one of college football's crowning events, the Rose Bowl.

         But recent history tells us that pulling "a Northwestern" gets harder and harder all the time. Few observers of the game (the recruiting game, that is) will deny that the higher an institution's admissions standards, the lower its chances of fielding a competitive football team. There are, of course, many high-school athletes who can tackle quarterbacks as well as they can tackle an economics treatise or a calculus problem. But it takes dozens of players--the average squad size of a Division I-A football team is more than 100 athletes--to fill positions, and there are hundreds of schools vying for those students with proven records both on the field and in the classroom. There simply are not enough of the best of the best to go around.

         Something has got to give. At many schools, it's standards--academic or otherwise. Duke may not be totally above the fray--I'm sure every big-time program does its share of cutting corners--but it is apparently not making the kind or scope of compromises that many other institutions may be making in the name of good old American competition. The record speaks for itself.

         While the Blue Devils were amassing the ACC's worst record in history this season, they were holding the trophy for a much less publicized honor: In 1996, for the fourth year in a row, Duke had won the College Football Association's Achievement Award for having the highest graduation rate among association members--most of the Division I-A teams. According to statistics gathered by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, 93 percent of the football players who entered Duke between 1986 and 1989 earned their degrees within six years. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, Wake Forest (which, notably, come in second-to-last in the league last season) had the next highest graduation rate for those years at 77 percent. The average rate among last season's top ten Division I-A teams was 53.7 percent.

         Admissions statistics also help tell the tale. The average freshman football player who entered Duke from 1992 to 1995 had earned a high-school grade-point average (G.P.A.) of 3.3 and a score of 1023 on the Scholastic Assessment Test (S.A.T.). The same profile of the average ACC football player (not including those who attended Duke) reveals a 2.7 G.P.A. and an 846 on the S.A.T. Among football players at Division I-A's top-ranked teams, the average freshman during those four years had earned a 2.7 high-school G.P.A. and an 832 test score.

         All those stats help us holier-than-thou folks hold our own against the naysayers who love to see Duke fail, at anything. These are the anti-Blue-and-Whites who have built up years of resentment watching the Dukies dance all over the NCAA men's basketball tournament and get their backs slapped by fawning fans and press. They root against the Blue Devils no matter what the sport, no matter who the opponent. These people are like my sister-in-law.

         My sister-in-law is a Florida graduate. At Thanksgiving dinner each year, she discourses on the ways she might score a ticket to watch her beloved Gators in the Orange (Sugar, Fiesta...) Bowl. She delights in noting the comparative state of Duke football. This year, her ammunition belt was full. But I gladly give her that one day of glory she finds somewhere around the New Year. My revenge comes from watching months of college hoops. Ah, glorious hoops. From my high horse, I don't need to remind her that the Duke men's team beat Florida in the NCAA tourney two years ago. I don't need to remind her that no Blue Devil coach--football or otherwise--has ever resigned amid a rule-breaking scandal.

         "See you on the football field."

         Hah! See you in court.

         While we are on the subject, far be it for me to fail to mention another reason for the warm, snug feeling I get all over from Duke's hapless football season. If the university's tradition, status, and moral code don't help keep the sports program out of trouble, the football team's record might. It's no coincidence that NCAA violations or other off-the-field problems have plagued teams soon after they have enjoyed success. The pressure to keep winning, sign hot recruits, put people in the stands, is often a recipe for trouble. The athletics departments of eight of the top ten college-football teams last season have at one time or another been on NCAA probation. Alumni like me ought to be proud to keep Coach Fred Goldsmith out of the pressure cooker and off the hook. Otherwise, he might look for rule-book loopholes, flee to even greener pastures, or worse yet, appear in Taco Bell commercials.

         My self-righteous acceptance of Duke's ill-fated football season, I must admit, is also fed by my disdain for bowl games. I'm no party-pooper, mind you, but I'd be happy if I never have to scrub vacation plans in order to make last-minute, holiday-time flights to Pasadena, Miami, or any other bowl-game hot spots. If winning the ACC or, even more, topping the post-season coaches' polls means buying a packaged trip to the Motel Six next to the Cotton Bowl, count me out. Come January 1, I--and my fellow true Blue Devil fans--plan to be relaxing and enjoying the holiday, not stuck watching dancing taco chips at the Fiesta Bowl halftime or trying to switch planes in Charlotte, en route to some or another host city.

         So to the Duke football team of 1996: Congratulations on an impressive season, guys. And to future Duke squads, consider this: Winning a couple of games, especially the ones against Carolina, won't dilute my loyal support. Go Blue Devils!                              

Blum '87, former senior editor, college athletics, at The Chronicle of Higher Education, is senior editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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