What Killed Football?

What was it, exactly, that sent Duke football into an epic tailspin, from which it is only now, forty years and millions of wasted dollars later, beginning to emerge? Was it admissions standards? Declining attendance? Bad business decisions?

All those things contributed, but let’s also consider a report commissioned by the Academic Council, the university’s faculty senate, in the politically charged and budget-challenged year of 1968. The twenty-six-page report, issued in the fall of ’69, recommended that Duke de-emphasize intercollegiate athletics and drop out of the ACC.

“The reasons for the decline are really complicated,” says deputy director of athletics Chris Kennedy, who arrived on campus in 1973 as a grad student and has both studied the history and been part of it. “That ’69 report had something to do with it. It really hurt recruiting, because [rival coaches] would go into kids’ living rooms and say, ‘Hey, don’t go to Duke, because they’re going to be playing in the Magnolia League and not giving scholarships in two years.’ ”

A five-member subcommittee chaired by beloved divinity school professor Barney Jones ’41, Ph.D. ’58 spent a year examining the Duke University Athletic Association, its loosey-goosey management structure under athletics director Eddie Cameron, and the red ink that splattered its bottom line.

The committee concluded that “the academic standards and programs of Duke University differ significantly from those of a majority of [ACC] members,” and that Duke “should leave the Atlantic Coast Conference and seek competition with educational institutions whose standards, programs, and interests are compatible with our own.”

Instead, of course, the university did the opposite. Tom Butters, who was interviewed by the committee in his role as baseball coach and phys-ed instructor, would soon create the Iron Dukes, and his fundraising ability helped offset some of the budget woes (and would land him Cameron’s old job in 1977).

But even with that infusion, the athletics department resorted to an ultimately self-defeating method to stay afloat: “selling” home games to big-time football schools, despite the certainty of a loss, in return for financial guarantees.

Says Kennedy: “I remember in ’77, which was the first year of our contract to go to Michigan two years in a row, [head football coach] Mike McGee ’60 said to me, ‘They’re throwing these kids to the lions for $200,000.’ ” Duke lost the two games by a combined score of 73-9.

“I’m not blaming Eddie Cameron—I did the same thing,” Kennedy says. “I sold games to Notre Dame and Tennessee when I was scheduling.”

The practice has been discontinued; that’s reflected in the 2013 schedule, which includes winnable non-conference games vs. N.C. Central, Memphis, Troy State, and Navy. “If we schedule properly, we’ll be bowl-eligible every year, which will help with recruiting, which will help with attendance, and will generate income in the long run rather than this one-time guarantee from Tennessee for $750,000,” Kennedy says. “You have to feel that regardless of all the tough years, we can figure out a formula that’s going to get us into the top twenty-five or thirty programs in the country on a fairly consistent basis." 

Barney Jones might even buy into that. It beats throwing kids to the lions any day.

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