The surrounding trees are much thinned. Recently constructed buildings rise on almost every side, sheathed in signature stone quarried in Duke Forest near Hillsborough. Yet, for all the peripheral activity, Wallace Wade Stadium, the state’s most historic football horseshoe, really has not changed as much as the quality of play displayed within its modest embrace.
There are metal bleachers and an electronic scoreboard now at the stadium nestled unobtrusively at the edge of Duke’s West Campus. The home side of the grandstand is shadowed by a modern, enclosed press box that doubles most of the year as a sports medicine facility. The old, open-sided press box provided little comfort on a cold, windy, wet football Saturday in late autumn. Still, some cover was better than none, which is what Mary Garber got. Winston-Salem’s Garber, then the sole female sportswriter in North Carolina, once was prohibited from using the press box while male colleagues sat inside, sometimes accompanied by their children.
Of course, those also were the days of all-white teams and one-platoon football, times when the Blue Devils were a national power under Hall of Fame coaches Wallace Wade and Bill Murray and the field was called Duke Stadium. (Built in 1929, the stadium was named for Wade in 1967. It holds the distinction of being the site of the Jan. 1, 1942, Rose Bowl, moved from California to the East Coast due to the outbreak of World War II. The host “Iron Dukes” lost to Oregon State, 20-16.)
Duke and Maryland, along with Clemson, were the premier football programs at the ACC’s founding in 1953. The Blue Devils finished in first place five times in the league’s initial decade, advancing to three major bowl games. Then, in 1965, college football returned to a two-platoon system, with separate offensive and defensive units, placing a premium on depth of talent.
Duke has enjoyed a single first-place ACC finish in the four decades since, tying Virginia in 1989. There have been 29 losing seasons and only two trips to minor bowls over the ensuing 40 years.
I’m a witness to the school’s modern fecklessness, having attended at least one Duke football game for the past 37 straight seasons. The Blue Devils didn’t win many games I saw; they were actually far better at finding entertaining ways to lose, a little-coveted talent.
The program boasted plenty of gifted players and dedicated coaches over that time, including current head coach Ted Roof. Great effort and money have been expended, considerable brave words uttered. But the record speaks more eloquently than any pep talk or marketing spin. Defenders of Duke’s place in the big-time simply cannot deny that even as the school’s basketball prowess rose, its football prowess evaporated.
The Devils have not been competitive since Roof, 41, was a toddler, and the trend is becoming more pronounced. Since coaching wunderkind Steve Spurrier left following the success of 1989, Duke has enjoyed a single winning season, finishing 8-4 in 1994. Duke has won a total of eight games in the five seasons of this decade, a span that concluded on Nov. 20 with a 40-17 home loss to North Carolina.
The Tar Heels recovered from a shaky start to improve to 6-5, becoming the only one of the state’s five Division I-A football teams to post a winning ’04 record. Their success secured coach John Bunting’s job and earned a visit to Charlotte’s less-than-legendary Continental Tire Bowl on Dec. 30. Duke finished 2-9.
Next season the ACC concludes its latest expansion, the fifth in history. As with the addition of Georgia Tech as a playing member in 1983, Florida State in 1992, and Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004, next year’s inclusion of Boston College is intended to strengthen football. A 12-team conference qualifies the ACC for a lucrative league championship game, to begin at the conclusion of the ’05 season.
Expansion makes it more preposterous to expect Duke to reverse its football fortunes, let alone sustain any reversal. The school has built new facilities, raised coaching salaries, and said it would lower academic standards in admissions. But with more football powers joining the ACC fold and immediately muscling to the top of the heap, shouldn’t someone ask to what end this effort, and compromise, is being made?
The situation is much the same for Wake Forest, the other private university that was a founding member of the ACC. The Demon Deacons have been competitive under coach Jim Grobe, posting winning records in two of his four seasons at the Winston-Salem school. This year they were 4-7 with several excruciatingly close defeats.
Even so, that gives Wake only 10 winning seasons in 40 years of two-platoon football, capped by a single ACC title in 1970.
Seems to be a trend here. But, is anybody paying attention?
Only a few disgruntled academics, apparently. Groupthink, which permeates athletics, mitigates against asking too many questions about the obvious futility of spending millions of dollars in pursuit of a goal that, like building a better buggy, has been overtaken by time.
There’s an entertaining Web site, www.despair.com, that sells posters, notecards and other products featuring “demotivators,” images accompanied by pithy sayings that aptly mock motivational slogans. The poster entitled “Conformity” is instructive here. Showing a herd of zebras blending into an indefinite mass of black and white stripes, the punchline states, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”
Duke and Wake, which combined for six wins against 16 losses during the 2004 season, are intent upon imitating big-time football powers. It’s all about pride, past glory and the inability to accept reality.
Surely the schools would be more consistently competitive–making football season more fun for fans and players–if they stepped down a notch to play like-minded schools such as Army, Navy, Vanderbilt, Rice and Tulane. Such a schedule would leave room to play arch-rival UNC every year, but would free Wake and Duke from participating in an athletic arms race with state institutions that have greater fan bases and resources.
A lesser football presence would have the additional salutary effect of reducing the hunger for funds that is at the root of college sports’ most egregious compromises of integrity.
The argument that Duke and Wake could not remain in the ACC if they quit playing Division I-A football is taken as gospel, and reflects the conference bylaws. But the argument has not been tested. If the ACC can discard a half-century of tradition and balance in the name of positioning in the marketplace, surely it can adjust to the changing needs of its smaller member institutions.
One reason given for expansion was a fear of losing Florida State to the football-rich Southeastern Conference. Following similar logic, the ACC cannot content itself with technicalities while two of its best basketball programs possibly depart, likely to join the Big East, a major basketball competitor. To claim otherwise is ridiculous. Head coach Adolph Rupp used a similarly specious argument for years to justify Kentucky’s failure to recruit black basketball players, insisting his SEC brethren simply wouldn’t allow it. As if SEC basketball could have survived then, or now, without mighty Kentucky.
Of course the ACC would need to figure out a way to finesse the rules in order to retain that lucrative new championship game. League rivals also would regret losing a pair of games that tend to fall in the sure-win category. But, as the ACC proved in its expansion machinations, where there’s a buck, there’s a way. Maybe even a way to add sanity to college athletics for a change.