BEFORE THE FOOTBALL SEASON STARTED, USA Today handicapped the ACC championship race. They gave the odds for Duke winning at 500 million to one. Of course, USA Today is noted for their overly rosy view of life. This is a case in point.
Some of you may be thinking: "Really? I didn't know Duke had a football team." They do.
Who actually does not appear to know that Duke has football team? Duke students. Students who camp out for months to see the Duke men's basketball team play Monmouth can't find the football stadium on any Saturday all fall. (For those of you unacquainted with Duke campus geography, you can spit out the window of Cameron Indoor Stadium and hit Wallace Wade -- which many at Duke do on a regular basis.)
I have gone to every Duke-UNC game for the past twelve years. I especially enjoy watching while completely surrounded by baby-blue clad Tar Heel partisans, by which, of course, I mean in Durham. Every year there have more Tar Heel than Blue Devil fans at these Duke "home" games. One year, I swear, there were no Duke students who weren't on the field or wearing skirts (i.e., the Duke cheerleaders).
We have friends, who shall remain nameless, who tailgate at Duke home games -- then go home without ever watching the game. How's that for fan support? (Correct answer: Not good.)
To make a poor excuse for these poor excuses for fans: Duke University consistently fields one of the worst teams in Division 1-A football, at one point this season being the nation-leading losers of 22 games in a row. The team has lost its last 20 games against ACC opponents.
Duke actually has been good, very good, at football -- in the past.
In 1938 under Coach Wallace Wade, Duke shut out all their regular season opponents and reached the national championship game. Duke "went" to another Rose Bowl in 1942, one held at Duke's home stadium following Pearl Harbor.
Duke won six of the first ten ACC football championships from 1953 to 1962 under Coach Bill Murray.
But since 1994 Duke has not had a winning season, and has had only three such seasons in the last 20 years.
As national championship poll watchers are aware, it's not easy going undefeated. Well, statistically, it’s not easy to play an entire season without winning a game either. Duke has done it four times in the last eleven seasons.
But guess what? One of the reasons Duke's win-loss results are so excruciatingly bad is fan support – or, more precisely, the lack there of. For a number of years over the past 15, Duke has actually put a competitive team on the field; they just couldn't win the close games. What possibly could have made the difference? How about, maybe, a crowd cheering for them? Fans can't change the outcome of team blown out 45-3, but they can make a difference in a 14-13 loss.
Podunk little Wake Forest's ACC championship last year was the feel-good story in college football -- to everyone except Duke University. The Deacon football program exposes the Blue Devil excuses. Nothing that Duke administrators or fans could offer as a sensible rationale for Duke’s pathetic on-field results holds up in the light of the performance of Wake's team. For example, the size of the school or its potential fan base, or the depth of its donors pockets, these are all in lesser supply at Wake than they are at Duke. And Wake also has tough academic standards.
Wake won't win the ACC every year, I am sorry to report. Last year, even the most partisan analysts would admit, was something of a fluke. But it wasn't in this sense: the team was given a chance by the support of their school, from their president to their fans, to win.
And, by the way, the early season 14-13 loss by Duke last year? That was at Wake Forest, where 26,000 fans showed up.
The same odds maker who put Duke at 500 million to one to win the ACC this year put Wake at seven to one. I used to be a statistician so I can tell you confidently, that's a lot better odds.
If you don't believe that fan support is that bad, Duke plays "at home" against Virginia Tech this Saturday. The Hokies won't really need the help but the "Twelfth Man" will be wearing maroon and orange.
Gary D. Gaddy is a Tar Heel fan who is sympathetic to the Blue Devil football team as he has two nieces and a nephew who are the great grandchildren of Coach Bill Murray.
A version of this article was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Thursday October 11, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy