Few people seem to be convinced that Duke Football, even now 8 months after playing in the program’s first bowl game in 18 years, can maintain success.
Media has yet again picked the Blue Devils to be toward the bottom of the league and they have their justifications. Duke loses its starting quarterback in Sean Renfree, two of it top offensive weapons in Desmond Scott and Conner Vernon, and the secondary looks as green as a Nebraska farmer on a crab boat in the North Pacific.
Most fans of the program, and yes they do exist, are optimistic but behind that optimism is doubt and fear. There is the belief that Duke has turned the corner from the embarrassment of the not so distant past, yet there is a hidden lack of belief that the program will be anything more than a 6-6 team that just barely qualifies for bowl games. Everyone wants a winner and a champion, and I’d wager few outside the program believe they could be at that level.
Go to a Duke message board and if you can find a football thread there is generally one of two extremes: You have the fans who are super hyped and excited for the coming season, full of optimism. Then you’ll see the fans who are perpetually doubtful and point out all of the potential flaws in the team and pitfalls that lie before them this season. If Duke loses, that last group just gets bigger, while the number of optimists plummets.
If Duke struggles this season you can rest assured that those optimistic fans will swing over to the other side and start counting the days until basketball season.
It is only natural that if your team is losing that your interest wanes, but for the Duke Football program, waning interest is he last thing the program needs. It needs a supportive fan base that turns out no matter what and the fact that so many still are sitting on the fence waiting for the shoe to drop means they aren’t there yet.
Look at other programs or even look at Duke’s basketball program and you will see a fan base that large-in-part sticks with the team through thick and thin. That isn’t the case with Duke Football.
That is really the next step for Duke Football, they have to get their fan base, the bulk of it to believe in the program and stick with it; not just see it as a distraction between August and October. Win or lose the fans need to be there and thus far only a few brave souls seem to have committed to that.
There are few Duke Football fans out there who pull just as hard for the football program as they do any other program on campus. Most are Duke Basketball fans who have no interest in Duke Football and actually proclaim an affiliation with some other college program (most of the times it is a winning one). Then there are the Duke Basketball fans who pay no mind to football at all and could careless about the sport altogether.
There isn’t much you can do about the later, but that first group is who Duke needs to start getting in the stands: those local Duke Basketball fans who could be persuaded to root for the football team. The problem is most only will do so if they win. That is the key and unfortunately, the Blue Devils are just now getting to the point where wins are expected, though they are still underdogs in most games even, those seen as 50/50.
That shadow of a doubt still hangs over the program. The players and coaches have admitted they are playing for themselves but deep down inside having a full stadium only helps. Think about last season’s victory over North Carolina, the fans were a strong factor at the end of that game and David Cutcliffe knows it.
When Duke begins to win 7, 8 or 9 games on a regular basis; something they aren’t that far away from doing, then the fan base should follow, but how long will it take for them to get to that point? If Duke takes a step back, as most people are anticipating, and win only 5 or fewer games this season then interest will drop.
It is a hard sell for young athletes to come to an up-and-coming program that has home games where the stands are more than half empty or filled with opposing fans. Cutcliffe and company have done an amazing job of selling the program in spite of that, and have committed to stadium improvements that increase the capacity of the stadium by nearly 10,000 seats despite rarely selling out their existing 33,000 seats.
Talk to any of the players and coaches and there are no doubts about whether the program will be a winning one, but talk to fans and even the most optimistic ones still have that doubt and only winning can cure that.