DURHAM – It’s not hard to scan the college football landscape and find a coach willing to throw his players under the bus following a loss. A recent example was three weeks ago in the Big Ten.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost expressed disgust with his players after the Cornhuskers lost at Michigan State: “I’m sick of it; they are sick of it. We got to be able to count on guys when we need them to do their job.”
Scott Frost apparently never read Paul “Bear” Bryant’s 1974 autobiography, “Bear.” Throughout the book, Alabama’s six-time national champion coach accepted blame for losses. So frequently the comments began to sound perfunctory.
But that was Bear Bryant, his players and protegees have long said.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe considered Bryant a mentor from his days as an Alabama student assistant in the mid-1970s. He was still in Bryant’s orbit as a high school coach in Birmingham at Banks High, 1976-81.
“I learned important lessons from him,” Cutcliffe said. “I understand exactly what he meant when he told me, personally, ‘When things aren’t going well, it’s the only time you say I or me because it is your fault. If you look deeply into what’s going on around you, you’ll see that.’
“As a young coach, I didn’t really want to hear that. As I’ve grown in this business, I do realize that.”
He has practiced what he learned, particularly the last two weeks. He accepted blame for the end of a three-game winning streak in a one-sided 38-7 loss at North Carolina two weeks ago followed by letting a bounce-back win escape last week with Georgia Tech’s 31-27 comeback victory late in the fourth quarter.
Cutcliffe met with the media Monday and repeated some of what he said after Saturday’s game. He listed mistakes that cost the team and then added, “ … that ultimately falls on the head coach,”
Duke (3-3, 0-2 ACC) is working on repairing mistakes in the kicking game, penalties and failing to convert third-and-short plays as it prepares to travel to Virginia (4-2, 2-2 ACC) at 12:30 p.m. in Charlottesville.
The Blue Devils have to eliminate penalties such as the holding call that turned Mataeo Durant’s 7-yard gain for a first down into a second-and-15. Instead of the Blue Devils running out the clock, the second-and-long led to a punt. Six plays later the Yellow Jackets scored the game-winning touchdown.
They’ve got to convert short yardage third-down and fourth-down plays. Failing to do so on a third and fourth down led to giving the ball back on downs and also settling for two field goal attempts that were missed.
They’ve got to defend the deep ball better, an especially challenging task against Virginia quarterback Brennan Anderson. He has an NFL arm on passes to the sideline and downfield. Georgia Tech’s game-winning touchdown drive was essentially two passes, a 37-yarder followed by a 36-yarder into the end zone.
On Tuesday, senior safety Lummie Young IV and senior center Jack Wohlabaugh were asked about Cutcliffe pointing the finger at himself.
“He does everything he can to put us in position to win,” Young said. “At some point, the blame falls on us as players as well. For me, that forces me to be hungry. It’s about what we can do as a team as players so he doesn’t have to say that. We have to do our part to be sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Wohlabaugh added one result has been the players gain trust in Cutcliffe when they return to work for the next opponent.
“When he says that it’s definitely something we really respect from him,” Wohlabaugh said. “He says he needs to be better and to coach better. When he changes things up, we need to take that to the max. Do what he says and focus on what he’s coaching. When he says that we still see a lot of responsibility on ourselves, too.”
Similar to his mentor, his players that that’s David Cutcliffe.