Jerry Carter: The Twelve Games of Christmas
I believe it was Joe Diffie that sang about cause and effect in his song titled “Third Rock from the Sun” back in 1994, and boy do those words ring ever so true today following the most bizarre few weeks of sports in my lifetime. There are so many twists and turns in the chain of events that led to this story that it’s a smidge difficult to put a finger on the correct starting point but I will give it my best shot.
My love for three things started nearly 50 years ago, and I will list them in no particular order – University of Virginia, Duke University and Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. It was the mid to late 1970s, and in full disclosure, the 14-year-old version of me wasn’t even aware that the ACC played football, or any other sports, for that matter.
I played hoops back then and couldn’t wait to get to turn on the little black and white television to watch the ACC game of the week. Brad Davis of Maryland, Wally Walker of Virginia and Jimmy Spanarkel of Duke quickly became my favorite three players, and later Bob Bender joined Spanarkel in Durham to round out my Fab Four. I had yet to be introduced to the National Basketball Association, so I was 100 percent focused on the ACC.
Walker’s run back in 1976 was magical, and Bill Foster took Duke to the championship game in 1978 before falling to Jack “Goose” Givens and his 41 points in the championship game, 94-88. It was then that I was hooked and hooked good.
Danny Ford and Clemson won a natty shortly after on the gridiron, and that’s when I realized Duke and UVA played football. I would later work for and become friends with UVA’s Randy Brookshire, which entitled me to numerous stories from inside the ‘Hoos program. I also began to pay attention to Duke’s football team, which at the time simply was not very good. I had my schools to cheer for now and could not wait to attend one and hopefully play basketball for, or sit on the far end of the bench for, anyway.
A life-changing accident that year removed the possibility of seeing that dream come true, and sadly, the missed school work during the recovery didn’t help the academic part of life, either. I still remember moving to Durham after high school before I was fully aware that I didn’t have the right stuff to attend the school, so I simply pumped gas for the students that were smart enough to attend the university. Neither Duke or UVA would be handing me a degree in my lifetime, but that simply did not slow down my love for both of the schools. It was when Ralph Sampson returned to the Cavaliers for his senior season that I fully understood what terms like the Lawn and the Grounds actually stood for.
Terry Holland and Bill Foster both moved on from their posts as men’s basketball coaches, and I was incredibly disappointed when Duke failed to hire Paul Webb away from Old Dominion, instead choosing some guy from Army whose name I couldn’t even pronounce. Full disclosure, I’m not sure I can say it correctly 40+ years later. I happened to bump into Coach K after Duke had just won its opening-round game in the NCAA tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum against Mississippi Valley State. After I took the time to congratulate him on the narrow come-from-behind victory, he admitted to be quite relieved. Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, Jay Bilas, David Henderson and Mark Alarie would go on a run that ended with a tough loss in the championship game to another team from the Bluegrass state, when a W would have placed the team in the running for one of the all-time greatest.
Duke would then take another flyer if you will by hiring a young but inexperienced football coach in Steve Spurrier. The Ol’ Ball Coach, as he would become known later in his career, needed a school to take a risk, and the Blue Devils had nothing to lose with the former Heisman Trophy winner. Spurrier was a genius that just needed an opportunity and quickly took Duke to something called the All-American Bowl down in Birmingham after the 1989 season. This is significant only that it was the first time Duke made a bowl game in my lifetime, so as a 26-year-old fan, I made the drive down and witnessed the beatdown that a much bigger and tougher Texas Tech squad inflicted on the over achieving Blue Devils. Spurrier said all of the right things about the gamble that Duke took on him before he headed back to Gainesville to coach his alma mater. He did alright with the Gators, and his connection to Duke stayed strong and both his son and later his grandson would play football there.
UVA was struggling to replace both Holland and legendary George Welsh over the years. Welsh did the unthinkable at Scott Stadium back in 1990 when he led the Hoos to the top of the football mountain. The Hoos reached number 1 in the polls for a stretch that season, and Welsh worked the sidelines for another decade before retiring in 2000. A number of coaches followed in his footsteps, but sadly for the fans in ‘Hooville, none of them have been able to duplicate the success.
While I had fallen short by a wide margin in earning a piece of paper from either of my two schools, I was determined not to come up short the second time around. The youngest of my five children was destined to accomplish what I had failed to do – graduate from either Duke or UVA! I started trying to point/nudge her in that direction as soon as she became a teenager and back in December of 2005 it led to a memorable road trip just after Christmas.
I had explained the part that college sports would play in her experience while at school and that she should stay loyal to her school and all of their teams, whether or not they were overly successful. Supporting your college or university was different then choosing a team that played professionally. It was more like high school where your favorite school was your school.
Neither the ‘Hoos basketball or football teams were can’t-miss talented in 2005, but that was not going to keep us out of the Siegel Center in Richmond the night of December 28th. We were in the minority in our thoughts that night as the Hoos played in VCU’s building in front of a crowd of only 2,637. The amazing thing looking back was the opponent that night and how they would later play a huge part in ‘Hoos history. J.R. Reynolds went 10-for-10 from the free throw line and finished with a team high 20 points as UVA defeated the school I labeled Alphabet Soup by a score of 77-66. The University of Maryland at Baltimore County, or UMBC for short, would later get their revenge on the ‘Hoos.
We then made the drive from Richmond to Durham, where I took her for a tour of the Duke campus. There were no athletic events to attend but plenty to absorb. The next stop on the recruiting visit was the 2005 Music City Bowl where a 6-5 ‘Hoos team was set to face Minnesota on what proved to be an incredibly chilly day. Rebecca’s mother had missed the first two stops but had joined us in Nashville, and the hot chocolate was helping, so when UVA fell behind 14-0 after just a few minutes of action, she was not amused. I was trying to teach my daughter that it’s not about just winning or losing, but how you represent yourself in action that mattered. We remained in our seats and watched in amazement when UVA scored the game’s final 10 points to capture a 34-31 victory. Both teams prevailed on that trip, but would continue to struggle in their search for that guy to get their two main programs to the level that so many craved.
Rebecca was given what I called the athlete’s treatment when it came time to choose a college to attend. Brookshire had shared with me his five adventures to the various colleges when he took his five allotted official visits, and while my daughter wasn’t an athlete, I wanted her to get the same treatment, with just one stipulation, in that Duke and UVA had to be included in the choices. She agreed and then added Bridgewater College, North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Guilford College. She had attended Governor’s School during her time at Luray High School and would have an outside chance to graduate college while still in her teen years.
The visits were all enjoyable, but the days in Durham and ‘Hooville were special beyond belief. While the other four schools spent the day trying to convince us to send her there, the folks at Duke simply told everyone that they didn’t care if you scored 1,600 on your SAT’s or finished at the top of your class, to get accepted at Duke you were required to offer a plan on how you could make the world a better place to live. How could you not love that level of commitment to higher education?
Moving forward, Rebecca ended up at UVA and finished just past the end of her teen years (by a couple of months) and went on to earn her masters and is currently working on a way to make the world a better place! Living vicariously through my youngest daughter, I finally had the UVA degree to be proud of and then some.
In 2009, UVA made what I deemed a hire of a generation by bringing Tony Bennett to the grounds. Bennett had worked alongside his father for years and then took over the program in Pullman, Wash., known as Wazzou (Washington State University). I remember picking up the phone and calling Chris Graham to tell him that if the good folks of ‘Hooville could just be patient with him and his coaching style that he could take the program to the top of the mountain. If you can recruit players to Pullman to get them to play for you, then you can get them to follow you anywhere. WSU to-be player Joe Harris did just that by following Tony and his family across the country. Harris is currently one of the leading sharpshooters in the NBA, and his college coach has a nice banner hanging in John Paul Jones Arena.
That guy from Army turned out to be alright, even if he wasn’t Paul Webb, and just before Bennett hire, Duke signed David Cutcliffe to try and just get the Duke football team to be less embarrassing. After the initial bowl game with Spurrier back in 1989, there was only a trip to the Outback Bowl in Tampa in 1994, where Duke lost to a very talented Wisconsin team. Just picture Jim Mora’s famous “playoffs?” rant when he was coaching in the NFL, and you could just as easily have a Duke fan rant, “Bowl games? How about a three-win season?”
Cut made it a challenge for me to keep my “been to every Bowl game Duke has played in during my lifetime” streak intact. In 2012 when the Blue Devils reached the Belk Bowl in Charlotte it ended a drought of nearly two decades for Duke. The Belk Bowl was the first of six bowl trips in seven seasons. I’m proudly eight for eight now, but I was even more proud to have Cut at the helm of our program.
Fast forward to 2015, when UVA once again struck gold in a coaching hire when they signed Bronco Mendenhall away from a lengthy stint at Brigham Young University. Bronco was known in the coaching circles as a class act and a winner on a big stage s,o his hire was unlike the other three of the Big 4. Cut had been let go by Ole Miss, Tony had just started his career at Wazzou, and Coach K had a losing record at Army prior to moving inside of Cameron Indoor Stadium a lifetime ago.
Getting Mendenhall to replace Mike London was simply a gift from above, and after ruffling some feathers early by stating his current players simply were not up to competing in the ACC, Bronco started to produce some quick results.
Life was great with both schools that I have cheered for the past 40+ years in that they had coaches that I felt stood for things that the schools stood for. This would allow me to find ways to support my other causes where the schools are involved – all of the other student-athletes not playing one of the Big Two sports. There was peace my world, even though Duke was having a hard go of it on the gridiron this season. The best that Duke could have hoped for was a 6-6 season after Chase Brice left the program to play his graduate year at Appalachian State. When Brice made the move, it left Cut once again with no game experience at the QB and a very young defense.
Three straight wins were uplifting, especially with two of them against Power 5 opponents (Kansas & Northwestern), but the last-minute loss at Charlotte was still hovering over the team. A Game 5 victory over Georgia Tech would still give the team a shot at the 6-6 mark, but after a great game, the offense failed to get the one first down to ice the game, and then the defense could not make one tackle during a 90-yard drive. Sadly, the final seven games were all incredibly one-sided to the point that I worried about pride being the reason Cut might step away after 14 years.
Given the opportunity to travel to Las Vegas for the Duke-Gonzaga hoops showdown last month, we chose to have a Ladies Celebration Weekend in Durham by attending Duke’s volleyball team, women’s soccer team and women’s basketball team wrapped around Cut’s game versus Miami and the men’s soccer Sweet 16 game. Five smaller events plus a viewing party for the Devils-‘Zags tilt made it a Pick Six inside of 48 hours.
I made it a point to listen to every interview that Cut participated over the weekend, and by the time we headed into Cameron for the women’s game vs Troy on Sunday afternoon, I told Lin that I was 100 percent convinced Cut would be back for his 15th season at Duke.
We enjoyed watching the ladies take care of business and then headed back to the parking garage to start the drive home. A notification came across my phone stating that Cut and Duke had mutually agreed to part ways. I can only hazard a guess what would have been said for a 67-year-old Cutcliffe to walk away from a program that he loved. Both sides said all of the right things, but it didn’t help erase the sting.
Cut not being part of Duke going forward made me take a pretty serious step back and look at sports as a whole. It felt like it had all become about the business end of things at the professional level. I was still laughing at MLB racing to spend a few billion dollars just before they locked out the players. But college had always been different for me, and the things that UVA and Duke both stood for made it so much easier to want to participate.
I was still very much in disbelief about Cut and while hiking on the New River Trail State Park a few days later I received another notification, this time from UVA. Bronco informed the powers-that-be at the school that he would be staying on through the bowl game but would then be leaving the school. Bronco made a point to say that the decision was his and his alone to protect the second guessing for his athletics director and president.
The transfer portal, NIL’s and 40+ bowl games, plus schools paying other schools coaches $95 million to leave their programs, and ESPN putting a bowl game in Fenway Park, all add up to something that I feel I can no longer relate to. Add the way that Miami treated Manny Diaz while he was still on their payroll and in the top spot in their athletics department. The fact that someone felt a need to report that if you think Brian Kelly getting $95M was nuts, we offered Jimbo $125M. The product that is currently in place is simply something that I can no longer comfortably want to participate in.
Like Bronco stated in his press conference, it’s time to take a step back and look at the big picture in regards to college football at the big boy level. I wanted my daughter to attend UVA because of the Grounds and the history, not because it wins football games. The same goes for Duke, and while I wish nothing but success for both the winner in the Tony Elliott sweepstakes (UVA) and the runner-up (Duke), they simply will have to move on without any financial support from me. Yes, I realize that I’m but one fan and a minute booster, so there will be nobody missing my literal two cents but I’m still a very proud ‘Hoo Grad Dad!
Maybe the saddest part for me was when Duke did its press release announcing its new coach they added a season ticket package request for next season. Adding salt to an open wound, I decided to take that money I’ll save and try to put it to good use by spreading it around in a promotion that I will gleefully call “ The 12 Games of Christmas.”
My UVA graduate daughter will even create a catchy logo for me as I will search out 12 sporting events to try and draw a smidgen of attention to. It’s a tiny little protest on my part but a protest just the same. Bronco is roughly 10 years younger than Cut, so let’s hope he will reappear somewhere, and if both of them want to hang out with Dabo next season, that would be alright with me, since he needs both an OC and a DC.
Merry Christmas to all!
Story by Jerry Carter