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Cutcliffe’s Duke Revival Poses What-Ifs In The SEC

cutcliffe_david025David Cutcliffe was once an SEC man.  Graduated from Alabama.  An assistant at Tennessee.  A head coach at Ole Miss.  Coaching All-American, Heisman-candidate quarterbacks like Heath Shuler and Peyton and Eli Manning.

You don’t get much more Southern than that.  If any man has SEC DNA, it’s David Cutcliffe.  Yet Cutcliffe got only one shot as an SEC head coach and he was fired from that gig despite winning the majority of his games.

Well, his current success at Duke should have a pair of SEC schools questioning their decision-making with regards to his employment

For those who haven’t been keeping up, the Blue Devils knocked off Miami over the weekend — Miami of Florida not Ohio — to hit the eight-win mark.  It’s Duke’s first eight-win campaign since 1994.  Ninety-four also happened to be the last time a Duke team found itself in the national ranking.  Until now.  In addition, the Blue Devils will be going to back-to-back bowls (they finished 6-7 after losing to Cincinnati in last year’s Belk Bowl).  They’re also currently in line to play in the ACC Championship Game as Coastal Division champs.  And if Cutcliffe somehow leads Duke to 10 wins, he’ll be the first man in school history to accomplish such a feat.  Neither Wallace Wade nor Steve Spurrier accomplished that one.

Pretty good for a guy Ole Miss tossed aside and Tennessee looked past.

From 1995 through 1998, Tommy Tuberville led Ole Miss to records of 6-5, 5-6, 8-4 and 6-5.  That 25-20 mark was good enough to land him the Auburn job.  Cutcliffe then improved UM’s winning percentage from 55.5% to 60%, lost out on a West crown by one game, and was canned following a 4-7 rebuilding year.  Under Cutcliffe, the Rebels won eight, seven, seven, seven and 10 games before that final year drop-off.  Their 2003 team went 7-1 in league play and lost a tight game to LSU that cost them the West Division title.  No Ole Miss team has ever come closer to reaching the SEC Championship Game.

But Cutcliffe wasn’t viewed as a great recruiter and he wasn’t the king of gab when it came to dealing with Rebel boosters.  Nope, all he did was win at a better clip than predecessors Tuberville, Joe Lee Dunn, Billy Brewer, Steve Sloan, and Ken Cooper.  To put it in historical terms, Cutcliffe’s six seasons in Oxford were just about the best stretch since Johnny Vaught coached the Rebs, and Ole Miss named its stadium after him.

Mississippi wanted an upgrade and when Cutcliffe refused to let go of some of his key staff members, he was scrapped.  In came Ed Orgeron (28.6% wins), Houston Nutt (48.0% wins) and now Hugh Freeze, who looks to be a keeper.  But what if Ole Miss had hung on to Cutcliffe?  It’s likely he would have inked a top-flight quarterback at some point and once again competed for a West Division title a time or two.  The second coming of Bear Bryant?  No.  Better than the up-and-down mess Ole Miss has endured before and since?  Without question.

But Ole Miss isn’t the only school with a Cutcliffe “what-if” hanging out there.  With Cutcliffe as his offensive coordinator (1992-98, 2006-07), Phillip Fulmer notched a fantastic 86-19 (81.9% wins) record.  Without him (1999-2005, 2008), Fulmer’s mark was 66-33 (66.6% wins).  The importance of Cutcliffe during Tennessee’s Fulmer era cannot be understated.

But when Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal in January of 2010 — just one season after Fulmer had been dismissed — Tennessee officials decided not to hire Cutcliffe, who had been at Duke for two seasons at that point.  Several boosters placed the ball on a tee for then-AD Mike Hamilton to hire Fulmer’s ex-aide, but Hamilton wanted no part in bringing the best bud of the man he’d so recently dumped back to Knoxville.  Cutcliffe let UT officials know that they had one day to call him.  His phone never rang.  At that point he took himself out of the mix.

Hamilton and some key Vol boosters around him then wound up handing the reins of the Tennessee program to Derek Dooley and the rest is history.  Would Cutcliffe have recruited at the level required to compete for SEC titles?  Probably not and that is the goal in Knoxville.  Unlike Ole Miss, the Vols have won 13 SEC crowns, second only to Alabama all-time.

Still, Cutcliffe certainly could have stabilized a Vol program that is once again rebuilding from scratch after Dooley’s nosedive.

He isn’t a 1000-watt personality and he isn’t hailed as the nation’s best recruiter (though he’s done well enough at Duke to make them competitive in the ACC).  He won’t glad-hand boosters and party til dawn with a school’s biggest donors, either.  What David Cutcliffe will do is win the majority of his games and do so within NCAA rules.

In other words, he would have made both Ole Miss and Tennessee more respectable than they have been since they blew him up (Ole Miss in 2004) and passed him over (Tennessee in 2010).  Hindsight is 20/20, sure, but hindsight suggests the folks running the Rebel and Volunteer programs erred when it came to the guy who’s currently in the running for National Coach of the Year honors at lowly Duke.



Nice article John. However, you do leave out one fact of David's tenure in Oxford: his health during 2004-2005.

David had chronic issues with his pancreas and/or gall bladder. He wound up having major surgery in the spring of 2005 that involved at least 3 or 4 months of recovery.

The severity of the condition was not known at the time of his firing. He certainly did not exhibit his usual energy in 2004. Apart from the 2004 season results, David's recruiting had turned lazy and the 2005 recruiting class looked abysmal.

Even if David had not been fired in the fall of 2004, there would have been great pressure to improve in 2005.

Given his health, Ole Miss would have had a different coach for 2005 in any event.If he had not been fired, Ole Miss would have had an interim coach in what was already a make-or-break year.Even more scary, given the pressure, David might have put off the surgery and possibly died.

In any event, I am happy for him and wish him success. 


As an Ole Miss fan, I agree that Cutcliffe should have been given another year at Ole Miss.  However,  I think it is premature to discount his record at Duke: 4-8 (2008), 5-7 (2009), 3-9 (2010), 3-9 (2011),  6-7 (2012), and 8-2 (currently). He isn't exactly setting the world on fire. Credit where credit is due though; 8-2 in the ACC is no small triumph, but I can't help but recall the old adage "even a broken clock is right twice a day."  Secondly (and often forgotten), Cutcliffe had serious cardiac health concerns during his last year at Ole Miss, culminating in heart surgery following the 2004 season and a long recovery that forced him to sit out the 2005 season at Notre Dame.  Even if Ole Miss had retained him, would he even had been able to coach? 

This in no way excuses the Ed Orgeron debacle that followed however. 


This column really mischaracterises a lot of the tenure of Cutcliffe as HC at Ole Miss. He never had a quality defense while there. I don't know about stats right off hand but they never could stop anyone when it seemed to count the most. In 2003 they took a loss to Memphis (yeah they had a good record that year in CUSA; lost to Miss. State though) and Texas Tech at home after giving up a big lead late. 2004 (post Eli) they lost to Memphis and Wyoming! Many fans thought he should have had much better teams with Eli Manning as QB. They were right. He couldn't capitalize recruiting wise on the significant pub that Eli Manning brought to the university. Cutcliffe is a finesse coach...hence his success against weak competition in the ACC. Eli Manning (along with Duece Macallister prior to that) brought much of the success to Ole Miss during Cutcliffe's coaching days there.


No second-guessing by this Ole Miss fan.

First, let's look closely at this year's schedule for Duke.  There are no opponents currently ranked in the top 25.  Duke has two losses to unranked teams.Their non-conference schedule is a joke.   After the first two teams, the rest of the ACC is way down.   

Second, like at Duke, Cutcliff fattened his record at Ole Miss on weak non-conf opponents.  Plus, the SEC as a whole was weaker then.  He rarely won against quality opposition.  And he had Eli Manning for four years.  He hardly played Manning as a freshman, and Manning ended up having one really good year.  Any other coach would have won many more.

Third, he took over plenty of talent recruited by Tuberville and over time failed to replenish it.  He was not a good recruiter.  We were heading down.

Fourth, if he was so great, why did NO ONE offer him a job when he left?  (The Duke job came several years later.)

Underlying your comments is the attitude that we have heard for decades:  "You're just Ole Miss; you should be happy going 6-6; you can't expect better!"  Fortunately, you don't get to pick our coaches.

I just hope we play Duke in a bowl game.  Care to make a bet? 

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator


Looking at Ole Miss' post-Vaught success, I think I might have done just as good a job of picking your coaches as the people who actually did.

Nowhere did I say Ole MIss should be happy at 6-6.  Besides, Cutcliffe didn't go 6-6.  He won 8, 7,7,7, and 10 before having his lone bad season.  In my view that should have been good enough to earn the man at least another year.  

Thanks for reading the site,



Wow...smarter than Pete Boone...what an accomplishment. He's been the biggest problem with OM over the past 50+ years...a complete idiot. You forgot to mention, Tubby did his work while on probation...and did a pretty darn good job. 

Also, imagine Eli with the WR/other talent we have now. Cut simply could not recruit to the level needed to regularly compete in the SEC. O could recruit, but was a horrible administrator/leader. Nutt...was a "nut". Took a long path to get a good coach (excellent in his 1st 2 years), but at least we got there...but w/out Boone.


Fair enough.  Didn't mean to be so prickly.  I enjoy your site. 

Have a great day.


Believe it or not, Boone was a huge improvement over his predecessor Warner Alford who did NOTHING as AD from 1977-1994.   He epitomized the Good Ole Boy network.  While our competitors were improving facilities and raising money, he was selling home games against Tennessee to Memphis for extra cash that turned home field advantage into a neutral site (1990).  At least Boone tried.  We are still playing catch up because of Alford's tenure.

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator


No offense taken.  I just thought the first line of my response was too easy to pass up.

Again, many thanks for reading,



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