David 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.