For those who figured they had a few months of grace before the onset of cruel winter, before the appearance of Mike Krzyzewski's scowl would signal yet another season of Duke hoops, Duke success, Duke fans bleating their superiority in sanctimonious glee, consider this a warning. The Dookies are breaking out early. It's only October, but the Blue Devils' athletic director is speaking of how books and wins can coexist. Their coach is working his upright motivational magic. Their players, clean-cut and articulate, are beginning to mouth their vowels with that unmistakable accent, the one that says: In 20 years I will be your boss. I will be married to the girl you couldn't get. I will whip you in any sport you care to name. "We can play with anybody," says one of the Duke stars, Zaid Abdul-Aleem, "and we can beat anybody."
Sound familiar? It shouldn't. For this is the sound now of Duke football—two words that, for the last few years, had about the same impact on the national scene as Jimmy and Carter. Duke? The Blue Devils had won 13 games over the past four years. Last November their coach, Barry Wilson, resigned. Last year's football players, Duke's student newspaper recently joked, fell between computer geeks and the Friday-night keg attendant in popularity on campus. "And it was true," says free safety Ray Farmer. "They paid more respect to the guys having parties than the football team. There was no respect for our program."
Yet those were definitely the Blue Devils last Saturday mauling a claw less Navy team 47-14 and insisting that their 5-0 start under Fred Goldsmith—the best debut by a coach at Duke, including the besainted Steve Spurrier—might portend something special. Perhaps. The next three weeks will bring an open date and visits by mediocrities from Clemson and Wake Forest; only with an Oct. 29 showdown at Florida State will Duke be truly tested.
"No one thinks we've played anybody," Farmer says. "Real respect will come when we play that Florida State team. With the talent we have and the way we're playing, we can go down there and we can be 8-0."
October 9, 1994
Hear that? Big-time talk, from essentially the same team that last year lost to the Seminoles 45-7, blew a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter against Rutgers and gave up an average of 441.9 yards a game. But as linebacker David Hawkins puts it, "I've forgotten last year already." He's not alone. While walking off the field at Annapolis on Saturday, tackle Matt Williams sang out loud, "To dream...the impossible dream..." and no one considered decking him. Instead, a crowd of alumni gathered around their new coach, who is responsible for Duke's best start since Spurrier's 1988 team went 5-0 before losing to Clemson, and chanted, "Gold-smith!" over and over.
Since coming to Duke from Rice in December, the 50-year-old Goldsmith has powered the program like a dynamo. In his first meeting with his players, he told them that he wasn't looking to rebuild; he wanted to win now, this season. He told his fifth-year seniors that they would carry his team and then backed that up by turning three-year blocking back Robert Baldwin into his main ballcarrier; Baldwin has responded by averaging an ACC-leading 140 yards a game. Goldsmith personally signed letters to all 1,600 Duke freshmen asking for their support. And he made clear to his players that losing was no longer acceptable, no matter how marginalized the program had become.
"When you're losing at a place where it doesn't really matter, you feel like you're going against all odds," says quarterback Spence Fischer, who completed 23 of 27 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns against Navy. "Duke's selling point isn't football—it's never been—and that gets instilled in your mind; you think, Football's great, but I'm getting a great education, I'm well-rounded. That's the way it is. Duke can't help that."
But Goldsmith can—and did. Fischer remembers that one of the first things Goldsmith told the Blue Devils was. "If you think you're getting a free ride, you're misled. You're on scholarship, but it's a contract and it's not one-sided. You'll get an education, but you're going to give all to the football team."
This isn't Goldsmith's first success. After earning his stripes as a defensive coordinator under Ken Hatfield at Air Force and Arkansas, Goldsmith went to Rice in 1989 and in his fourth and fifth years produced the Owls' first back-to-back winning seasons in three decades. Despite a wavering commitment by Rice to football, he wasn't interested when Duke contacted him last November. Blue Devil athletic director Tom Butters then offered the job to Virginia assistant Tom O'Brien, who turned it down. Butters again tried persuading Goldsmith by phone, even asked him to fly to Durham, but Goldsmith again said no—until he woke up the next morning and realized he had changed his mind.
"I woke up at 4:30, and I just felt real strong about it," Goldsmith says. "I shut my eyes and said. Hey, if I look at that clock and there's time to catch that flight at 6:13, I'm going."
But he was not without misgivings, so on the way to the airport Goldsmith kept dialing Butters's house. There was no answer. "I whispered, 'Hey, Lord, if you want me at Duke, have him answer this phone.' That was the test," Goldsmith says, "because I am not going to get on a plane and make a fool out of myself because he's not there. I tried five or six times. I got to the airport, checked in, called, still no answer. I said to myself, Heck with this. I'm not going." But he tried one last time. Butters's wife, Lynn, picked up the phone. On Dec. 16, Duke introduced its new coach.
It wasn't the first time Goldsmith had gone with his gut. When he was 17 he converted from Judaism to Christianity after hearing Billy Graham speak in Miami Beach. "It wasn't a happy family," he says of his parents' reaction. Not that it stopped him from doing the unexpected. Goldsmith was the first white coach—as defensive coordinator—at Florida A&M. He became the coach at Slippery Rock in 1981, went 2-7, decided he had made a mistake and quit to become defensive coordinator at Air Force. He was born in Brooklyn but raised in Coral Gables, Fla., and speaks with a thick Southern drawl.
Unusual, yes, but you wouldn't expect the norm from someone so touched by pain. In 1950, when Goldsmith was six, his mother came down with polio; she is in a wheelchair still. Three years later Goldsmith contracted polio. During his first night in a West Miami hospital, the other patient in his room died. "They told me I couldn't walk; they hadn't let me try, they told me I couldn't," he says. "I was scared." Shortly afterward, his maternal grandfather visited. "He said, 'I want you to walk,' " Goldsmith recalls. "And I walked. That was the first time I got out of bed."
Goldsmith got off easy. Only his left leg and stomach muscles remain permanently weakened from the disease, and that not enough to prevent him from playing football. The entire experience left him with a strong tendency to take chances. On Monday he gave a tryout to a woman placekicker, Heather Sue Mercer, who was third-team all-state in football in New York. But, he concluded, "The leg strength wasn't there."
Sometimes the risk-taking pays off, sometimes it doesn't. Against Georgia Tech on Sept. 24, the Blue Devils sat on their own 25 facing third-and-12, leading 7-0; Goldsmith called for a quick kick. The ball tumbled to the Tech one-foot line, Duke held, then kicked a field goal and went on to win 27-12. Against East Carolina on Sept. 10, he called for a fake punt on his own 12, and it was a bust; the pass was batted down. Still, the Blue Devils prevailed 13-10. "We're not going into games afraid to lose," Fischer says. "We trust him. If he believes it works, we believe it works."
Told that might be called a honeymoon, Fischer laughs and says, "It's called having a five-year contract and nothing to lose."
It's also called having a soft schedule to start the season. And an athletic director who agreed to raise salaries so Goldsmith could bring five assistants from Rice. And a defensive staff, led by coordinator Craig Bohl, that's sharp enough to see the need for speed and is persuasive enough to get five players to change positions. Last year's Blue Devils gave up almost 32 points a game; this year's are giving up 12. "Losing makes you humble, but this is the first time I've been this humble winning," Goldsmith says. "There's just so many good things that have happened, and I really didn't have any control over this."
That's disingenuous, of course: Goldsmith has controlled every step. But the wonder at Duke is real. Fischer says he always imagined how perfect Duke would be if the team won, "and it's happening. It's alive now." And Farmer danced and laughed on the sideline last Saturday, saying, "Am I too high? Am I too high?"
Of all things. Duke in October.