In Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski's first press conference since returning from the Beijing Olympics, he was sure to remind everyone of what was taking place on the upcoming Saturday.
"Remember this weekend, there's a football game," he told reporters.
In the nation's basketball hotbed, enthusiasm is growing about football, of all things. While N.C. State has continued its season ticket sellout streak for eight years, UNC has seen dramatically increased numbers over the past two years in season ticket sales, and Duke is riding a blowout of James Madison University to the highest level of excitement around football the school has seen in years. While Duke lost to Northwestern in a 24-20 heartbreaker last weekend, N.C. State bounced back from a tough opening loss at South Carolina to rally to a 34-24 victory at home versus William & Mary. Meanwhile, UNC got off to a strong start two weekends ago against McNeese State and will play Rutgers in a nationally televised game tomorrow night.
Although the early signs are promising, it's tough to compete with basketball in the Triangle—a sport that has produced seven national championships in the last 36 years—while football by comparison has been dismal. Duke hasn't had a winning season since 1994 and hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1988 and '89, when Steve Spurrier coached the team. North Carolina has been to two bowls in nine years, while State has gone 8-16 over the past two seasons. A Triangle school has not been crowned ACC champion since Duke shared the title in 1989.
No matter the school, a new coach brings instant hope to a fan base. But as former N.C. State coach Chuck Amato found out, increased hopes and expectations can mean doom when a fan base turns against you.
With Butch Davis and Tom O'Brien taking over UNC and N.C. State's football programs respectively before last season and David Cutcliffe taking the reins at Duke, the area's big three have fans dreaming about new football programs and unheard-of successes. The schools too are reaping the benefits, as even though basketball is the Triangle's hot ticket, football brings in the big bucks.
It's football that accounts for nearly two-thirds of N.C. State's $17 million annual net revenue, and it's why college coaches are being paid millions of dollars. It's the TV contracts with the ACC, the conference championship game and the bowls that bring in millions more to ACC schools each year. Football means money, and the Triangle's local schools—and traditional basketball powers—all hope to start finding it this fall.
To say that Cutcliffe's task as Duke's new coach is daunting may be an understatement. Duke hasn't seen good football in two decades. Coaches since, including Cutcliffe, have come to Wallace Wade Stadium and sold the fan base on a return to those days. But since Spurrier, no coach has had a career winning percentage with Duke over .307.
Cutcliffe is a quarterback guru. As the former offensive coordinator of Tennessee and head coach of Ole Miss, he taught brothers Peyton and Eli Manning. Now with a veteran quarterback in senior Thaddeus Lewis under his tutelage at Duke, Blue Devil fans already have high expectations.
When a fan at this year's Triangle Pigskin Preview asked Cutcliffe if Duke will improve immediately, Cutcliffe seemed a bit surprised by the forward question.
"I hope so. When I was hired, that's the thing they said they wanted the most," Cutcliffe joked.
At State, O'Brien brings his wealth of experience and success from Boston College to a team that had fallen off the ACC map under Amato. O'Brien had eight straight winning seasons with the Eagles and still holds the longest active bowl game winning streak in the NCAA with seven. It's those numbers that Wolfpack fans are looking for.
Pack fans are ravenous enough for victories to shell out $2.48 million to State's coaching staff and gave O'Brien a contract loaded with extra incentives for successful seasons. State was a win away last season from going to a bowl game, but O'Brien has suffered thus far from Amato's bare cupboard in terms of overall depth.
Davis may be the most heralded of the Triangle coaches. The Tar Heel coach led the pre-ACC Miami Hurricanes to a No. 2 ranking in 2000 before taking over as coach of the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Despite only going 4-8 in his first season, Davis not only got a contract extension with UNC through the 2014 season, but the contract upped his salary to $2.1 million annually.
Dick Christy, NCSU's associate athletic director for external operations, says the marquee coaches are part of the business. "The head coach, especially at the college level, really dictates what kind of enthusiasm and the way people feel about the direction of your program."
While Duke has seen ticket numbers jump since Cutcliffe took charge, UNC jumped from 33,000 season tickets sold in Davis' first year to 36,000 sold this year.
"It all stems back to Coach Davis," said Clint Gwaltney, UNC's associate athletic director of ticketing. "He's getting better recruits, and that generates excitement in the crowd."
The Tar Heels are even expanding their stadium, adding luxury boxes and premium seating as well as additions to their football center. This comes after State finished its own luxury boxes and stadium additions. Luxury boxes, in college and professional sports, are huge revenue generators. For the Kenan addition, which should begin construction after this season, the N.C. state legislature approved $50 million in borrowing needed for the construction. The debt will be repaid by private sources and the income realized from the luxury suites. At N.C. State's Carter-Finley Stadium, the 50 luxury boxes—called Vaughn Towers—were leased for prices between $45,000 and $55,000 per season upon their construction in 2005.
Duke, by comparison, is an upstart in the money hunt. Though Boo Corrigan hasn't seen the early returns of this year's invigorated football fan base, the school's new associate AD for external affairs is excited about the possibilities. "The biggest thing is that Coach Cutcliffe is a proven winner, and what he's done in his past is an easy sell now," Corrigan said. "The players' excitement is contagious, and the students and the rest of the campus have really gotten involved and bought in to what we're doing."
Expansion draws the dough
While the ACC has always been known as a basketball-rich conference, the conference's decision to expand to 11 teams in 2004 and to 12 in 2005 took place for football reasons.
The "super-conferences"—the Big 12, SEC—have 12 teams, allowing for a conference championship game to determine the league's best team. And those championship games are when a conference can really bring in the money.
"The championship game is really the big carrot in added revenue," Christy said. "If you can get a big championship game, get it going and get ticket sales up, that can be a big sum for the conference to split among schools."
The ACC dishes out the revenue from the championship games, TV contracts and bowl games evenly among the schools. And though she said the conference does not release the actual figures, Amy Yakola, the ACC's associate commisioner for public relations and marketing, said it is one of the conference's best features.
While the historical ties to basketball are still solid, it's football that gets athletic programs the most revenue.
Of N.C. State's $17 million net revenue from athletics last year, $11 million of that came from football, according to Christy. And though it makes sense in terms of the number of people seated—20,000 in the RBC Center compared to nearly 60,000 in the Pack's Carter-Finley Stadium—it's a trend consistent with the rest of the country.
While UNC doesn't have the sellout streak that State does, the nationally successful basketball program more than makes up for it. According to Martina Ballen, UNC's senior associate athletic director, in the 2006-07 school year, football brought in $7 million in net revenue while basketball brought in $12.4 million. But with an increase in season tickets sold this year and the plans to upgrade seating facilities, football has plenty of room for growth.
Duke is undertaking an extensive marketing push for football, trying to fill Wallace Wade Stadium for its new coach. Besides the usual advertisements on TV, radio and in newspapers, Cutcliffe has been touring the state talking about his football team. Bart Smith and Duke's promotions office has started transportation advertising, getting ads pasted across Durham's DATA buses. The school is fighting the label of being just a basketball school and is seeing the early returns of Cutcliffe's popularity.
It's already paid dividends, according to Smith. Though Duke does not release official revenue numbers, there has been a dramatic increase in season ticket sales in Cutcliffe's first season.
"We've seen a 45 percent increase in the number of season tickets sold this year," Smith said. "From everything we can gather, it's the highest amount of season tickets ever sold."
Schools like Texas, Ohio State and Florida have shown that a school can have both a good football program and a good basketball program. The key is finding the right situation—and coach—for each.
"A number of schools across the country have shown that you can be a football and a basketball school, and I don't think these schools [in this area] are any different," Christy said. "We're only talking about seven Saturdays out of the year for football, so it's pretty easy to keep your mind on both."
State doesn't market football tickets as local Saturday entertainment the way Duke does. Christy says they have a very specific group they market to, as the school's booster group, the Wolfpack Club, uses 90 percent of the tickets for sale.
"There's not a whole lot of competition on Saturdays in the fall," Christy said. "We're not really trying to win over the casual fan or people who may be on the fence. We're marketing to N.C. State people."
Focusing on 2008
In each of the three Triangle schools cases, there is reason for optimism, not just in the future, but this year.
UNC was the chic pick as this season's ACC breakthrough team. The Tar Heels were young last year, losing four games by four points or less and finishing with a 4-8 record. But most of the team's skill players return this season, and Davis expects the young team to have matured from last year's tough season.
"Now we have shared experiences where [the players] can say, 'Now we get it. I know what you're talking about now,'" Davis said. "And that's an unbelievable step for our program, when you can draw on real things that hit them in the heart."
Returning is redshirt sophomore quarterback T.J. Yates, who set school freshman passing records for completions, pass attempts and yardage. But what may be even more important is to whom he is throwing. His top two receivers, Brandon Tate and Hakeem Nicks, are among the best in the ACC. While Nicks was voted a preseason All-ACC first-teamer and set a school record last year with 74 receptions, Tate racked up 397 all-purpose yards in the Tar Heels' first game of the season against McNeese State—the second most in ACC history.
At Duke, experienced quarterback Thaddeus Lewis is sure to benefit from Cutcliffe's tutelage. Lewis threw for 2,430 yards last season with 21 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. In the Blue Devils' opening victory against James Madison, Lewis led his team, completing 17 of 28 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
And at State, while injuries have already taken out the Wolfpack's No. 1 options at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, the offense returns arguably the best running back trio in the ACC in Jamelle Eugene, Andre Brown and Toney Baker, and one of the conference's strongest and most experienced defensive lines. On Saturday, Sept. 6, Harrison Beck, who began the season as the team's third-string quarterback, took over mid-game and threw two touchdowns to lead his team to victory over William & Mary.
Duke's Cutcliffe has his work cut out for him with an existing group of recruits, while Davis and O'Brien have brought in a bevy of talented prepsters, many of whom are already getting playing time. Thus far, two weekends into the 2008 season, all three area ACC schools are off to a solid start, with a combined 3-2 record. Whether the investments pay off this year remains to be seen, when they face off against the "football schools" that have joined the league in recent years to lend it gridiron legitimacy—University of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech. Those games are down the road, and they will be the test.
NCCU gets a piece of the action
The three Triangle ACC schools aren't the only local football programs making big changes. North Carolina Central University moved from Division-II to Division I-AA, now known as the Football Championship Subdivision, the same year North Carolina and N.C. State hired their two new coaches.
The move to the FCS signals not only an increase in revenue for the Eagles' program, but also a chance to play against the best competition in the country. FCS teams typically serve as early-season fodder for the Football Bowl Subdivision—once know as Division-IA—that the ACC teams can be found in.
"Our name is getting out more across the country on a national level because of the opponents we're playing, the places we're traveling to where most people are," said Kyle Serba, NCCU's associate athletic director for media relations. "But I think locally it's helped just as far as our reputation. People here throughout the community know North Carolina Central is Division-I now."
FBS teams need six wins to become bowl eligible, and if the FCS schools they play, like NCCU, don't have enough scholarships, then the game won't count towards that win total. That's the position the Eagles are in, as they're still trying to get their scholarship count up to par with the rest of the FCS.
Once the scholarship total is high enough—which Serba said he expects to happen in the next two to three years—NCCU will be able to schedule games at big-time college football programs.
"We welcome the opportunity to play any school, especially the local ones," Serba said. "But we also know that, especially in football, they schedule several years out, so it may be a while before that actually happens."
NCCU opened its play over Labor Day weekend with a loss against rival Fayetteville State at the annual Labor Day Classic. But in a game that Serba says would typically draw about 6,000, 8,853 fans came out to O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium, nearly filling its 10,000 capacity.
And Serba points out that the excitement surrounding the area's ACC schools has a trickle-down effect to NCCU, as what's good for ACC football in the area is good for all football in the area.
"Someone may be at a restaurant in Durham talking about Duke football and a North Carolina Central fan sitting next to them strikes up a conversation about the Eagles with that person," Serba said. "It's not just one particular school that's benefiting from this excitement." —Josh Harrell