Podcast Alert: David Cutcliffe – SEC
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David Cutcliffe – Special Assistant to the Commissioner for Football Relations at the SEC, and former Duke Head Football Coach – sat down with Jeff Nelson on this week’s episode. He shares his experience under former Duke AD Kevin White, reminisces on the challenges he faced trying to lead the team to success, and shares his experience with Peyton, Eli, and the whole Manning family.
2:15 – The special assistant to the commissioner role
10:40 – David’s background
23:45 – the Manning family
29:40 – Leaving Ole Miss & Advice for working in college sports
36:05 – The challenges of succeeding at basketball school like Duke
46:50 – Rapid Fire Questions
[00:00:00] David Cutcliffe: I had a physics formula that I got from a physics teacher at high school that changed my existence. I thought life was unfair. Rich people got all the breaks. They got everything. Power equals work over time. My hour and your hour are identical. I don’t care what your bank account says. What can I get done in an hour?
So when I went to work, nobody could match that.
[00:00:44] Jeff Nelson: Hello and welcome to the Navigating Sports Business Podcast, where we talk to some of the most influential people in sports. I’m Jeff Nelson, the President of Navigate, a data-driven consulting firm, working with some of the most prestigious [00:01:00] properties and brands in sports and entertainment
Today I’m happy to be joined by David Cutcliffe, former Duke Head Football Coach, the former Ole Miss Head Football Coach, longtime, Tennessee assistant, and really one of the great coaches the past 40 years. He is now the Special Assistant to the Commissioner for Football Relations at the SEC. Hi David, how are you doing? Happy to have you here.
[00:01:39] David Cutcliffe: I am great, Jeff, you know when we were in Florida together working down there, I really enjoyed the conversation. I’ve been excited about this podcast, you know, cause we both are involved in subjects that are very near and dear to us.
[00:01:54] Jeff Nelson: Well, I’ve been excited about it too, really enjoyed talking with you in Destin at the SEC spring meetings and [00:02:00] had a million questions I wanted to ask you as we were having a little snack there between meetings and, and now I get to, so thanks for joining us. On that subject of the SEC, before we talk about your coaching career and your obviously well publicized connection to the Manning family and the future of college football and all these interesting subjects.
I have to admit some ignorance. When I see a title like you have now, Special Assistant to the Commissioner for Football Relations at the SEC I always kind of pretend like I know what the special assistant title means, but I don’t. Can you kind of give me and our listeners an idea of what exactly you’re tasked with in helping the SEC and, and Greg Sankey the commissioner.
[00:02:50] David Cutcliffe: Well, let’s explain the title first. Okay. This position has never been held. So Commissioner Sankey had an [00:03:00] idea that he would like to bring a coach on board. Obviously, Southeastern Conference football is huge and college football is ever-changing. And the SEC is gonna be a leader in that regard. So when they called me, they didn’t have a title in mind, they were kind of describing what they wanted me to do.
The relationship part of it is about with our schools, our coaches, not just the head coaches, but the, certainly the assistants, the operations people, 46 years of experience, they knew that I could connect with those people, communication is the centerpiece of all organizations. So we’re talking about this, I’m thinking about maybe going to the NFL.
You know, I got a lot of things on my mind. This was not one of them, but I flew down to visit with them and I was extremely impressed with the people. So it was [00:04:00] a little bit toward the end of a, oh yeah, what’s the title? I didn’t want to be an assistant or an associate commissioner that just didn’t seem right.
There are a lot of great people there that that is their title. They’ve been, years earning those titles. So they came up with it. I don’t know about the special part, but I am an assistant to the commissioner for football relations. So, and I described it a minute ago, but I think right now, more importantly, Jeff, what I’m here to do is to lend a lot of years of coaching experience to administrative people as they navigate you like that word, don’t you?
[00:04:41] Jeff Nelson: Yeah, thank you.
[00:04:42] David Cutcliffe: As they navigate a new era of college football, sometimes it’s really important. I think one of the things I’ve been able to do, it’s really important to understand why something became a rule. It’s usually from some form of abuse.
We’ve cycled so [00:05:00] long now there’s not many people left around that understand, well, why is the calendar this way? Or why have you done this? And they want to go back to that era. And I’m like, whoa, whoa, whoa put the brakes on that. No, you don’t. So that’s kind of a, I’m a source of a lot of years of experience, but you know, I can think like a coach I can relate to what the coaches are doing. I’m friends with all 14 of those guys preceding this role. So I think they feel comfortable coming to me with problems. So I’m a, a conduit, I guess not a very good title to be called a conduit to the commissioner.
[00:05:40] Jeff Nelson: A special conduit. I think one of the things that certainly our listeners who are on the business side of collegiate athletics, get this, but those who maybe are in pro sports or on the agency side might not have the visibility to the fact that at the collegiate decision-making level, [00:06:00] you have obviously the conference office and then the board, which is really the presidents and chancellors, they’re the ones really getting to make the decisions they’re taking input from the next level, which is the athletics directors.
Then of course the athletics directors have to take input from the coaches. So you have these varying groups of stakeholders. And I don’t think, at least in my experience, it’s often that all of them are in the same room at the same time. Sometimes you have the coaches and athletics directors in the same room, sometimes the ADs and the presidents, and sometimes it’s just the presidents and the league.
But when you have those different layers and a lot of powerful people at each layer, how tricky does decision making become and that communication piece you talked about become, especially with, again, like you said, SEC football, which lot of people care about. [00:07:00]
[00:07:00] David Cutcliffe: Yes, no question. You know, and I’ve not been in the corporate world, but as my time went by and being a head football coach, you are in a corporate world.
You’re dealing within your own institution in that regard. Certainly the conference office has 14 institutions headed towards 16 to manage all of that. It’s an interesting thing. So I guess in most corporate circumstances, you do have board members that may have other interests that have voting power or veto power, but as you climb the ladder and even go to the national scope, you’re still legislatively looking at a really complex circumstance.
And the further you go up the chain, the further you remove from any boots on the ground. Meaning who’s functioning in this world of college athletics, it’s coaches and athletes. Okay. And [00:08:00] trainers and equipment guys that, you know, there’s more there than people think. And so when certain decisions are made, they may not have any idea that they’re affecting the medical people in a really negative way, restrictions, et cetera.
So it’s a challenging thing from a business standpoint, I’m sure to get corporate America aligned. Okay. Now who listens to who the best. Coaches certainly need to be listening to their directors of athletics. Directors of athletics should be listening to their presidents, but in my, you know, experience in being a leader, I think it was more important for me to listen in the other direction.
I would always go by the equipment room or the video center or to some administrative assistant and say, hey, tell me what your problems are right now. What do we need to be doing better? For me, it started with housekeeping. And I [00:09:00] think that touches the athletes. There is no college sports without athletes.
So who touches those athletes the most? It’s that equipment room. It’s the training room. It’s. the strength and conditioning group. It’s housekeeping. Our guys become really good friends with those folks. And so college football, as you go national, Jeff it’s even a bigger disparity. You have the football oversight committee, which is gonna have a coach sitting on it.
I’ve done that multiple times, but there’s really not much influence. You’ve got conference commissioners, ADs, people you just mentioned. And then the council goes right up to presidents, a few commissioners, maybe an AD. And so the further removed you get that’s where some of the laws of unintended consequences have had a chance to bite us in the past and why certain rules were made.
And [00:10:00] so I’m losing more hair than ever trying my best to communicate from a wisdom and a heart. The hard part of it is let’s protect the athletes. And sometimes you have to protect them from, from themselves. They’re young people. They’re not ready to be the decision-makers. So, whew, I didn’t mean to ramble, but you got me wound up with that one now..
[00:10:23] Jeff Nelson: We’ll revisit some of these big questions around college football. First. I just want to take a step back and I wanna learn a little and hope our listeners can learn a little about your path to ultimately being a Division I head coach. So you grow up in Birmingham. You’re one of six kids. You’re in a really, what’s kind of a mythologized golden era of Alabama football. What are your earliest memories of football and when did you know this is gonna be my [00:11:00] career?
[00:11:00] David Cutcliffe: Yeah, it’s a good question. Some of my earliest memories were one game a week on a 13-inch black and white television. You didn’t get much to look at. I think the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears because on a Sunday after church, I would get that chance to watch that one game. College football wasn’t nearly as televised.
So let me tell you what the best Christmas gift and we didn’t have much, but my mother got me a little transistor radio. And I can get in certain parts of our house or even go outside and barely move that little dial and catch a college football game on a Saturday afternoon or a Saturday night. I heard LSU play and see imagination is a wonderful thing.
We’re taking that away with all the technology. We put kids in front of iPads, so they [00:12:00] really don’t have to have their imagination. Not to overdramatize it. I mean sports, it was baseball, football, and basketball for me. And I had a pasture that served as both a football field and Yankee Stadium. And so if I had a bat and a ball, it turned into Yankee Stadium.
If I would play a complete Alabama Auburn game. And of course I was, you know, grew up in an Alabama family. I had to hit certain limbs on trees. I’d drop back, throw. And so you’re right. A child of the fifties and sixties, it was just sport. It was funny. I loved the Celtics there. And so you have to understand how to do this.
Now you take a big mature oak, they quit growing at the bottom. So you get your goal at 10 feet. Okay. We made a wooden back board and I had parquet dirt. I promise you, it may not have looked at the way to other people. [00:13:00] But I’m shooting game winners, you know, on parquet dirt. And when you’re asking, well, how do you become a coach?
Well, I didn’t end up quite good enough player to be a great player. That was the plan. I would’ve bloodied your mouth if you told me I wasn’t gonna pitch for the Yankees, even up to 16 years old, but I loved being a part of a team. Teamwork is probably the thing we’ve gotta concern ourselves with right now.
We can’t lose at this era of gimme, gimme, gimme. You have to earn a spot on the team, not necessarily as the starter or a star. But you earn your way on a team in whatever sport it is at practice. And we’re trying to take that away. Little frightening. So yeah, by the time my dad passed away at 15 and coaches became just pivotal in my life.
All my coaches. Any sport, my nickname’s Team Coach, I knew what everybody was supposed to do. I just loved it. And so that’s what they called me. [00:14:00] That’s probably not good that I’m telling my peers what to do, you know, but the whole plan was to coach. And so the opportunity to be around Coach Bryant and shoot on Sunday afternoon at four o’clock, no matter what I was doing in the pasture, my mom knew to holler because that was Coach Bryant’s show the replay of the game the day before. Man, I came sprinting in there. I sat down in front of that tiny TV and listened to every word Coach Bryant said. So, yeah, it was bigger than life for me.
[00:14:31] Jeff Nelson: I love to hear about influences and lessons learned from people who themselves have been successful.
When you think of that timeframe and whether it was watching the Bear Bryant show or some of those other coaches that you interacted with, are there one or two life lessons that stood out that you think all of us can benefit from whether in sports business or outside of it?
[00:14:57] David Cutcliffe: Yeah. I think the biggest thing from my high [00:15:00] school coach who passed away, you know, just a few years ago, and I was fortunate enough to be a pallbearer at the funeral and with the family.
It’s George Oscar “Shorty” White and Shorty White played at Auburn, but we were the best program in the state of Alabama. Great coach. But I think I learned early from him is that don’t hesitate. You know, you, you think about people in decision-making and there’s a lot of, I love a book by Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, you know, and I think he’s right on spot there.
But, he would always tell me, do something, even if it’s wrong, you know, you can correct wrong, but you can’t correct decision by indecision kills a lot of people. So you know, that stayed with me. It has forever as a play caller. I don’t like namby, pamby play callers that can’t make up their mind.
Come on man. George Patton, the Patton principal, his [00:16:00] thing was make a decision and then go like, hell to make sure it’s the right one. And so that was kind of my path, the number one, and Coach Bryant said to me, he said, you know, you want to coach college football. And I said, you know, yes sir. And he said, well, let me tell you two things.
Don’t do this because you love it. The only reason you would do this. Is that you can’t live without it, and then it is not about you. It’s about the athletes. How great is that? You know, and I’ve obviously shared that with many, many young men and I was fortunate enough to win the parent lottery. And so those tidbits of advice from parents and coaches and what I would tell young people is to choose your mentors carefully.
From my path and what I’ve done, it’s all been about the people that I’ve learned from. Take advantage of those mentors, but choose very carefully who you [00:17:00] associate yourself with.
[00:17:01] Jeff Nelson: Great advice. You chose and made that decision to be a coach early, sounds like. And then you’re in high school for I think, five or six years. And then you make the leap to an assistant at Tennessee under Johnny Majors. Is that correct?
[00:17:17] David Cutcliffe: Yeah, that’s correct.
[00:17:19] Jeff Nelson: Pretty legendary coach there. And then eventually Phil Fulmer, another legendary coach. When you think about your time with those influences from one or both, what were you witnessing? What were you learning?
[00:17:34] David Cutcliffe: Yeah, I think Philip would probably tell you the same things that I’m gonna tell you about Coach Majors. Johnny Majors was, was unique. He was even unique to Coach Bryant. They weren’t a alike. Okay. He comes from a tree of the Tennessee people that relates back to General Bob Neyland. That was a very military, efficiency, its detailed [00:18:00] checklist. You felt like you were flying an airplane, you gotta check your checklist before you can take off. And so he was great in that regard.
The other thing that he kind of fed to me, you know, I, I wanted to be a quarterback guy or whatever, but I realized that I’m listening to him, teach.
And this man has great knowledge of every position of football, offense, defense line play, kicking game. And how are you gonna be a really good head football coach if you don’t study it all? And I have an opinion, but I think our defensive line coach, I never played it. Don’t know anything about it from a personal standpoint, other than I’ve studied it, I would tell people, get outside your comfort zone.
When I would go visit pro teams, I would visit with all the coaches. I would ask offensive line coaches and defensive line coaches. What do you think most important thing to teach [00:19:00] is? What do you think a good stance is? And Johnny Majors was that he was hard on assistant coaches. He was, but he was clever, smart, well read.
I think he gave me a thirst to be more well-rounded, don’t just get sucked into just being a football coach and nothing else. And so, and then Phillip, who learned those same things, what Phillip was, was truly an old offensive lineman. You want to talk about perseverance, until it was right. I mean, there was nothing insurmountable to Philip Fulmer.
His perseverance, his work ethic, his persistence. Oh my gosh. Say an offensive lineman played it for him when he was a line coach, look, you’re not gonna hear it until it’s right. I mean, you’re not gonna hear an atta boy. You’re not getting anything. And so those years with those two men were extremely [00:20:00] important to me and I hope I added something for them.
When Coach Majors hired me, I’d become the head football coach at my high school. I was sitting in Coach White’s chair. I was scared he was gonna walk in and chew me out, you know, I mean, but that was the dream then. And then Johnny Majors came and watched us practice and was looking at some of our prospects and he was supposed to stay 15 minutes.
He stayed the whole practice. And then he came in my office and said, I’d like to meet with you. And he said, where’d you learn to run a practice like that? And I said, well, it’s a lot like what we did here, but Alabama. And he said, wait a minute, Alabama. And so Tennessee had like a, a bad run at that time, maybe 10, 11, 12 years in a row of losing to Alabama, he said, well, I’m gonna call you and hire you after the season.
I’m like, yeah, right. Well, sure enough, Phillip called me and they brought me up there and I was single and I said, what the heck? I put it all behind me, put all my belongings in one car. I didn’t need a moving van. [00:21:00] They asked me, do you need to move? No, I don’t need to move anything and went to work up there.
So it was an interesting time at my life. And then it’s led to a lot of great things. Most importantly met my wife there and the two of us have turned into 17 of us now. And that’s what, we’re in the process of doing. You know, I’m traveling, trying to get all of us at one spot at the beach. One last time in North Carolina, before we move locations.
Yeah. A lot of great memories from that Tennessee time.
[00:21:29] Jeff Nelson: Man, you run a practice well, and look where it leads.
[00:21:33] David Cutcliffe: I know, you know, and listen, we were efficient. Now I’ll share this with your listeners. Is that I had a physics formula that I got from the physics teacher in high school. That changed my existence.
It’s not a pity time, but we didn’t have stuff. I thought life was unfair. Rich people got all the breaks, they got everything. We could not have that. We had the clothes didn’t look good. The cars didn’t look [00:22:00] good. By the time you’re 12, you’re aware. And then by the time, and then dad passes away. And by the time you’re 15 or 16, it’s like anger, you know?
And then she put a physics formula up on the chalkboard and it was P equals W over T and we were grading machinery. And what that is, is power equals work over time. And it just hit me that that power quotient, the only constant in that equation is time. My hour and your hour are identical. I don’t care what your bank account says.
I don’t even care how much better looking or stronger you are. Your time, your hour is identical. What can I get done in an hour? So when I went to work. I felt like nobody could match that. And if you grow that W over that T whether it’s a 15 minute period, and I’m not [00:23:00] talking about working 24 hours a day, I’ve never believed in that.
But quality time at work, you grow that W that T gets awesome. And I didn’t especially like physics or the teacher, but I’m looking around the room like, Y’all pay attention to this. Here it is. And I’ve kept that with me for forever. And I don’t like to see people waste time, nothing more precious on earth than our time, how we use it.
And I’m gonna do a lot of recreation this week, but when it’s time to put that, W on top of that T watch out, I’m gonna wear your hour out, just count on it.
[00:23:41] Jeff Nelson: I believe it. I mean, your power quotient turned out pretty big. So I believe every word you say about that, I am guessing you can’t do an interview like this without being asked about the Mannings in some form or fashion.
So I apologize if this is territory, you’ve had [00:24:00] to cover many, many times over, but I was having lunch last week with a former intern of ours, Ryan Nelson, who played at Michigan. And then this last year was a grad assistant under Paul Chryst at Wisconsin, really bright mind, really analytically oriented, but also gets the football side of things.
I mentioned I was gonna be talking to you and I asked him, what’s the question you would wanna ask David Cutcliffe. And he said, what makes the Mannings special. There are so many talented quarterbacks out there, but clearly Peyton, Eli, Archie above them. Now Arch, you know, Cooper’s son. There’s something special there.
What is it? What’s what’s the secret? What’s the key.
[00:24:49] David Cutcliffe: Anybody that is as special as they have been and are, there’s never gonna be one item. I’ve been asked to [00:25:00] give one. If I had to give one, I don’t know if you would call this focus, but it’s the ability to be totally focused on where they are at that moment.
So you have conversations with people that you can tell they’re not there 100%, correct. I’m guilty of it. Their ability to focus on the task at hand is amazing. It is. So when you’re having a conversation with Archie Manning who has accomplished so much, he has the ability to make you feel like this is the most important conversation he’s ever had.
You know, he did that, I wasn’t around him, coaching him. I saw him play, but you know, he was able to do that as a player. Now let’s, we all see games. We see the results of these guys, but [00:26:00] when you go to practice, conversation with a receiver, a focus on a rep, whether it’s just blitz pickup and there’s nothing else going on.
So the linemen and the backs and the quarterbacks are picking up blitzes, well Peyton would be playing a game, he would be communicating with receivers that aren’t there working the entire process. And it was a thing of beauty. It was a teacher for me because what that does, I love this word. How do you function?
I don’t wanna know what you know. Well, tell me all what you know, if it’s not functional, it’s worthless. I see beautiful PowerPoint sometimes. And I’m jealous cuz I can’t do that. And then I watch the functioning part and I’m not seeing it. Okay. I have a problem with that. So, they function, whatever they’re doing at an extremely high level.
If they were sitting with a [00:27:00] tutor with academics, I better not say anything. I better not say hello or interrupt them. They were all in to that moment. And so that would be my one thing. You know, I haven’t been around, you know, Arch as much, but I have been around him enough to know that his focus and he’s gotta be careful in this era, but his focus is he wants to be great.
He’s willing to do the themes and he has that ability. His dad has it. His mom has it. They’re accomplished people, but Arch, stress and pressure has increased, I don’t know, a hundred fold with these young people because everything’s on some form of social media, right. Everybody’s being commented on constantly.
And sometimes we all know that success is harder to handle than failure. If you get told enough that you’re all that, that may be the most dangerous thing [00:28:00] on earth. Because we all know as we get older. No, no, we are not. We’re reminded all too often, but for 18 to 22 year olds, I would tell our coaches, probably the biggest challenge you’re gonna have is to help keep these guys grounded, to understand the work ethic and the value of their, their work, so to speak.
So I don’t know. It’s an interesting study to study them, to think about. They’ve got brains that are computers and let’s not forget, they’re extremely gifted physical athletes. When they walk in a room, the first thing people do, like never seen ’em go, oh, wow. How big they are, you know, so, yeah.
It’s a lot of things, but that’s the one I’m gonna give you, right there. Focus the ability to be all in on that task at hand.
[00:28:51] Jeff Nelson: That’s really interesting. You obviously had a lot of success as a assistant at Tennessee in part with Peyton. Heath Shuler before [00:29:00] that, many others. And then at Ole Miss with Eli, I think your first five seasons winning seasons, you win the Cotton Bowl.
Which was a level that program had not been to in a long, long time. You just mentioned that success is harder to deal with often than setbacks, but I do wanna ask you about a setback, which was then a losing season at Ole Miss. And if the reporting at the time is to be believed and please correct me or correct the reporting if it’s not. You’re asked at the time to make some changes to your staff. Not something you were willing to do and five winning seasons and the Cotton Bowl win and then one losing season and you’re out. That, that could not have been easy to handle.
[00:29:49] David Cutcliffe: No, and it’s not, but you know, when you start filling yourself with hate you become less of a person and, you know, that’s hard.
That’s the biggest [00:30:00] challenge for me is it’s personal and because your family suffers it. I had to go to the schools in that small town to tell my son who is a senior in high school that I just got fired. I had to go to tell my daughter. Yeah, it’s just not easy. And so. Then you stand up in front of a team with a bunch of young people you love, but getting back to what you said.
I don’t know if I did the right thing or not for everybody. I hope it wasn’t selfish, but I did not agree with administratively what was being said and the wrong people were being pointed out. I was gonna make a change. I never even got to that it, it got ridiculous at the end, but none of the people they wanted deserved to be let go. They were doing a really good job as one of the things that I I’m gonna be a little bit ugly right now, but there are a [00:31:00] lot of administrators wouldn’t know whether coach is doing a good job or not technically and or otherwise.
So, but what you do when you make that decision, you eliminate everybody. So everybody gets let go. Is that selfish? I don’t know. I’ve thought about that a lot, but I had to be true to myself in that moment. I wasn’t going to go do something that I knew was wrong. If that makes sense.
[00:31:24] Jeff Nelson: I just wanna linger on this cuz it was a question I had more broadly, so not necessarily specific to this instance, but again, most of our listeners are on the business side of sports and a lot of them pursuing a career in collegiate athletics at varying levels. From a coach’s perspective, what advice would you give somebody on the administrative side of a university given your, your long career in college football?
[00:31:56] David Cutcliffe: I would say the same thing to them that I would say to [00:32:00] young people. You better choose your people well. If I’m a director of athletics, I’m a decision maker on letting the coach go or what I think is a bad offensive line coach. You start listening to some of the wrong people or take the wrong path. Most relationships are about extreme trust. All of our relationships and when you lose it, you know, it’s going to erode. All right. So I would say that if you’re dealing with a coach in a lot of people’s lives before you get to that point, if you start not trusting your head football coach and you want to be a director of athletics, you better address it immediately.
In other words, it’s gotta be, make the decision to go ahead and change then. Don’t wait and let everything deteriorate because that head football coach, if you trust him with a good, honest conversation, coach, I, I [00:33:00] can’t tell, but we’re having a lot of problem in the secondary. What’s your thoughts on our secondary coach?
Is there a hole in recruiting that we need to address? That’s a trusting conversation rather than go on the attack. And you don’t really know. And in this era of a transfer portal, this era of people going pro early, roster management is a nightmare. You can get down in the offensive line and suddenly are gonna struggle, and you may have the best offensive line coach in America.
And to the untrained eye, well, you just got a bad coach. You know, this guy was a five star. This was a four star. Well, you know what? Some of those really lit up stars aren’t as good as advertised sometime either. So it’s a complex thing don’t try to learn the game, that’s not your job. Try to learn how to communicate.
Most organizations [00:34:00] deteriorate through bad communication. Same thing’s true in an athletics department. People nowadays it’s become popular to have a sport administrator. Okay. Maybe, but if I’m dealing with the big revenue sports, I don’t need an administrator to tell me what’s going on. I better be very involved.
Old school directors of athletics stayed really close to their basketball coaches and your football coach and baseball coach. Speaking of baseball, by the way, I was thrilled that Mike Bianco, who was a great coach and Ole Miss won the national championship. He came in right after I was there. Great man, great family.
People wanna look at what a career, an administrator, because there was a lot of talk off and on, well he’s not getting it done. Study Mike Bianco if you want to get into college athletics, study it closely. Because longevity [00:35:00] sometimes leads to legendary success if you have the right person. So there you go.
[00:35:07] Jeff Nelson: That’s actually a really good segue, I think, because you’re talking a little bit about patience too, which is so hard to have in the pressure cooked environment of collegiate athletics these days. But patience there talking about your next step after a few more years, as an assistant at Tennessee, you go to Duke.
It took you five years to get to a bowl game at Duke and six to get to a winning season. So there was patience required by you, by the administration, by everyone who was buying into what you were trying to do there, but I would argue that Duke might be the hardest program in the country to have success because you have kind of peer institutions like a Vanderbilt or Northwestern or Stanford and other conferences where the academics are at a similar level.
But at those other schools, at least [00:36:00] recently, you don’t also have a basketball program that is as successful and legendary as it gets. So if there are resources being dedicated to athletics, if there is attention being paid, you have to think at Duke, a lot of that’s going toward basketball. How were you able over those five, six years to turn Duke into a program that had a winning season, that went to bowl games, that won its division. Again, I, I’m not saying this just to butter you up. I honestly think that’s probably as impressive to me as going to a big power and making the CFP.
[00:36:39] David Cutcliffe: Yeah. It’s the trajectory of wins.
We went right up to about 400% improvement. And we, we had good people, et cetera, et cetera. But Kevin White is a good study for any young person that wants to get into college athletics administration, a veteran, a great communicator, the [00:37:00] theme that kept me going and, and there were a lot, there’s a lot of businesses and people, I love talking to CEOs and people that are on ground level, startups. One of the things I heard from people over and over and over, because I was concerned, you know, it was, it was tough, tough to have two, 3-9 seasons on year three and and four, but you know what? We knew we were being successful. We were getting better every single day. Kevin White knew we were getting better.
We didn’t even have a hundred yard practice field to start with. I used to joke when I first got there I said, I found the problem. I went down there. We have 2 75-yard practice fields when we’d get to the 25 yard line, nobody knew what to do. A pretty critical area of the field, right? So it was a journey of a lot of communication between Kevin and I.
A lot of trust. I think he is the epitome is the all time [00:38:00] greatest director of athletics. If you look from Notre Dame to Tulane to Arizona State to, I mean, the experience, he was a former coach, a track coach, and he never forgot some of the challenges of coaching. I think that really helped Dr. White and his path.
So it’s like anything else. I mean, they had, they had won 10 games in the previous eight years when we got there. Everybody told me I was crazy. We, in that timeframe, we had one nine-win season and a 10-win season, but it’s P equals W over T. It’s communication. It’s caring about each other deeply.
It’s everybody being aligned. We had a great trainer, a great head strength coach, and a great head equipment man. And see, I’m telling you this because way most complexes are, all of their offices is on the same floor as the locker room. Who’s influencing those players?
You know [00:39:00] what I’m saying? So when I walk through the building and also put myself an office under some steps on the first floor, I didn’t wanna be left out. Okay. Wasn’t very fancy, and no windows, but I was near the action. I could hear the weight room. But you see those people and they can tell you, Hey coach, we’re getting better. Equipment guy’s coming in saying the locker room’s been been the cleanest it’s been. That’s a big deal to us. The trainer’s telling you everybody’s on time getting their treatment. The strength coach. And that’s how you do it in any organization. We did that at Ole Miss, you know, on the heels of losing Eli to graduation we had a struggling year, but I go back and I think of all the things I could have done better.
It really had nothing to do with the record. It again goes back to your, the hungryness of the people. Growing people is a constant, even if you [00:40:00] have a year where you’re off, that things aren’t what they should be. Did you grow? Did your people get better? I think the pandemic, probably people gonna go back and study it and there’s gonna be a lot written about it.
And maybe we’re still writing the story. I felt like a little bit. I let the story of the pandemic write us. I might point fingers and say, well, they didn’t let us do this or that. Okay. What could we have done to energize that? And I think that story is still, it’s like a movie. We hadn’t gotten the ending of it yet.
People think we’re out of this. We’re not. And that was one of the tough things about being asked to leave Duke, was if you didn’t feel like you got a job finished, if that makes sense.
[00:40:48] Jeff Nelson: So with all of the turbulent issues around college athletics and, and college football, right, you have the ever evolving NIL space, you have the transfer portal, you [00:41:00] have discussion about whether FBS should break away from NCAA. Of questions around whether the disparity between the autonomy five and the group of five is so great that they should somehow split. All of these things. If you were the czar of college football and you could snap your fingers and make it so. What would you do? What would you like to enact to help the future?
[00:41:27] David Cutcliffe: I think right now we’ve got to address the legal issues and the politics that have become a part of too much of a part of college athletics, let’s go back to the athletes. I think revenue is great. If it’s spent on players, it’s arguable, whether an 18 year old needs to be making a certain amount of money, trying to be a student athlete.
So here’s, here’s where my approach would. What do we have to do to ensure that these people, that we’re [00:42:00] talking college athletes, period, all of them, that they’re student athletes. We’re losing sight of that a little bit. When you’re telling somebody they can make six figures or better, some were hearing rumors of seven and expect them to go to class and expect them to have normal discipline. I mean, I don’t know about you Jeff, but from 18 to 22, I don’t think I could have handled that very well. And so I think that it’s time to people really try to understand, are we helping or hurting athletes? I think it’s okay to within reason to have some revenue sharing with all of our athletes to be insured that they’re getting what could be due them, but they are getting more than you might would think a scholarship isn’t just paying tuition, an athletic scholarship.
I don’t have [00:43:00] time to go through all of. But let’s put a value on hard work and sacrifice and teamwork. I mean, let’s really do that. And somebody needs to shout this and not be afraid of being sued. Somebody said the other day, well, it’s too far down the road. I said, let me tell you something. I’ve gone into games down 20 points in the fourth quarter and won..
Okay. I’m not telling anybody to stop cause we’re behind. Don’t go there with me. I don’t wanna even hear that. A quitter never wins. And I don’t want to take anything away from anybody. But there’s a better way to share. I would love to have had a little bonus as I graduated from college.
I don’t know about you to, to get started. It’s expensive to get started. That’s a nice time to write a check. To any athlete to help ’em, but to think that they need to be out partying. Or even have enough money to, to charter a private plane and go, I mean, think about that now. And then you, you get, we’ve [00:44:00] seen many, a first round draft choice’s life get ruined, a lifestyle because they had too much money at too young of age and then family gets in squabbles and I want this and I want that.
I don’t see anybody writing or talking about that. So if I were the commissioner of college football, I would say these things and have no fear of being ridiculed. Oh, he’s a selfish, no, they can have my salary. I don’t care. I wanna see what we’re doing, better, young people. That’s the real source of this.
Athletics is fun. It’s spectator sport. It is a business and I realize the money involved. It’s more, you know how we say it in the SEC? It just means more. It does. Let’s say just athletics in general, whether you’re a volleyball player or lacrosse, there’s more to it. The greatest thing that could ever be said to any athlete, [00:45:00] period, any sport, any athlete is for somebody you hadn’t seen in 20 years to come up and say, you were the greatest teammate I ever had.
Wow. Wow. Let’s not lose that. Let’s hang in there with that. And I would say I don’t, I’m not a corporate guy and I haven’t ever run an athletics department, but wouldn’t that be a great thing for somebody to say to you in any walk of life? That’s the way.
[00:45:29] Jeff Nelson: I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I have probably a hundred more questions I could ask you still, do you have time for four rapid fire, one-off one word answers?
[00:45:38] David Cutcliffe: Yep. We can do that.
[00:45:40] Jeff Nelson: If you could have coached anywhere besides the schools you did coach and I’m also gonna take Alabama off the list since it’s your alma mater, any other program in the country, where would it have been?
You have one meal to eat in the Raleigh Durham area where you just spent 14 years. Where are you going?
[00:45:59] David Cutcliffe: Angus Barn. [00:46:00] If you’re in Raleigh and you don’t go to the Angus Barn, the best steak, great atmosphere, great people.
[00:46:07] Jeff Nelson: The recruit you most regret, not landing.
[00:46:11] David Cutcliffe: Tim Couch. I don’t know if people are gonna remember Tim. I thought I was gonna sign Tim. His grandmother called me. She thought I was going to get him too at Tennessee and she was all upset, but hey, things happen.
[00:46:23] Jeff Nelson: The person you’d be most tongue tied to meet.
[00:46:26] David Cutcliffe: Well, you know, I’ve been so fortunate in what I’m doing, it’s probably not a living person. I think probably I would’ve been intimidated and scared, but I would love to have met George Patton just to see if he was as mean as they made him out to me.
But that’s a leader. The epitome of a leader is a military leader. That’s asking people to sacrifice potentially their lives for the objective. That’s different than what you and I do as leaders. I think trying to talk to General Patton, I may not have got a word out. He might have slapped [00:47:00] me right across the cheek, but yeah, that would that’s who it would be.
[00:47:04] Jeff Nelson: Last one, the greatest win of your career.
[00:47:07] David Cutcliffe: You know, I’m gonna go with this one. Cause it was in Yankee Stadium. We beat Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl and I’m walking out of Yankee Stadium toward the locker room with the trophy hearing Frank Sinatra sing over the loudspeaker, New York, New York, and it’s the new Yankee Stadium, but there it is.
[00:47:28] Jeff Nelson: Well, thank you, David. Really appreciate you joining us.
[00:47:31] David Cutcliffe: We will talk to you soon, we’ll do it again down the road.
[00:47:34] Jeff Nelson: That would be great. Your career’s been incredible. I have no doubt. You’re gonna be an incredible resource to the SEC. Thank you for joining us and imparting a lot of great wisdom on me and our listeners.
And to our listeners, if you have any questions or comments, of course, reach out to us. My email is Jeff@NVGT.com, and you can also connect with us on my personal LinkedIn or the Navigate page. [00:48:00] Again, this is Jeff Nelson with Navigate joined today by David Cutcliffe. Thank you all for listening to Navigating Sports Business.
[00:48:09] David Cutcliffe: Keep navigating brother.