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December 6, 2013

Part Two: Saunders

The Cutcliffe Era

"A (short) way to answer the question on the differences since coach Cutcliffe? It's commitment," Saunders said. "That's one of his favorite words. That's why he's here, because he's committed."

That commitment combined with inherent belief is what Saunders attributes Duke's recent program success to.

Cutcliffe talked each week this season about the process, the development of players who continually buy in to the program and confidence base in sound consistency.

"I've always told everybody what describes him in my opinion," Saunders said. "Coach Cutcliffe could be playing the New England Patriots this week and he would believe he could beat them. After talking to him five minutes, he'll have you believing he can beat them, too."

Saunders sees that the biggest difference in the Duke football program now is that it's made up in its entirety of people who believe.

"Coach Cutcliffe believes it," he said. "That's why the players (do). Even in that first year, (after press conferences) I'd come out of there and at 50-something years old, I was ready to run through a brick wall for him, so you know these youngsters are ready to."

Working in the athletic clinic, Saunders acknowledges that he sees Duke's football team at its most physically vulnerable state. But even then, he says, the players carry themselves differently than they have in the past.

The true belief and confidence, even on the Mondays after the toughest games this season Saunders said, is something that can be seen consistently in the players' eyes.

It is what he believes has made a "world of difference," in the Duke football program and record.

"Other teams when they come in on Monday, especially the ones before (Cutcliffe) that had only won one or two games a season, they were just going through the motions," Saunders said. "They wouldn't have admitted it but you can feel that when you're around people.

"They knew they weren't going to win. They wouldn't say it, but their body language said it."

The attitude in some past season was just to get through it -- as if the players could sense that their manpower wasn't enough to cover the workload at hand at times.

Saunders recognized Cutcliffe's nature, he said, the first time he met him.

It was an "unusual but not unheard of" interaction. "He got hired in December of '07 and about a week after he'd been here, he came over in the middle of the day and he was going around meeting everyone, at all the different places, and he came in and he was standing in front of my station and I had on a Tennessee watch," Saunders said. "When he came around, it was a big thrill."

The watch face, "with a power T, a Tennessee T," sparked conversation that carried into the coach's regular usually-Tuesday visits.

"He'd stand there and we'd just talk football," Saunders said. "I'd let him take the conversation where he wanted it to go and a lot of times it was Tennessee because he had other Duke people but I was his Tennessee connection."

Saunders used to go to the building where Cutcliffe's weekly press conferences were held to pick up pocket schedules for the clinic's patients and was extended an invitation to join.

"He mentioned that at lunch time he was having a press conference and that I was welcome to come if I would like to," he said. "So, I did. I'm sitting back there at the back, all the media types there, so I would just listen. That went on for about the first five weeks."

During the middle of October that year, Saunders and his wife took their annual trip to the beach, causing an absence in the press conference attendees.

"When I come back the next week, all the people that work with me said, 'Oh! While you were gone, the next day (after the press conference) coach Cutcliffe came in and he said that he wanted to know where you were, he was concerned about you,'" Saunders said. "I (asked) what they meant and they said, 'Well, he said you weren't at the press conference down there.' That made me feel 10 feet tall because I didn't realize that he knew I was still in there every time because I'd always sit in the back.

"Not only did he know I wasn't in there, he made the effort to come over here and find out where I was."

The gesture is the epitome of how Cutcliffe's personality -- not just his football prowess, which helped Tennessee to a .754 winning percentage over his 19 seasons as an assistant coach and Ole Miss to a .603 one over six seasons -- is a benefit to the program.

"He's got that knack, that's one thing I like about coach Cutcliffe," Saunders said. "He does this with everybody and I wish I had this ability. To everybody he deals with, he makes them feel like they're the most important person in the world.

"I've tried to learn from that because that is such a hard quality to have but ever since I've known him, he's had that quality. Very few people, and none that I know of, who have met coach Cutcliffe don't like him."

The amiable, caring nature may well be a factor in the draw of attending a weekly press conference just as the appeal of hearing information from the source himself is.

Saunders doesn't eat the Jimmy John's provided for the media because he was invited to attend, but never to eat. He brings his lunch on Tuesdays just like on the other days since he's attended -- it's a testament to Saunders' personality, enjoyment of the opportunity to attend the press conferences and reflection of manners that draws light to the attraction of the Duke football culture as developed under Cutcliffe.

Saunders in fact had not thought about it until it was brought up to him (and had to be persuaded to allow the fact to be publicized).

But Cutcliffe isn't always the clean, well-mannered, remembering and polite leader that draws recruits because mothers have fallen in love with him -- though more than one player one Duke's roster has listed that, in good humor, as the reason he came to Duke to play.

The intelligent sense of humor is also part of what makes Cutcliffe's effect on the program notable.

"Basketball season had just ended," Saunders remembers, recalling one of the coach's first spring practices at the school. "After the practice there were about five or 10 media people that came up to him -- I was within ear shot so I was listening to him -- he goes into one of these little routines saying, 'Oh! Who is this? Basketball season's over, you decided to come down here and talk to us.'

"They knew he was kidding. But it was funny because he was kidding, but he wasn't. What he was saying was, 'I'm the little brother that's not getting as much attention as big brother here.' That's just coach Cutcliffe so he did it in a way that didn't ruffle any feathers."

But it's getting to where Duke football may climb out of the shadows of the Duke basketball program.

The Saunders' family sense of humor is such that after the Blue Devils upset Miami Nov. 16, Saunders' son sent his father a text saying that Cutcliffe aught to be careful that Krzyzewski doesn't motion for Cut's firing for holding so much of the spotlight during the beginning of basketball season.

If the players' attitudes are indicative of the seasons to come, Scott Saunders just might be on to something.

"It's not an act, they are as confident as they appear to be," Bobby said of the players. "They are not just paying lip service to being confident. They really believed before the season started -- and I'm sorry to admit they believed it better than I did.

"I didn't see this season coming. I would've loved if you'd told me, but I didn't believe. I wouldn't have bet money that we'd be where we are right now. But I'm tickled pink that we are, but (the players) believed it. They honestly did."


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