DURHAM -- While Pittsburgh will be making its first trip to Duke as an ACC member Saturday, the Panthers and Blue Devils already have a long and storied rivalry on the football field.
It dates back to Oct. 5, 1929 – when Pitt became the first visitor to Duke’s brand new West Campus football facility – the concrete horseshoe that is now known as Wallace Wade Stadium.
“The only thing that’s frightening is that they played that game and the stock market crashed,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know what they means for Duke football [but] people better be ready with their investments.”
The 1929 Duke-Pitt game drew what was reported to be the largest crowd ever to see a football game in the South to that point. Pregame rain limited the crowd to approximately 25,000, but the local newspapers lauded the atmosphere and noted “of course, the entire Duke student body was present.” The game was preceded by a Friday night parade down the streets of Durham and a brief pre-game dedication ceremony. Unfortunately, the game itself turned into a mismatch as Jock Sutherland’s powerful Panthers rolled over Jimmy DeHart’s Blue Devils, 52-7. Noted the Durham Morning Herald: “Pittsburgh was without a doubt, the best football machine that ever rolled over a Tar Heel gridiron.”
Two years later, Duke lured Wallace Wade from Alabama to revive its football fortunes. He was very close to Pitt’s Sutherland and the two coaches initiated a home-and-home series that started in 1937 and ran through 1942 (the series revived after World War II).
That 1937 meeting in Pittsburgh was memorable as the Panthers beat Duke 10-0 en route to winning the national championship. Duke kept Pitt’s All-American tailback Marshall Goldberg under control, but couldn’t cope with the rest of Sutherland’s “Dream Backfield.” Sophomore tailback George McAfee provided Duke’s only scoring opportunity late in the second quarter with a long punt return, but he was tackled inside the Pitt 10 and the clock ran out before the Devils could get off a play from scrimmage.
A year later, Pitt visited Duke for what turned out to be the most famous game in Duke’s football history. The defending national champs came to Durham for the regular season finale against an 8-0 Duke team that was undefeated, untied and unscored upon. It was touted as the national game of the year and such notables as sports writer Grantland Rice and broadcaster Bill Stern passed up the Army-Navy game to attend the Duke-Pitt game. Four special trains were chartered to bring fans to Durham for the game. Stern broadcast the contest over a 37-station network that blanketed the East Coast.
One interesting sidelight is that with most of the nation’s top sports writers and broadcasters in town, Duke sports information director Ted Mann had to find a way to circumvent the dry town’s prohibition of alcohol. Mann eventually set up a covert speakeasy for the press in a modest-looking house on Duke Street. Future Duke radio voice Add Penfield, a student assistant to Mann at the time, reported that he made several liquor runs to a bootlegger to keep the thirsty national press bigwigs happy.
The largest crowd in the history of the South was expected for the Saturday afternoon game. Once again, bad weather put the fans to the test, but this time, record cold weather and a snowfall officially rated at six inches failed to prevent a record turnout. Called 52,000-plus at the time, Duke now lists the attendance at 49,138 – still the largest crowd ever to see a football game in the state of North Carolina at that time.
The huge throng saw a classic as Pitt and Duke dueled in the snow. Once again, the Blue Devils shut down the talented Goldberg, but this time also stifled his backfield mates. The game turned into a defensive struggle, dominated by Eric Tipton’s punting. Often kicking on first or second down, the senior from Petersburg, Va., punted 20 times for a 41.3 yard average. However, the real greatness of his performance was that 15 of his 20 kicks were downed within the Pitt 20 --- seven within the 10 yard line.
In the third quarter, one of those coffin-corner kicks set up the game’s only score. As the backed-up Panthers tried to punt out their own end zone, Duke end Bolo Perdue broke through to block the kick and fall on it for a touchdown.
Duke’s 7-0 victory over the defending national champs was enough to earn the team a bid to the Rose Bowl and a No. 2 ranking (behind TCU) in the final AP poll.
A year later, Pitt prevented Duke from completing its second straight perfect regular season when the Panthers scored a narrow 14-13 victory in Pittsburgh. But Duke would win the next four games in the series, including a 1950 victory in Durham that had historical significance.
Wade’s last team at Duke knocked off the Panthers 28-14 in Duke Stadium behind the passing of senior tailback Billy Cox and the two touchdown runs by wingback Tom Powers.
But the real significance of the win was that it was the first integrated football game played in the state of North Carolina.
In the days leading up to the game, North Carolina newspapers noted that Pitt’s roster featured a black tackle named Flint Green. The Panthers had started the season with a second black player, but he had left the team before the trip to Durham when he was called up for active service in the Marines.
North Carolina reporters were anxious to find out if Green – a second-stringer – would make the trip. While Duke and North Carolina had faced integrated teams on the road, no black player had yet appeared in a game against a white team IN North Carolina.
Wade and Duke President Hollis Edens issued a joint statement in response to questions about Green’s presence.
“Yes, we have heard that Pittsburgh has a Negro on its squad,” the statement read. “The coaches of each team have the unquestioned right to play any eligible man they choose to play. We have neither right nor the desire to ask a coach to restrict or limit his team’s participation on the grounds of creed or color.”
The statement ended with an appeal to Duke fans.
“Duke students and fans have a fine record of treating visiting teams courteously. We have every reason to believe this record will be continued.”
That belief was justified – there was no reaction from the crowd before the game or when Green entered the game for the first time in the second quarter.
The last Duke-Pitt game played before this week proved to be another memorable contest. No. 2 Pittsburgh – en route to the 1976 national championship – came to Durham in October to take on Mike McGee’s Blue Devils. Just as the ’37 and ’38 Iron Dukes stifled All-American Marshall Goldberg, the ’76 Devils – led by linebacker Carl McGee – kept All-American Tony Dorsett under control, holding the star tailback to one of his worst outings in his Heisman Trophy season. At one point, the angry Pitt star responded to taunts from the crowd by making an obscene gesture at the Duke crowd.
But Pitt quarterback Matt Cavanaugh carved up the Duke secondary, throwing five touchdown passes to lead the Panthers to a 44-31 victory.
The two teams have met 17 times with Pitt winning nine and Duke eight in the series.
“I think it’s pretty neat – I have a sense of history,” Cutcliffe said. “I can feel those ghosts at times.”
A MILESTONE FOR SIMMONS
Duke senior offensive tackle Perry Simmons started his 40th straight game last Saturday against Georgia Tech, but in Cutcliffe’s eyes, he passed as more significant milestone when he became the first current Duke player to top 3,000 snaps for his career.
“Think about that for a second – 3,000 plus snaps as a college football player,” he said. “The offensive lineman is the player who has no official statistics other than he played 3,000 snaps. That is an amazing accomplishment beyond a lot of what we keep stats about with skill players.”
Cutcliffe pointed out that Simmons, a native of Raleigh, is an engineering major.
Simmons – and the rest of Duke’s offensive line -- faces a major test this week. Pitt features two large, skilled defensive tackles -- 275-senior Aaron Donald was first-team All-Big East a year ago and 300-poind senior Tyrone Ezell is also a returning starter.
“Those two tackles are both really good,” Simmons said. “I think we’ve got our hands full this week.”
But Simmons said he’s looking forward to the test.
“Whenever you are facing a player that’s really talented, what you have to focus on being right yourself – the proper technique,” he said. “You can’t worry about what they’re young to do. If you are right, they are wrong.”
While Simmons is the first on the team to 3,000 snaps, he could be joined soon by senior guard David Harding and maybe before the end of the year by junior guard Laken Tomlinson. On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Ross Cockrell is fast approaching the 3,000 snap milestone.
HELTON HANGS UP THE CLEATS
While Cutcliffe is most often associated with mentoring future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, he also had a hand in the development of a potential baseball Hall of Famer.
Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, who played quarterback at Tennessee under Cutcliffe, announced last week that he was going to retire at the end of this season.
“I’m really saddened and happy that Todd Helton’s career is coming to an end,” the Duke coach said. “I texted back and forth with him. The only thing I wanted to make sure about was that he was at peace. He is a ballplayer in the true sense of the word.”
Helton is completing his 17th season as a first baseman for the Colorado Rockies. He’s a career .317 hitter with over 2,500 hits and 367 home runs. He won a batting title in 2000 (when he flirted with a .400 average for much of the season). He’s also won three Gold Gloves at first base.
Is he a Hall of Famer? There will be debate – some critics dismiss Helton’s numbers because he’s played his career in the light air of Colorado. But Cutcliffe has no doubts.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I hear all that stuff about the thin air. You’ve got to hit the ball hard. He hit the ball hard. A .317 lifetime hitter … all those home runs … all those doubles … the Gold Gloves. You can’t play the game any better than he played it over a 17-year span. Before he got his back hurt, his numbers were crazy.
“He did everything you have to do to win baseball games. That’s what Hall of Famers do.”
BACK AT WIDE RECEIVER
Brandon Braxton has returned to the starting wide receiver spot that he held throughout the 2011 season. A year ago, he moved to safety and started eight games in the secondary before he was hurt.
But he’s back at wide receiver and looking very much like the guy who caught 40 passes for 352 yards two years ago. In three games, he has seven catches for 66 yards and one touchdown.
“Receiver is fun,” Braxton said. “I like being back on the offensive side of the ball. I’m still good friends with the defensive guys – I still mess around with them in practice.”
Braxton said his year at safety has helped him be a better wide receiver.
“I’m better at reading defenses now,” he said.
He’d like to put that knowledge to use in helping Brandon Connette out at quarterback. Braxton caught a touchdown passes from Connette at Memphis, but the two failed to hook up in the Georgia Tech game. The entire Duke offense struggled for most of the Georgia Tech game.
But Braxton insists that Connette was not the problem.
“We were confident with him in there,” he said. “The execution was not there. The quarterback gets a lot of the blame, but it was the entire offense. We need to be more physical, especially with our perimeter blocking. We need to turn some 8-to-10 yards runs into 20-to 25 yard runs.”
Jamison Crowder, Duke’s top receiver, also defended Connette’s performance against Georgia Tech.
“We’ve got to do our part to make him look good,” he said.