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Game vs. Pitt will have special meaning for Duke’s David Cutcliffe

Jerry DiPaola
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Getty Images
Coach David Cutcliffe of the Duke Blue Devils watches on against the Florida State Seminoles during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on October 14, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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FILE - In this July 31, 2017, file photo, Duke coach David Cutcliffe watches during the team's NCAA college football practice in Durham, N.C. A combination of leaky protection, inaccurate throws and dropped balls have led coach David Cutcliffe to lament that 'the passing game is not what you want it to be' with Florida State visiting on Saturday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

Duke coach David Cutcliffe had a warning for his team while it prepared to meet Pitt on Saturday.

“This is a game where you better strap your chinstrap on tight,” he said, alluding to the anticipated physical nature of his opponent.

If anyone knows about chinstraps and the ramifications of losing them, it’s Cutcliffe.

He lost a special one — he doesn’t know where or when — and he continues to regret it to this day.

The regret will become even more real Saturday.

During the game with Pitt, Duke will honor former Blue Devils coach Steve Spurrier for his upcoming induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. He’ll go in as a coach; he’s already there as a player.

“If I had not gotten hired at Duke University, I wouldn’t have had a coaching career,” Spurrier told The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper. “Everything that’s happened to me in coaching is because of Duke.”

The chinstrap in question was owned by Spurrier, who gave it to Cutcliffe many years ago. Paige Cutcliffe, the coach’s brother, was a teammate of Spurrier’s at Florida.

“Wouldn’t you know it,” Cutcliffe said this week at his news conference, “somewhere along the way it got lost. Not very smart on my part. I can’t tell you what happened to it.”

Born into a family of die-hard Alabama fans in Birmingham, Cutcliffe said the chinstrap reminded him of the only time in his life when he didn’t cheer for the Crimson Tide.

“When my brother turned down Alabama and went to Florida, he’s lucky his last name is still Cutcliffe,” he said. “And that’s the truth.”

The chinstrap is gone, but competing with Spurrier, dealing with his taunts and the influence he has had on college football are memories Cutcliffe never will lose.

In fact, Cutcliffe told the reporter who brought up Spurrier, “I appreciate you asking.”

“He influenced a lot of us who are my age,” said Cutcliffe, 63. “He was a trend-setter in throwing the football. He had a lot of fun coaching football.”

Spurrier, 72, began his coaching career at Duke in 1987, spending three seasons there, leading the Blue Devils to their first bowl in 29 years and sharing the ACC championship with Virginia in 1989. At Florida, he led the Gators to the 1996 national championship and six SEC titles.

At the same time, Cutcliffe was an assistant at Tennessee where one of his pupils was Peyton Manning. He also coached Peyton’s brother Eli at Ole Miss. Long before that, Cutcliffe’s first job in college football was at Tennessee in 1982 when Johnny Majors hired him away from Banks High School in Birmingham.

Spurrier used to poke fun at Tennessee, especially when the Volunteers were forced to settle for a lesser bowl while Florida was going to five Sugar Bowls in his 12 years there.

“You can’t spell Citrus without U-T,” Spurrier said. “I know why Peyton came back for his senior year. He wanted to be a three-time star of the Citrus Bowl.”

Cutcliffe said Spurrier’s jabs never bothered him.

“I kind of talked a little bit myself back in the day,” he said. “We let it go.”

When Cutcliffe was considering accepting the Duke job, he said Spurrier offered encouragement and a warning.

“He thought this would be a great fit and a great opportunity,” Cutcliffe said. “He made no bones about it: ‘You’re coming into something that’s not going to be very easy.’ ”

Like Spurrier, Cutcliffe has resurrected the Duke football program. In the eight years before Cutcliffe arrived in 2008, Duke won a total of 10 games. Last year, the Blue Devils finished 4-8, but they won 27 games in the previous three seasons. Earlier this year, Cutcliffe received a contract extension through 2021.

Saturday, the Blue Devils, who won the ACC Coastal in 2013, will take a three-game losing streak and a 4-3 record into their game against Pitt.

He doesn’t expect to spend much time with Spurrier, however.

“I’ll be a little busy,” he said.

Notes: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi released an injury report Thursday, declaring cornerback Malik Henderson, linebacker Quintin Wirginis and fullback George Aston out with lower-extremity injuries. Linebacker Anthony McKee Jr. is out with an upper-body injury. … For Duke, offensive tackle Gabe Brandner (leg) and safety Michael Carter II (lower body) are probable. Center Will Taylor (leg) is out for the season.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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