Duke won 4 football games the year before it hired Steve Spurrier and 4 games the year after the Ol’ Ball Coach left for Florida.

Spurrier was only in Durham for 3 years, but he figured out a way to tie for the ACC championship (with a 6-1 league record in 1989) and lead the Blue Devils to a bowl game for the first time since 1960.

Having Spurrier for “only” 3 years was a good problem for Duke to have. His teams scored a bunch of points, never lost to rival North Carolina and he made football fun at a basketball school.

Duke has a potential “Spurrier problem” with 2nd-year coach Mike Elko. Spurrier was too good, and too young, to keep in Durham for the long haul. Elko, with a 10-5 record after Saturday’s heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame, is on the same trajectory.

Spurrier was 42 when he took the Duke job in 1987. He went 5-6, 7-3-1 and 8-4 with Duke before his alma mater called. Spurrier spent the next 12 years at Florida, winning the SEC title in his second year with the Gators and the national title in 1996.

Jumping from Duke to another major job doesn’t happen often. Actually, for the 3 schools (Duke, UNC and NC State) in the Triangle in North Carolina, the area has been a Bermuda Triangle for coaching prospects.

There were 13 coaching hires by Duke/UNC/State since Spurrier left in 1990 and before Mack Brown returned to UNC in 2019. None of those coaches were hired away to be a head coach by another “Power 5” school.


The only coach to leave the Triangle for greener pastures, as Spurrier did, was Brown, who was hired the first time by UNC in 1988, and left for Texas in 1997. Brown coached the Longhorns for 16 years (winning a national title in 2005) before he resigned in 2013. He eventually came back to UNC in 2019 at the age of 68.

Elko, 46, is in a different stage of his career than Brown is now or even David Cutcliffe, who was 63 when turned down the chance to go back to Tennessee in 2017.

Duke’s 4-1 start this year is proving that Elko’s first year (9-4) wasn’t a mirage. The Blue Devils were the aggressor in a season-opening upset of Clemson and stood toe-to-toe with Notre Dame on Saturday to cap one of the best weeks in modern program history.

There was the ESPN “GameDay” hoopla, a spectacular crowd and a spectacular game. The only problem was the ending, with Notre Dame’s game-winning touchdown coming with 31 seconds left, and then a potential serious injury to quarterback Riley Leonard seconds later on Duke’s last-gasp drive.

The open date on the schedule comes at the right time for the Blue Devils. If Leonard can’t play against NC State on Oct. 14, Elko has some extra time to figure out a solution at quarterback.

The most impressive part about Elko is he hasn’t turned the program around with one player — as good as Leonard has been — or a handful of players out of the transfer portal. He has mostly taken what Cutcliffe left him and made it better.

Duke went 1-17 in the ACC in Cutcliffe’s final 2 seasons. Elko already is 6-3 in ACC play with the 28-7 win over Clemson on Sept. 4 serving notice to the rest of the league.

Keeping Elko will be the bigger challenge for Duke and, to a certain extent, a litmus test for the ACC as the age of the “Super Conference” looms.

To tie this back to Florida State’s complaints from the offseason, will the financial gap between the ACC and the Big Ten/SEC turn the ACC into a feeder system for the rich?

If Michigan State, who has an opening after firing Mel Tucker this week, is interested in Elko, what’s stopping the Spartans from overpaying to get him? The Spartans were paying Tucker $9.5 million annually. That was before the Big Ten’s new TV rights deal (worth more than $1 billion annually) has kicked in.

The Spartans will have stacks on stacks to spend on Elko, who signed a contract extension in July. And if not them, there will be other suitors. What Elko has done is just too impressive to ignore.

But when it comes to hiring coaches — it’s better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all. Duke entered a desert after Spurrier left, but the program is not in the same place it was when Spurrier left almost 35 years ago, or even when Cutcliffe was hired 15 years ago.

The school has made a real financial commitment to lift the program up from the late ’90s/early 2000s doldrums, but there are some realities to the situation. Wallace Wade Stadium has had a respectable makeover, but it’s still relatively small (40,000 capacity) compared to other “Power 5” programs.

Interest in Duke football, while on the uptick under Elko, also lags compared to both its regional rivals (UNC, Virginia Tech, NC State) and to the national brand that is Duke men’s basketball (which has won the national title 5 times since Spurrier left for Florida).

So how long can a small school (albeit with deep pockets) on a small stage hang on to a rising star? It’s a good problem for Duke to have (it definitely beats the alternative) and it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

Sparty time?

Speaking of Michigan State, Elko isn’t the only ACC name that has been rumored to be on the Spartans’ list. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, the Spartans’ defensive coordinator for 7 years before he was hired by the Panthers in 2015, would make a lot of sense.

Certainly more sense than Elko, who has no connection to the school or Big Ten, and definitely more sense than what is going on with Pitt’s offense. The Panthers, a year removed from winning the ACC title and showcasing a high-flying offense with Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett, can’t get anything going on offense.

It’s one thing to lose to blood rival West Virginia in a rock fight (17-6 on Sept. 16) and it’s even understandable that the Panthers couldn’t keep up with UNC’s offense a week later in a 41-24 home loss to the Tar Heels, but Virginia Tech?

The Panthers lost 38-21 on the road to the Hokies on Saturday. The same Virginia Tech team that was bounced by Big Ten juggernauts Rutgers and Purdue.

Pitt’s a long way from the salad days of ’21. Through the first 5 games, the passing offense ranks 108th. Sixth-year QB Phil Jurkovec had his best game of the season against the Hokies with 235 yards and 2 TDs. He was dreadful (81 yards, 3 INTs) in the loss to West Virginia and ineffective (109 yards) in the loss to UNC.

Narduzzi has punched above his weight class at Pitt, in the shadow of the Steelers and Penn State. Fighting Michigan and Ohio State for attention will be a relative breeze at Michigan State. He might just decide, at 57 and after 9 years with Pitt, that the money is too great to turn down.

There’s only one “O” in Wolfpack

The spelling of the word includes the letter “O” but that’s about the only offense NC State has right now. Friday’s 13-10 home loss to Louisville was a clinic in what not to do on offense.

After taking a 10-0 lead at the half, the Wolfpack had 7 drives that ended with 4 punts, 2 interceptions and 1 fumble.


Much was expected of new offensive coordinator Robert Anae and 6th-year quarterback Brennan Armstrong and little has been delivered in the Wolfpack’s 3-2 start.

Armstrong has been a better runner (he leads the team with 286 rushing yards) than passer, which was useful in the season-opening win over UConn, but the passing numbers have been dreadful.

Armstrong’s completed just 58.8% of his passes for 971 yards with 5 TDs and 6 interceptions. Coming in as a stop-gap transfer and developing chemistry with new receivers is easier said than done and the talent at the skill positions is suspect. There are also injuries to 2 key offensive linemen.

But still, in Year 6 of college football, Armstrong was expected to be a safer, smarter alternative. Instead, he has pressed and tried to do too much. The turnovers (2 INTs, 1 fumble) against Louisville were bad.

Now the pressure mounts on Armstrong, who struggled in his last year at Virginia as well. Early in the first half of Friday’s loss, the NC State student section was chanting the name of backup quarterback MJ Morris.

Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren has a decision to make before the Marshall game: Stick with Armstrong or try to get a spark from Morris, whose freshman year was cut short by a knee injury in 2022. The plan is to redshirt Morris but at what price?

All of Doeren’s teams have been fast starters. He has a 35-10 record in games played in August or September. October has been unkind (15-20) while November/December have basically been a push (25-26).


Finding 3 more wins over the next 7 games to get back to a bowl game will be a real challenge for the Wolfpack. Marshall, which has 1 win over an ACC team this season (Virginia Tech) and won at Notre Dame last year, will be a handful for the Wolfpack this week.