DURHAM, N.C. -- When Jim Harbaugh took the Stanford job in 2006, he was told by some of his closest friends he was committing career suicide because there was no way the Cardinal program would be successful again.
Stanford was coming off an 1-11 season and had only two winning seasons over a 10-year span, its facilities stunk and the biggest roadblock to success at Stanford was having highest academic standards in college football.
Yet, somebody forgot to tell that to Harbaugh. He hit the recruiting trail with a laser-sharp belief there were enough excellent students who wanted to play at an elite level of college football.
"We have the highest standards in the country, but that's never going to be a crutch for us," Harbaugh said after signing his first class. "Actually, we believe it should be our biggest selling point. It's something we proclaim when we're going after scholar-athletes. Our main objective is to graduate our athletes, and another is to win. We want to do both. We will do both."
And he did. Before bolting to the NFL and handing the program off to David Shaw, Harbaugh transformed the Cardinal into one of the best in the country and a real threat on the national recruiting scene.
A year after Harbaugh was hired in Palo Alto, David Cutcliffe had an offer to take over the Duke program that was mired in an even worse funk than Stanford. Cutcliffe was also told to steer clear of a program that had tallied only three winning seasons in the past 25 years and had not beaten an ACC opponent in more than three seasons. And much like Stanford, Duke's academic standards were some of the toughest around.
But Cutcliffe had done his research. He noticed what Harbaugh was doing and decided a similar transformation could take place in Durham.
"I thought Harbaugh and Stanford were doing what we needed to do," Cutcliffe said. "They were competing for an exceptional player that had an exceptionally high standard academically. Rather than trying to compete with their neighbors, Southern Cal, UCLA and all of those schools, they went after their type of guy.
"We found as we started looking here at Duke there were plenty of exceptionally gifted student-athletes out there. Most people have this belief there aren't smart football players in today's world. That's just not right. You had to kind of know where to set your sights at first. You have to go find them."
That's where Duke recruiting coordinator Zac Roper and director of player personnel Kent McLeod come in. Both are charged with scouring the country to find those smart football players, and the process is much more complex than at most schools, where they can simply review film and then fire off an offer. After a player passes the talent test, Duke takes a deep dive into his academics and also his and his family's character.
Once Duke identifies somebody who fits its criteria, the Blue Devils do something that's crazy in today's recruiting world, in which five-star's egos are fed like they're at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Cutcliffe and his staff tell recruits the cold, hard truth about where they fit in with the program.
If someone is going to redshirt as a true freshman, they tell him. If they're recruiting four other players at his position, they tell him. They also make it clear Cutcliffe has a zero-tolerance policy for off-the-field issues. It's another similarity to what Harbaugh did and Shaw continues to do at Stanford. Both schools believe the prospects they want are smart enough to see through the negativity that often clouds the recruiting process.
"The first thing we talk about is, 'If Duke is what you're interested in and this is something that you definitely want to look into, understand that you're going to work.'" Roper said. "'You're going to work in the classroom. You're going to work on the practice field. Everything that we're going to ask you to do, there are going to be demands and there are going to be consistent demands.' We lay that out on a line for the recruits to see. We tell them it's not going to be easy. It's not always going to be fun.
"Not everyone that comes in here is going to be excited with what we're going to do. But the guys that want to be challenged, those are the guys you definitely want to be playing with on Saturdays."
Sometimes recruits and their families balk hearing that, and that's fine because the Duke coaches don't want to waste their time chasing a prospect who will never truly fit in with their culture. But it's the ones whose eyes light up whom Cutcliffe wants on his team. It's at this point in the process when Cutcliffe finally unleashes his "hold card."
"I've got the academics," Cutcliffe said. "I can flip that card out at any time, but I save it for when it really matters. And at that time, it's an ace. I don't start there, and I try to be as sincere as I possibly can throughout the process. But when I flip over that academic hold card, I know it's going to be a winner for us. It's our ace that nobody else out there can really match."
And much like Stanford, it took three or four recruiting cycles at Duke to get the right type of players in the program. The Cardinal went 4-8 and 5-7 in Harbaugh's first two seasons and then finally broke through with an 8-5 record and Sun Bowl appearance in 2009. Things really took off in his fourth year, as Stanford finished 12-1, won the Orange Bowl and finished fourth in the final Associated Press poll. Duke went 4-8, 5-7 and 3-9 in Cutcliffe's first three seasons, but the Blue Devils went 6-7 and played in the Belk Bowl in 2012. Then in 2013, Duke shocked the college football world by winning 10 games and playing in the ACC championship game.
Suddenly, Duke is now known for much more than its basketball team. The Blue Devils' 2015 class ranks No. 38 in the country, marking the first time ever it has ranked in the top 50 in the ESPN class rankings. The 2016 class is looking even better, as Duke already has pledges from two ESPN Junior 300 prospects, receiver Scott Bracey and tight end Mark Birmingham.
"Some coaches will just tell you stuff you want to hear and try to sell their school," Bracey, No. 6 receiver in the 2016 class, said. "But Coach Cutcliffe wasn't trying to sell the school, because there isn't much to sell -- because Duke is Duke. This whole recruiting process, I knew I wanted to go somewhere I could get a really good education. Academics were a big part in my decision, but when they played Texas A&M in that bowl game and went 10-2, that impressed me even more."
The winning continued this season, as the Blue Devils finished 9-3, second in the ACC's Coastal Division and have the third-best record in the ACC over the past three seasons, behind Florida State and Clemson. Facility upgrades are also underway at Wallace Wade Stadium that will transform the facility with enhancements to the entire west side of the stadium and a new video board. Plus, with only 17 commitments in the current recruiting class, Duke coaches are also expecting more victories on the recruiting trail during the final run-up to signing day.
"And as you get better, the pool gets bigger," Cutcliffe said. "That's what Stanford experienced as they started to win games, and that is what we're experiencing now. The pool is bigger than what it was. We just need to make sure we have a big enough net for all the right guys."