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The Life

July 24, 2002
Duke bedeviled
ESPN The Magazine

Nobody has to tell Carl Franks where his Duke team finished in the annual ACC preseason media poll. He knew exactly where the Dookies would wind up long before he made the 90-minute drive from Durham to Pinehurst for the league's Football Kickoff function earlier this week.

Do the math: Franks hasn't won a game since Nov. 13, 1999 (the longest active losing streak -- 23 -- in Division I-A), he has exactly one senior on his roster, and he returns seven starters from a defense that ranked 114th in points allowed last season.

But enough about the good news ...

Franks needs a pair of starting wide receivers, a pair of cornerbacks, a quarterback to replace the one he lost to, uh, circumstances, a recruiting class for the ages, a sellout one of these days at lonely 33,941-seat Wallace Wade Stadium, and a vote of confidence from his employers. Most of all, he says, "we need to win a football game."

So it wasn't exactly a shocker when league officials tabulated the votes and discovered that the Dookies were about this close to being 10th in a nine-team league. Franks's team received a scant 89 points out of a possible 3,870 available in the preseason ballot. The Blue Devils were nearly 700 points behind first-place Florida State, nearly 200 points behind eighth-place Virginia and only a few votes ahead of Duke's intramural flag-football champions. And it could have been worse, if not for the one sixth-place vote to go along with the other 85 last-place ballots the Blue Devils received.

Duke Blue Devil
In Durham, there's only one game in town.
Then again, what do hacks know? The ACC media picked FSU to win the league last season and the Seminoles promptly lost four games, were beaten by North Carolina and North Carolina State, and finished second to conference champion Maryland -- the same Maryland team predicted to finish in the bottom third of the standings. All the Terps did was win 10 games, reach a big-money BCS bowl and do it with a first-year head coach, Ralph Friedgen.

But Duke isn't Maryland. Duke is barely Duke these days, what with the ball and chain that is a 23-game losing streak. Franks, the former Dookie player and assistant coach (during the Steve Spurrier football renaissance at Durham), does his best to lug the weight forward, but two back-to-back 0-11 seasons makes the streak too difficult to ignore.

"Winning football games has certainly been harder than I anticipated," Franks says.

This is like saying the stock market has been a bit more bearish than anyone anticipated. Duke and Franks are stuck in NCAA Footnote Hell. Every loss moves them in the wrong direction in the record book. Go 0-4 -- a distinct likelihood -- and the Blue Devils are tied for the third-worst losing streak in D-IA history. Go 0-12 -- another possibility -- and No. 1 Northwestern (34 consecutive losses from 1979-82) is finally off the hook.

"Not in my wildest dreams or nightmares could I imagine going two seasons without a victory," says linebacker Jamyon Small.

Meanwhile, Mike Krzyzewski's basketball program can't get out of bed without stepping on a Final Four championship plaque. The Duke hoopsters are campus royalty: exalted, worshipped, admired. If Chris Duhon sneezes, half the student body hands him a Kleenex. By the looks of things at Wallace Wade, half the student body doesn't even bother coming to football games. Attendance figures were cooked like Enron's books.

This is Franks's fourth season, and unless Duke can squeeze out a few wins (At Navy? Home against Virginia? At Wake Forest?), there might not be a fifth season. Franks has done a lot of the heavy lifting during the rebuilding process, but hard work only counts for so much. There are hot seats (see Tommy Bowden at Clemson) and then there are propane-heated chairs like the one Franks is sitting on. Any hotter and you'd be able to grill a Porterhouse.

So Franks plugs away. A ribbon-cutting dinner for the new 70,000 square-foot football center is scheduled for Aug. 30. There's talk of tweaking the non-conference schedule. Juniors become seniors next season. "The nature of this game is that someone else might reap those benefits," says Franks.

In the meantime, Franks fights the good fight. No coach, no team should have to suffer what Duke has suffered. So you wish them the best come Sept. 28, when they play Navy, another team without a win last season.

Something has to give. Here's hoping it will be The Streak.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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