GARNER — To the chagrin of N.C. State football fans that seem to predominate the Garner area (and the town council and staff), it is Duke that will play in the most prestigious bowl of any team in the state this season. The 10-3 Blue Devils take on Texas A&M Tuesday at 8 p.m. in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta after registering the most wins in program history.
That makes Rodney Dickerson, Garner’s assistant town manager, a particularly happy man. Then again, he’s not just a fan. Dickerson started on defense for Duke when the Blue Devils tied for first in the ACC and went to the All American Bowl in 1989 in Steve Spurrier’s last season as coach there.
“I’m just ecstatic with how they’re doing,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson, who played at East Wake High School before picking Duke over Virginia and N.C. State, joined a program in 1985 (as a wide receiver) that won five games in the previous two years combined and hadn’t won more than six or gone to a bowl game since the early 1960s. So he’s seen a program rise to surprising Duke heights under a new coach. (Spurrier became coach in 1987.)
This year’s Duke team won 10 games, the most in school history, and went to just its third bowl game since Dickerson played in Birmingham his senior year. That year the then-172-pound, 5-foot-9 defensive back moved to linebacker because of injuries at the position and depth in the backfield.
Though he was one of the smallest linebackers in the country, he made up for it with speed. And toughness.
“Some didn’t like going against me in practice because I was going to go hard every play,” Dickerson said.
As for comparing the 1989 team and the 2013?
“There’s some similarities,” he said. “One difference…I think our team, they were some down years (leading up to the bowl) but they were more mediocre, 4-5 wins. The current Duke team is coming off 1-, 2-win seasons, and for a long stretch.”
Duke won an average of 2.18 games from 1995-2011. But coach Dave Cutcliffe began rebuilding the program in 2008, and had the team in the Belk Bowl by 2012 at 6-6 before losing a nail-biter to Cincinnati.
But no one expected this season, which included wins over Miami, N.C. State, Carolina, and Virgina Tech. They went on to the ACC championship game against Florida State. Duke became the only team to hold the No. 1 Seminoles scoreless in the first quarter – and then FSU crushed them as they have everyone else this year, 45-7.
“One thing I think that’s great too is that coach Cutcliffe has gotten the students to buy into the football,” Dickerson said, noting that Duke has always been a basketball-first school. “Even when we were good we still didn’t fill the stands.”
Blast from the past
Dickerson understands getting Duke to a new height only to find it too high. The 1989 team, with its keynote wins against Clemson and at Tennessee – the two hardest places Dickerson said he ever had to play – got blown out by 49-21 by Texas Tech. It dropped their final record to 8-4.
Dickerson had been left out of bowl season the year before, though at mid-season a sprained ankle robbed some explosiveness and dropped him to second-string on the defensive back depth chart. He said he didn’t know why N.C. State, with an identical 7-3-1 record, received an invite to the Peach Bowl instead (they beat Iowa), though he admitted it was probably because it has a bigger student body and alumni base to travel to Atlanta.
“It’s harder to sell when you have 6,000 students versus other schools with 20,000,” Dickerson said.
He said the team knew Spurrier – returning to Durham after a stint as offensive coordinator in 1980-82 and as a head coach in the now-defunct USFL – to be a great football mind. And from there the talent and culture grew.
“We just played like a team and believed we could win,” Dickerson said. “We had an All-America receiver (Clarkston Hines), a good quarterback (Anthony Dilweg, then Dave Brown in 1989). We played like a team and (coaches) put us in a scheme that made us successful.”
Hines was later drafted by the Buffalo Bills, and Dickerson said covering him in practice certainly didn’t hurt his development.
Now he watches the program as a fan, (one whose boss, Town Manager Hardin Watkins, went to UNC – a team Duke beat four out of five times while Dickerson played). Dickerson made the trip to Charlotte for the ACC title game, but family and Christmas won’t allow him to travel to Atlanta. While he admits there had been signs of hope in the past – a bowl appearance in 1994, for example – he hopes the aberration of Duke playing in big games won’t go into hibernation for another few decades.
“Hopefully they’ll get back (to another bowl),” Dickerson said. “The culture at the school has changed. Football is being seen as relevant on campus.”
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland