Luke DeCock

Stadium renovations attest to Duke’s football ambition

Duke cornerback Breon Borders (31) and Duke safety DeVon Edwards (27) upend NCCU's Jalen Wilkes (9).
Duke cornerback Breon Borders (31) and Duke safety DeVon Edwards (27) upend NCCU's Jalen Wilkes (9).

The tunnel Duke’s players walk through to enter Wallace Wade Stadium used to open onto a six-lane running track, a metaphorical moat around the football field. Saturday, they stepped straight onto grass, surrounded on both sides by new seats that creep all the way down to the surface, one of many changes to the venerable old bowl.

“When I first stepped in there, it felt like a new stadium,” said Duke wide receiver Max McCaffrey, a senior. “We’re all really appreciative of the people who came before us to make this happen.”

Saturday’s comfortable 55-0 win over N.C. Central, moving Duke to 2-0 after a win at Tulane last Thursday, was the first home game after an offseason of change as Wallace Wade started to catch up with the improvements the football team has made there in recent years.

The track is gone, the seats edge closer to a field newly named after the Brooks family of benefactors, steel beams climb into the sky where the medical building that served as a press box once stood and the gargantuan new scoreboard looms over the field. Other than the new and somewhat incongruous shrubbery in the end zones, it all looks and feels bigger. Better.

By this time next year, the Blue Devil Tower currently under construction is supposed to be finished, four stories of suites and press accommodations that will complete Wallace Wade’s transformation from throwback to modern ACC stadium, the same trajectory as the team.

“All of this stuff, and a football game, too,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I couldn’t help during pregame, this running through my mind: The theme for this program is gratitude.”

Saturday’s game was technically a sellout, with all 33,941 tickets distributed, if not used. Still, it was a strong crowd by any standard and a veritable rush to the gates by the standards of Duke’s not-too-distant past.

Those dark days of Duke continue to fade into distant memory. Yahoo! columnist Pat Forde recently ranked the five worst college football programs of all time. Duke was not among them. Only a few years ago, it would have been on anyone’s list, and might have topped most.

In 2008, Duke won a lawsuit by insisting any other team would be a suitable replacement opponent as the Blue Devils backed out of a series with Louisville, essentially declaring its own irrelevance. Now, next season’s visit to Louisville will be an eagerly anticipated ACC matchup. (The Cardinals are scheduled for a return visit to Durham in 2021, by which time the novelty of these current renovations to Wallace Wade will also be fading into memory.)

Many words have been written about the progress Duke has made on the football field, and three straight bowl appearances and a spot in the ACC Championship Game certainly attest to that, but tangible evidence in the form of facility improvements has been slower to develop.

It’s coming now, from the 4-year-old indoor facility just south of the stadium to the new construction at Wallace Wade rising above it. Duke defensive end Kyler Brown, a redshirt senior, is old enough to have the “before” pictures etched in his brain, so he can appreciate what it looks like now.

“It definitely is different,” Brown said. “Once they get that press box finished, it’ll totally be different, too.”

Central is a program on the rise as well, although it was hard to tell from the way Duke dominated Saturday. It was what you would expect against an FCS team from a program of Duke’s current status, the infrastructure rising over the field underlining that point as well as anything, although perhaps not as well as one of the videos shown on the new scoreboard.

It interspersed football highlights with construction footage, big hits with bulldozers, catches with cranes, progress with progress.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947