Amid a rare frenzy of limbs and smiles and shouts – somewhere under a fog of spray paint, sweat and blood – the Victory Bell rang freely in the Durham night.

Despite futile warnings from speakers high above, fans poured over the high Wallace Wade walls like a rising ocean spilling over a levee. Duke had beaten North Carolina for the first time since 2003 and only the second time in two decades. The bell was theirs to ring, theirs to douse with dark blue spray paint that would rid it of the baby blue Carolina hue that had settled in through nine years.

They encircled it – fans, players, coaches, cheerleaders – more than 20 people deep in all directions, embracing each other and the moment.

“I don’t have a word for what all was going on in there,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe joked in the press conference after the game. “I know I got spray paint all over me, Gatorade, and I don’t mind that, it wasn’t all bad… They all had fun; they deserve to have fun.”

2012 DUKE SCHEDULE
DATE OPPONENT RESULT
Sept. 1 FIU W, 46-26
Sept. 8 at Stanford L, 50-13
Sept. 15 N.C. Central W, 54-17
Sept. 22 Memphis W, 38-14
Sept. 29 at Wake Forest W, 34-27
Oct. 6 Virginia W, 42-17
Oct. 13 at Virginia Tech L, 41-20
Oct. 20 North Carolina W, 33-30
Oct. 27 at Florida State 3:30 p.m. ET
Nov. 3 Clemson  
Nov. 17 at Georgia Tech  
Nov. 24 Miami (Fla.)  
TBD Bowl Game  
Season Statistics

But that brand of euphoria isn’t born just from beating a rival. No, the spray paint and the bell’s clear song were merely the icing on a painstakingly constructed cake.

For the first time since 1994, Duke, the school with four basketball national championship banners that cast a long shadow, had earned its sixth win in only eight tries – the Blue Devils were bowl eligible. And to earn that win and the right to play a bowl game, the Devils had to manufacture a 14-play, 87-yard drive that started with 3:12 remaining and ended with a five-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass into the tightest of windows. Duke players could see the summit all week, all game, but the final steps of the climb proved to be the steepest and, subsequently, most rewarding.

“That’s definitely my best moment at Duke,” said senior receiver Conner Vernon, who set both the ACC record for career receptions and receiving yards earlier this season before adding six catches for 124 yards against the Tar Heels. “You’re not going to experience something like that ever again, the fans coming over the wall. How we won that game, it felt like a movie the way it was written. It’s unbelievable.”

Given the glut of bowl games – 35 will be played at season’s end – many teams shrug when they earn a sixth win. But a program that has been to only eight bowls in more than a century of existence doesn’t take the honor for granted. Duke had long been the homecoming date for ACC opponents. It was the "certain", "easy" win that would please returning alumni – the Blue Devils have averaged a mere 2.5 wins per season through the last decade.

But Cutcliffe arrived from Tennessee, where he had been offensive coordinator, in 2008. With him, he brought a big-program pedigree – he’d also worked at Ole Miss and Notre Dame – hope, and a sense of confidence that had been absent from the sidelines of Wallace Wade Stadium since Steve Spurrier last roamed. When he interviewed for the position, Cutcliffe asked to speak with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski to learn what it took to win at a school with such high academic standards and how Coach K transformed the basketball program when he was a young coach.

It was no simple, or quick, process. Forget the tired metaphor of turning the ship around; Cutcliffe had to drag its scuttled hull from the bottom of the sea.

He spearheaded the fundraising movement aimed at building better football facilities. Duke now has a 100-yard indoor practice field, improved outdoor fields and a renovated weight room and locker room. Such cosmetic changes can’t make a football team better overnight, but they certainly have the capacity to catch the eye of visiting recruits. And, players said, Cutcliffe was honest when he courted them. The coach didn’t sugarcoat the situation he’d inherited, instead laying out a long-term vision for the program, one that would require slow sacrifice and quite a few losses before Duke could flourish. Vernon, now one of the top receivers in conference history, said he spurned four other offers because he believed Cutcliffe’s vision. Other players, he said, were drawn to that honesty.

When coach first started recruiting me he told me, ‘We’re building; it’s going to take a little bit of time to get this program on the ball.’ And now we finally got on the ball and we’re going bowling.
-- Josh Snead

“When coach first started recruiting me he told me, ‘We’re building; it’s going to take a little bit of time to get this program on the ball,’ ” sophomore running back Josh Snead told Duke athletics after posting 99 yards on the ground against North Carolina. “And now we finally got on the ball and we’re going bowling.”

But before they can enjoy the spoils of a bowl game, four more conference contests await. And, despite winning only three games last season and three the year before, this team isn’t content with the bowl berth it has earned. It wants to go to Charlotte. It wants to compete for its first ACC crown since 1989 – that has been the goal all season, Vernon said, and the North Carolina win didn’t shake their focus.

The Blue Devils must immediately turn to two of their toughest opponents of the season: Florida State and Clemson. At 3-1 in conference, Duke stands at the top of the ACC’s Coastal Division.

That record was nearly perfect; the Blue Devils jumped out to a 20-point lead on the road against Virginia Tech in the game that would’ve clinched bowl eligibility, but they lost focus and the Hokies scored 41 unanswered points. In the wake of victory, and with a daunting trip to Tallahassee on Saturday looming, players are adamant they won’t let that happen again.

“It was a huge step for this program to finally be relevant again,” Vernon said. “We’re not done. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

Cutcliffe said he allowed himself a few moments early Sunday morning to relish the victory as he watched tape and graded his players. When he met with his team that afternoon, the coach offered brief congratulations, but then did his best to ensure that the smell of spray paint and the sweet sound of the Victory Bell didn’t linger. If Duke hopes to continue to defy its painful history on the gridiron, the team can’t swaddle itself in victorious complacency. Cutcliffe insists he knows a simple remedy.

“You know the fastest way to do it is to put Florida State on tape,” the coach said after the win. “As soon as they see those Seminoles, they’re going to go to work. They’re going to go to work, I promise you.”