1979-80 Blue Devils
“Red Means Go”
became the fall of 1979 motto on the Duke University campus as new head
coach Shirley “Red” Wilson took charge of a stagnant though not terrible
Duke football program. One of Duke’s all-time great players, 1959 Outland
Trophy recipient, and College Football Hall Of Fame member Mike McGee, had
compiled a 37-47-4 record in his eight seasons as the Blue Devils head coach
while maintaining the university’s high academic standards. With designs on
entering the administrative field where he was successful as the Athletic
Director at the Universities of Cincinnati, Southern California, and South
Carolina, McGee departed and the Assistant AD at Duke took the reins of the
program. Wilson was a high school and small college coaching legend in North
Carolina, having successfully crafted winning seasons at Winston-Salem’s
Richard J. Reynolds High School and Elon College. His 1967 through ’76, ten
year stint at Elon included three appearances in the NAIA Championship Game.
He was instrumental in high school recruiting for McGee in his role as
Assistant AD and easily stepped into the head coaching chair for the ’79
season. As is frequently seen, Wilson entered his first season by altering
the uniforms, and in a departure from the white or silver helmets that had
been Duke’s long time standard, attired the Blue Devils in a new blue
helmet. The blue shell was trimmed with a one-inch white center stripe, a
white script “Duke” decal on each side, and a contrasting white facemask.
With a switch from Duke’s long-standing Power I formation to a Veer in the Spring, there were many bumps in the road and new offensive coordinator Steve Spurrier successfully pushed for a Power I with a strong, complimentary passing component. The switch wasn’t easy and Duke, for the first time in history, completed its 1979 season without a conference win while sitting in last place in both total offense and total defense with a 2-8-1 record. Quarterback Stanley Driskell was eventually replaced by Craig Browning but both struggled. With the two quarterbacks ranked among Duke’s top four rushers, the running attack was also quite limited.
the same blue shell helmet design for 1980 with similar results to his first
season. Spurrier was able to open up the offense further but the 2-9 result,
with one conference victory, still included a last place ranking in passing and
a last place performance for the pass defense despite the All Conference efforts
of DB Dennis Tabron. In what many consider to be Spurrier’s first year of his
“Fun And Gun” Offense, quarterback Ben Bennett became the Atlantic Coast
Conference Rookie Of The Year, setting the stage for a lengthy professional
career that spanned fourteen years and five different leagues. Cedric Jones,
who had a productive nine year run with the New England Patriots as a receiver
came into his own as Bennett’s go-to guy. Leading rusher Greg Boone amassed but
340 yards and the defense again was sub-par despite the terrific season of
linebacker and leading tackler Jimmy Tyson and the All Conference performer
Tabron who was drafted by the Bears.
Wilson’s first two disappointing seasons were followed by a resurgent pair of 6-5 marks that brought Duke back to respectability. Going into the ’81 season, however, the blue helmet was shelved in favor of a return to a more familiar white helmet with blue trim. While the two year run of the blue shell brought rather poor results, it did establish a foundation to build upon and brightened Spurrier’s coaching reputation. The back-to-back winning seasons, a first for Duke in more than ten years, included a 1982 season ending 23-17 upset victory over arch rival North Carolina, yet Wilson was fired hours afterward. Although Athletic Director Tom Butters initially denied Wilson’s firing and then the possible reasons which included the loss of offensive coordinator Spurrier who accepted the head coaching post for the new United States Football League’s Tampa Bay entry and Wilson’s less than sophisticated image favored by many on Duke’s Board of Regents, Wilson was in fact moved to an administrative post and former Ole Miss head coach Steve Sloan was named as the Blue Devils new head man.
The beautifully preserved Riddell Pac 3 helmet is dated from 1977 but obviously prepared for the 1979 and/or 1980 season(s) although there are no identifying markings to indicate the specific player who wore it for the Duke squad. Perhaps a painful reminder of two poorly played seasons, the 1979 – ’80 blue shelled Duke helmet was a precursor to two relatively good seasons in that period of Duke’s football history.