Why David Cutcliffe embraced job with SEC after long coaching career | Toppmeyer
That’s what Cutcliffe’s son, Chris, told him.
The SEC in March hired Cutcliffe as a special assistant to the commissioner for football relations after his more than 40 years in coaching.
“It sounds a little bit like Dwight Schrute’s title, doesn’t it? That’s immediately what my son sent me when he saw it,” Cutcliffe said when we spoke last week.
Schrute, in the popular television sitcom, is the assistant to the regional manager (not to be confused with assistant regional manager).
Although Cutcliffe's job is new terrain for the former Duke and Ole Miss coach and longtime Tennessee assistant, he’s still trying to affect positive experiences through football and strong relationships.
Cutcliffe has conversed with each of the SEC’s coaches by phone since joining the league office, and he met with several face-to-face throughout spring practice.
His goal is to help foster unity within the conference at a time when college athletics’ rapid evolution is causing fractures.
“It starts just by building a trust relationship,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s an interesting time, as we all know, in college football, and I think communication is difficult right now anyway, with as many moving parts that NIL and the transfer portal have brought about.
"The head football coach is the center of a lot of communication in that regard, whether they want to be or not. Hopefully, I can support them … as well as supporting and hopefully continuing to grow the Southeastern Conference as the undisputed leader in all of college football.”
Cutcliffe, 67, had planned to coach a few more years, but Duke parted ways with him after last season. He considered opportunities on college and NFL staffs, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and deputy commissioner Charlie Hussey pitched this role to Cutcliffe.
Cutcliffe flew to the league office in Birmingham, Alabama, to consider the offer, and he meshed with the SEC staff.
The job invigorates Cutcliffe, but he admits to still feeling the coaching itch. That may never fully dissipate after a coaching career that dates to the 1970s, when Cutcliffe began as an offensive coordinator at Banks High School in Birmingham, his alma mater.
Cutcliffe credits his high school coaches with positively influencing his life after his dad died in a car accident when he was 15 years old. He wanted to pay that forward throughout his coaching career.
“Really, genuinely caring about people is an art. Some people really got it, and some people don’t. He makes people feel really special,” said Marcus Hilliard, Cutcliffe’s son who is an associate athletics director and chief of staff for Tennessee.
Coaching strategies still swirl in Cutcliffe's mind. Laying in bed at night, his thoughts are subject to interruption by ideas about offensive tactics. He plans to watch film throughout the season to stay current with the game.
Observing spring practices tempted him to offer instruction, particularly as he watched quarterbacks and wide receivers drills.
Cutcliffe is putting that coaching itch on the shelf because he believes in his role with the SEC.
“I hope, in some small way, I can contribute something to a game that has been so good to me,” he said.
That game underwent sweeping changes within the past year.
Notably, athletes can transfer more freely than ever, and athletes are permitted to profit off their fame through name, image and likeness deals with third parties.
Like many of the coaches with whom he interacts, Cutcliffe harbors concerns about NIL deals. He supports college athletes earning money through endorsements but differentiates that from pay-for-play recruiting inducements.
The NCAA also draws that line of demarcation, although the association has not attempted to enforce its rules that prohibit such recruiting inducements from boosters or the collectives they fund.
“The NCAA can’t do it alone. You’ve got to remember, the NCAA is made up of all of these institutions. So, all of us, collectively, will have to address this,” Cutcliffe said. “A booster should not be basically a member of the staff, in my opinion. You don’t want that to occur where a collective is trying to run the show.”
Amid all this change, Cutcliffe embraces an optimistic outlook for college football’s future.
“If I was feeling negative, I wouldn’t be doing this. I’d be fishing somewhere today, and you and I wouldn’t be talking,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m a good bass fisherman, too.”
Fishing is on hold, while Cutcliffe aims to do his part for the sport he loves, in his new job with the long title.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.