David Cutcliffe accepted SEC job after coaching Duke, Ole Miss, Vols

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David Cutcliffe’s job title at the SEC appears to be taken from an episode of “The Office.”

That’s what Chris, Cutcliffe’s son, told him.

The SEC hired Cutcliffe in March as special assistant to the commissioner for football relations after more than 40 years of coaching experience.

“That sounds a bit like Dwight Schrute’s title, doesn’t it? It was immediately what my son sent me when he saw it,” Cutcliffe said during our chat last week.

Schrute, in the popular television sitcom, is the Assistant Regional Manager (not to be confused with Deputy Regional Manager).

Although Cutcliffe’s job is new ground for the former Duke and Ole Miss coach and longtime Tennessee assistant, he still tries to impact positive experiences through football and strong relationships.

Cutcliffe has spoken with each of the SEC coaches by phone since joining the league office, and he met several face-to-face throughout spring training.

Its goal is to help foster unity within the conference at a time when the rapid evolution of college athletics is causing fractures.

“It just starts with building trust,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s an interesting time, as we all know, in college football, and I think communication is tough right now anyway, with so many moving parts that NIL and the transfer portal have caused.

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“The head football coach is at the center of many communications in this regard, whether they like it or not. I hope I can support them…as well as support and hopefully continue to develop the Conference of the Southeast as the undisputed leader of all of college football.

Cutcliffe, 67, had planned to coach for a few more years, but Duke parted ways with him after last season. He considered opportunities on college and NFL staff, and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and Deputy Commissioner Charlie Hussey offered the role to Cutcliffe.

Cutcliffe flew to the league’s office in Birmingham, Alabama to review the offer, and he got in touch with SEC staff.

Work invigorates Cutcliffe, but he admits he still feels the itch of training. That may never fully dissipate after a coaching career that dates back to the 1970s, when Cutcliffe started 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 father died in a car accident when he was 15. He wanted to pay for this throughout his coaching career.

“Really, really caring about people is an art. Some people really get it, and some people don’t. He makes people feel really special,” said Marcus Hilliard, Cutcliffe’s son who is associate athletic director and chief of staff for Tennessee.

Coaching strategies are still spinning in Cutcliffe’s mind. Lying in bed at night, his thoughts are prone to being interrupted by ideas of offensive tactics. He plans to watch movies throughout the season to keep up to date with the game.

Watching spring workouts tempted him to instruct, especially when he watched drills from quarterbacks and wide receivers.

Cutcliffe is putting that coaching itch on the shelf because he believes in his role with the SEC.

“Hopefully, in some way, I can bring something to a game that has been so good to me,” he said.

This game has undergone drastic changes over the past year.

Notably, athletes can transfer more freely than ever before, and athletes are allowed to leverage their fame through name, image and likeness agreements with third parties.

Like many coaches he interacts with, Cutcliffe harbors concerns about NIL agreements. It supports college athletes who earn money through endorsements, but differentiates it from paid recruiting incentives.

The NCAA draws that line as well, though 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 have to remember that the NCAA is made up of all of these institutions. So we will all, collectively, have to sort this out,” Cutcliffe said. “A callback shouldn’t basically be a staff member, in my opinion. You don’t want that to happen where a collective is trying to run the show.

Amid all these changes, Cutcliffe takes an optimistic view of the future of college football.

“If I felt negative, I wouldn’t do this. I would be fishing somewhere today, and you and I wouldn’t talk,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m also a good bass fisherman.”

The fishing is on hold, as 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 [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s cover, consider a digital subscription which will allow you to access all of this.

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