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Blue Devils begin dealing in success on football field

Football at Duke is considered a way to kill time until the Cameron Crazies get cranked into high gear for basketball, so it should come as no surprise that a program grounded in gridiron failure is struggling to be taken seriously.

With seven straight victories to open the season, the Blue Devils are off to their best start since 1941 and have achieved their highest ranking _ No. 16 _ since 1971.

They are 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time since 1970.

But powerhouse Florida State is next on the schedule, and the oddsmakers say it is a good bet Duke will get waxed. They have made the ninth-ranked Seminoles 23-point favorites.

"I resent the fact that we're going to play Florida State and people are asking: "Is Duke for real?' " said first-year coach Fred Goldsmith, his voice rising. "There are some really good teams in the ACC that have not defeated Florida State. I don't think that should be the judgment of whether we're for real.

"We are for real. What we've accomplished already can't be taken away from us."

Goldsmith has helped transform Duke into an ACC contender after four straight losing seasons. Saturday's noon game at Tallahassee's Doak Campbell Stadium gives the winner the inside track to the league title, which brings an automatic spot in the Orange, Sugar or Cotton Bowl.

While FSU expected to be in this position, nobody figured Duke would be a threat to the Seminoles' 21-game ACC winning streak.

"I think it's a feeling of destiny right now," said Duke quarterback Spence Fischer, who threw his first collegiate pass against FSU two years ago and completed it for a 60-yard touchdown. "I'd like to give Coach Goldsmith a lot of credit, but I think the players deserve a lot of credit, too. We were at the point where we were fed up with losing. It was just the perfect matchup at the right time."

Goldsmith already has presided over one amazing rise. He led Rice _ another school whose high academic standards may hurt it on the athletic fields _ to its first successive winning seasons in 32 years and was Sports Illustrated's 1992 college football coach of the year. The Owls lost 18 consecutive games before Goldsmith took over.

Ironically, he may have gotten the Duke job much earlier had he accepted an offer from friend Steve Spurrier to be Duke's defensive coordinator in 1989.

That turned out to be Spurrier's last season at the school, and "anybody could see that Steve was headed back to Florida," Goldsmith said.

It was a tempting offer, because Spurrier and Goldsmith had a long history. While Goldsmith was an assistant coach at Gainesville High and working toward his degree at the University of Florida in the mid-1960s, Spurrier was on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy.

And when Spurrier and wife-to-be Jerri decided to elope, they knocked on the door of Fred and Pam Goldsmith and asked the couple to stand up in their wedding.

But Goldsmith declined the offer to join Spurrier's staff in 1989 because he was looking into the head coaching opportunity at Rice.

Goldsmith, a Coral Gables native, knew success in his previous jobs, including stints with Ken Hatfield at Arkansas and as the defensive coordinator at Florida A&M when the Rattlers won the Division I-AA title in 1978.

But none of that figured to help when he took over at Duke. The Blue Devils finished 3-8 last season and returned only four starters on defense. They were 13-30-1 in four seasons under Barry Wilson. Attendance at Wallace Wade Stadium barely averaged 20,000 fans.

"Everything is a matter of timing when you take over a program," Goldsmith said. "We benefited from things not going well. The players were ready to listen to whatever you told them. They were very open-minded. It was a lot easier for me than it was for Barry Wilson."

Goldsmith went right to work, asking for the kind of support students and alumni give the high-profile Duke basketball program. He wrote incoming freshmen, asking them to attend games and become "Wade's Wackies."

He sought better-conditioned, quicker, mobile players. There were spring workouts that began at 6 a.m. And players who were tired of losing didn't mind.

"He brings a winning attitude," said running back Rob Baldwin, who has prospered in Goldsmith's one-back system. Baldwin has rushed for 921 yards this season, ranking seventh in the nation at 131.6 yards per game.

"It's a positive attitude. That's one thing Coach Goldsmith has spread through the team. Everything is enthusiastic now. That's one of the key reasons for our success."

Another reason for the turnaround has been the play of Duke's defense. The Blue Devils have allowed just 14 points per game, and the first-teamers have not allowed a point in the first or fourth quarter.

But there are qualifiers. Duke's victories have come against teams with a combined record of 16-34. Only East Carolina has a winning record.

"First thing we have to do is try not to be in awe of them," Goldsmith said of FSU. "We have to go down there and believe in ourselves. Nobody in America will give us a chance. Everybody will take it as a million-in-one shot. Being 7-0 right now was a million-in-one shot before the season started. We said in August: "This is what you play for.' "

Goldsmith's message has been heard.

"There probably was no perception nationally of Duke football," Fischer said. "There was no reason to have a perception. When someone thought of Duke, they immediately thought of Duke basketball. It's really a remarkable story. Coach Goldsmith is a remarkable story."