DURHAM -- At the halftime of the Duke-Carolina men's basketball game, Duke University will award its highest non-academic honor, the Spire Award, which recognizes those who make the significant contributions "to improving the aesthetics of the Duke Campus" to Matt Doherty, the former men's basketball coach at the University of North Carolina and current head coach at Southern Methodist University.
In his written citation, Duke President Richard Brodhead said that Doherty, "had brought a greater awareness of the possibility of the human form in its use as a catalyst to spectatorial participation in athletic competition."
"Doherty," said Brodhead, "even if inadvertently, heightened our sense of beauty, and the possibilities that lay ahead. For this our campus community will be forever grateful."
The genesis of the award to Doherty came during the UNC-Duke game in 2001, at a critical juncture late in the game. Doherty made what he thought was a private comment to his players as they broke a timeout huddle: "Oh, by the way, Duke still has the ugliest cheerleaders in the ACC." The players are said to have laughed -- but the remark somehow made its way into an ESPN magazine article.
Doherty said it was just a joke -- meant to break the tension of the game. In a letter to the Duke cheerleaders two days later, the then-UNC coach wrote, "I apologize for the insensitive reference and hope you do not take it seriously or personally."
Unfortunately, they did. Fortunately, for the Duke community and its sports fans, the Duke University athletic administration did as well.
Led by Dr. Swen Flierigsted of the Duke Medical Center's Department of Plastic, Cosmetic and Reconstructive Surgery, a committee was established to investigate Doherty's claim. While the committee could find "no credible evidence" that Duke had ever been determined empirically to have "the ugliest cheerleaders in the ACC," they did find that their squads regularly did finish last in fan polls of the prettiest in the conference.
Following an analysis of aesthetically pleasing body proportions by Flierigsted, based on the Florida State cheerleading squad, Duke then began in earnest recruiting cheerleaders and dance team members who met the raised standards, ones who could in addition to entertaining their own fans, easily distract opposing team players.
But the benefits of the upgrade appear already to have gone beyond that well-established role.
Newly hired Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe credits Doherty, at least in part, for his biggest recruiting coup, signing Sean Renfree of Scottsdale, Ariz. Renfree is rated the 10th-best quarterback prospect in the nation. Said Cutcliff, "When Sean came back from his campus tour, including a men's basketball game in Cameron, don't think he was talking about the beautiful steeple on Duke Chapel, or the game for that matter -- he was all about 'babe-i-lic-ious' cheerleaders."
It is worth noting that this is the first time the Spire Award, named after the spire on Duke's landmark chapel, has been given to someone without a direct campus connection -- alumni, faculty, staff, student or donor.
Duke Chapel, designed by architect Julian Abele, is an example of neo-Gothic architecture in the English style. Gothic architecture is characterized by large stone piers, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses, which allow the creation of vast open spaces, uninterrupted by columns for support.