Duffner has brought Holy Cross to top I-AA Coach of Year commands respect

December 31, 1991|By Doug Brown

To hear people tell it, foe as well as friend, the University of Maryland will be getting exactly what it was looking for in a football coach with Mark Duffner.

"Mark has done a fantastic job at Holy Cross," said Lafayette coach Bill Russo. "We're the only Division I-AA team that has beaten them in his six years there, so we take special pride in that. It shows the high regard we have for their program."

"He'll be the next great coach in Division I-A," said Southern Methodist coach Tom Rossley, a former assistant under Duffner at Holy Cross.

Duffner, 38, born in Washington and raised in Annandale, Va., was a defensive tackle at William & Mary, class of 1975. He went to Holy Cross in 1981 as defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator.

Since 1986, when he replaced Rick Carter, who had committed suicide, Duffner has compiled a 60-5-1 record. His 11-0 mark this year brought acclaim as Chevrolet Division I-AA Coach of the Year.

One of the first men Maryland athletic director Andy Geiger called after Joe Krivak resigned was Carl Ullrich, executive director of the Patriot League, which includes Holy Cross. Geiger wanted to talk about Duffner.

"I've talked to Andy a few times in recent weeks," Ullrich said. "I'm not trying to sell Mark Duffner, because he's good for our league, but he's ready to move on to bigger things. He's a humdinger."

Ullrich thinks he knows a leader when he sees one. He was a captain in the Marines during the Korean War, an assistant athletic director at Navy for 11 years and athletic director at Army for 10 years.

"I'd characterize Duffner with a single word: He's a leader," Ullrich said. "There are many good Xs and Os coaches, but they don't have Duffner's ability to motivate young people. I think I can judge a good leader, and in Mark Duffner you have a leader. He's an outstanding coach."

Before he became head coach at SMU, Rossley was on Duffner's staff in 1986 and 1987, a period known as the Gordie Lockbaum era. Lockbaum played on defense as well as offense and was third in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1987, the highest finish for a player from outside Division I-A.

"He has a wide-open offense, the run-and-shoot, puts together a great defense and knows how to get the most out of his team," Rossley said. "He even does the little things, to make people feel good, like writing thank-you notes."

Rossley thinks Duffner is taking a good look at Maryland, its testing schedule, its demanding admission and academic standards.

"Mark won't get into a situation where he can't win," Rossley said. "He'll research it. He's already had several opportunities to move and turned them down. A chance to win is important to him; that's all he's done is win."

During the first five years of Duffner's tenure, 91 of his 95 seniors graduated in four years. That got Geiger's attention.

In at least one respect, this is an ideal time for Duffner to move on. The seniors who helped fashion last season's 11-0 record were on full football scholarships, but this is the last Holy Cross class that will have them.

In keeping with the Patriot League's guidelines, schools can award financial aid based only on need. Lafayette and the other member schools have been at a disadvantage, since Holy Cross is the last to benefit from athletic scholarship players.

"That was the toughest thing for us, playing against Holy Cross' full-ride players," Russo said. "We hope it will be a more level field from now on. "

After 11 years at Lafayette, one of Russo's cherished memories is the 28-20 victory over Holy Cross en route to the league title and an unbeaten season in 1988. It remains Holy Cross' lone loss to a Division I-AA team in six seasons. Division I-A Army was the only other team to defeat the Crusaders that year.

"Mark is very competitive, and that carries over to his kids," Russo said. "He plays good, clean hard-nosed football."

There were isolated complaints, in Duffner's first few years on the job, that he left his starters in too long. But Russo says "nobody has ever accused Duffner of running up the score."

The only thing Russo accuses Duffner of is running a "high-powered offense," as Holy Cross' five 40-point games this year suggest. And Russo says that out of admiration, not annoyance.

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