The line on Duffner: He makes winning fun Coach regrouped Holy Cross team after suicide of his predecessor

January 05, 1992|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- The phone rang early in the Holy Cross football office on that cold, blustery day on Feb. 2, 1986. The voice on the other end was slow and sorrowful, and it delivered words that stunned Mark Duffner.

"It was Rick Carter's wife, and she told me what happened, that Rick [Holy Cross' head coach] had committed suicide," said Duffner, then Holy Cross' defensive coordinator. "I went into shock, a total disbelief that it happened. The next day, I met with the team in what was the worst situation. We just prayed. That's all we could do."

Duffner, 38, emerged from the tragedy and went on to become one of the most successful coaches in the 96-year history of Holy Cross football. In his six seasons, the Crusaders won five Patriot League championships and posted a 60-5-1 record, giving Duffner the highest winning percentage (.916) among active Division I coaches.

And, as the victories kept increasing, so did Duffner's reputation. He was young, intense, intelligent and considered a players' coach. He won with an exciting, fun offense, the run-and-shoot, and an attacking defense.

He was mildly interested in the Navy job two years ago, had only an outside chance at the Syracuse position last January and turned down the job at Tulane on Dec. 1.

Duffner took the Maryland job Tuesday.

"We knew the inevitable would happen, that some day Coach Duffner had to move on to higher ground," said Gordie Lockbaum, a former Holy Cross running back and defensive back and Heisman Trophy candidate. "But we won't forget the experience and the memories he left behind."

Duffner said he never can forget the death of Carter, who was found hanging in his home by his son, Nick.

It was Carter who helped lure Duffner to Holy Cross in 1981 from Cincinnati, where Duffner had served as defensive coordinator.

Like Duffner, Carter had seemingly endless energy and was a young, successful coach.

Carter, 42 when he died, had a career mark of 137-58-7 and was 35-19-2 in five seasons at Holy Cross. But, during his last season, the Crusaders finished 4-6-1, Carter's third losing season in his 20-year coaching career.

It had been reported that Carter was depressed over the death of his father six months before the coach's suicide, and his mother's condition had been diagnosed as terminally ill.

Duffner said he doesn't know if all these events led to his friend's death.

"I couldn't believe he would allow this to overtake him," said Duffner. "Obviously, it was a tragic and unbelievable situation."

Within 24 hours of Carter's death, Holy Cross administrators had made Duffner head coach, even though the official announcement came a week later.

"I remember the first team meeting after Coach Carter's death," said Lockbaum, now an insurance broker in Worcester, Mass. "We were devastated. I mean, here we are a bunch of 19-, 20- and 21-year-old kids, and we're going through this without our families. Thank goodness we had a good support base through each other, our coaching staff and Coach Duffner."

It's a similar type of family atmosphere that Duffner said he will bring to Maryland, one he learned from playing under Lou Holtz at William & Mary and Woody Hayes at Ohio State.

"After Coach Carter's death, I knew I had to keep the program going and be as positive as I could to the players," said Duffner. "From that situation, I know I have become a better person. I think I'm very personal with the players, not just between the lines, but off the field as well."

Bucknell coach Lou Maranzana, whose team is a member of the Patriot League, said he has noticed Holy Cross players' closeness and willingness to play for Duffner, but Duffner's biggest attribute may be his preparation.

"They are consistent on the field every week," said Maranzana. "I have never seen one of his teams play down or unprepared."

According to Duffner's wife, Kathy, Duffner arrives in the office 7 a.m. and returns home at midnight during most days in the season.

It was Duffner's preparation that may have gotten him the job at Maryland over William & Mary's Jimmye Laycock, Youngstown's Jim Tressel and Clemson's Ron Dickerson.

"When he was interviewed, he came in knowing everybody's name on the committee," said Jack Bradford, a former standout linebacker for the Terps who was on a 10-person search committee. "He knew the team's statistics from last year and a lot of the players' names. It's was like he had been in the program, and it opened a lot people's eyes.

"It was pretty close between the four guys interviewed, but Duffner set himself apart from the rest with his homework. You could feel the positiveness coming out of him. You could sense that he really wanted to be at Maryland."

But it's not as if Duffner is all business. Duffner had unusual ways of inspiring his players at Holy Cross. Take Old Man Upset, for instance.

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