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Mark Duffner, ‘living legend,’ takes over as Bucs defensive coordinator

TAMPA — When Mark Duffner's playing career as a standout defensive lineman ended at William & Mary, he sent out 100 resumes to colleges, seeking a position as a graduate assistant.

"I got 96 nos and four yeses,'' Duffner said.

One yes was from Frank Maloney at Syracuse. Another was from North Carolina State and coach Lou Holtz, whom he played under in college. A third was from Miami of Ohio and Dick Crum.

The fourth was from legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes.

"It was March 17, 1975, and I went there, and he talked to me,'' Duffner said of Hayes. "I thought I was going to be interviewed. It was more I listened and he spoke. But it was phenomenal experience to be around a man of the highest integrity and energy and memory and enthusiasm. A great, great man and a great, great coach.''

Bucs linebacker Cameron Lynch smiles every time he hears that story.

"I always say, 'You're a legend, Coach Duff, you know that, right?' '' Lynch said. "A living legend, Mark Duffner. I don't think a lot of these people realize the people he's been around and the legend he is. I always tell him all the time, " You're the GOAT.' And he always laughs about it, but he's well deserving of it.''

When the Bucs fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith on Monday, coach Dirk Koetter believed nobody was more deserving to replace him than Duffer, 65, who has coached linebackers in Tampa Bay the past three seasons.

Duffer has spent 21 years in the NFL, including as the Bengals' defensive coordinator under coach Dick LeBeau from 2001-02. He was also the head coach at Maryland from 1992-96.

Before that? Well, as Lynch says, Duffner's accomplishments are legendary.

At age 33, Duffner became the head coach at Holy Cross and turned it into a Division I-AA powerhouse, winning five Patriot League titles and two national coach of the year honors while going 60-5-1 from 1986-91.

What's more remarkable is that success rose from tragic circumstances.

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Duffner joined the Holy Cross staff in 1981 as defensive coordinator under head coach Rick Carter, a rising star who had led Dayton to a Division III national title.

Holy Cross made a big push to hire Carter, even enlisting lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, the owner of the Orioles and Redskins, and the chairman of the school's board of trustees. Williams sent a plane to get Carter, a luxury not often afforded to coaches in those days.

Carter built a staff that included future NFL head coaches Mike Sherman and Kevin Coyle. In 1981, Holy Cross went 6-5 and followed that up with 8-3 and 9-2-1 marks. But then a series of personal tragedies plummeted Carter into a deep depression. His father and mother died of cancer. Holy Cross stopped offering football scholarships. His sister-in-law died from cancer, and the Crusaders suffered a 4-6-1 season.

Despite seeking help for his depression, Carter committed suicide in February 1986. Holy Cross turned to Duffner.

"I didn't think I was ever going to leave there when I was with Rick," Duffner told Sports Illustrated. "If he was still at Holy Cross, I know I would be there. We thought we had it all there with Rick."

What does it say about Duffner that he was able to pick up the pieces and turn that program into a champion while developing a player such as Gordie Lockbaum, who played running back and defensive back, into a Heisman Trophy candidate?

Duffner is upbeat, and his positive vibe was contagious. At Holy Cross, he started each practice with this chant: "All set? You bet! Ready 'o? Let's go! Whaddya say? Okay!''

Duffner is about as much of a hands-on coach as there is in the NFL.

"Oh, yeah, everybody gets the hug,'' Bucs linebacker Devante Bond said.

It's not just his embrace, a warm, long-lasting squeeze that can come without warning to any player. It's his energy at age 65, making him the seventh-oldest defensive coordinator in the NFL.

But nobody has told Duffner to look at a calendar. He does more than many younger coaches would attempt to do, such as participating in the conditioning run at the start of training camp alongside the offensive linemen.

"His 40 (yard dash) time might be forever, but his heart goes a long way,'' the Bucs' Lynch said. "But we all feel it, and we all see it on the field.

"And he got out there with the O-linemen and did the (conditioning) test. Stuff like that, I said, 'I can't wait to play for this guy.' … I'm very excited for him and can't wait to see what he's going to bring to the table.''

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So Duffner is more than ready for this challenge.

"Well, you know in this business, things happen, and as a coach, no matter what capacity you're in, you've got to be ready to assume responsibility, and that's what I'm doing,'' Duffner said Wednesday. "I'm just doing my job as directed and doing it to the best of my ability.

"I think every coach has aspirations to take on more responsibility. I've been a defensive coordinator in the NFL before, and I've been a college head coach, so is this something I was dying to do? I just love coaching, I like working with young men and trying to help them get better.''

The Bucs need to get better. Fast. They have allowed an average of 34.6 points per game, the most in the NFL. They also have given up the most passing yards per game, 355.6, and are 31st in total defense, allowing 439.8 yards.

In the Bucs' past three games, teams have scored an average of 30.7 points, all losses.

Koetter had other options to replace Smith, defensive line coach Brentson Buckner and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke, for example. He went with Duffner.

"Duff's done a lot in his career. He's been coaching a long, long time, and he's still got really good energy,'' Koetter said. "So he's got a lot of knowledge with a lot of experience. … In both places where I've worked with him (also with the Falcons), his players have really liked him and respected him. Respect is more important than like, and he's a really good teacher.

"Duff is one of those coaches who, if there's 40 linebackers at the combine, he's meeting with every one of them. And he comes away with a relationship with them.''

One that's legendary.

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