Philadelphia, PA – He may be over the initial shock, but the meaning behind winning the inaugural Eddie Robinson Award has never worn off for Mark Duffner, even as it reaches its silver anniversary.
"It was a great surprise," Duffner said. "It was a great honor to be presented with something that stood for so much, and was associated with such a great man and coach. To win that award, especially in one of my first couple seasons as a head coach, it was really such a great honor."
In just his second season as a head coach at Holy Cross, Duffner was a more- than-worthy participant for the first Robinson Award, which is presented annually to the top coach in the FCS (formerly Division I-AA).
During that 1987 season, Duffner guided Holy Cross to a Colonial League (now Patriot League) title, a win against Army (34-24) and routs of scholarship programs Massachusetts (54-10), Villanova (39-6) and William & Mary (40-7) on the way to an 11-0 season.
Due to a league policy, Holy Cross was not selected for the playoffs, but it didn't stop voters from voting the Crusaders as the nation's top-ranked team, over NCAA champion Northeast Louisiana, in the season's final poll.
Duffner, now a linebackers coach with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, spent five more years at Holy Cross, compiling a 60-5-1 record, before taking the head coaching job at Maryland after the 1991 season.
"It was truly a magical time," Duffner said. "We had six unbelievable seasons, just a great group of kids who had an incredible will to win. It was great for the school, everybody loved it around campus, it certainly was a great experience."
For Duffner, leaving Holy Cross was a difficult decision, and the coach has kept tabs on the Crusaders throughout his career at Maryland (1991-1997) and since he became an NFL assistant with Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers and now the Jaguars.
"Oh, yes, I still watch the box score closely," Duffner said. "I also stay in contact with players and people that were on my staff. My time at Holy Cross was an important 11-year (five years as defensive coordinator) period of my life."
Of course, Duffner also has a permanent reminder of his time in Worcester, Mass., as the Eddie Robinson bust sits comfortably in his family room.
"It's a great conversation starter, whenever anybody comes in the house," Duffner said. "It's a wonderful re-creation of coach Robinson's likeness and it's placed in a prominent place in the house. One thing you don't realize is how heavy it is, so that's another reason it's not going anywhere soon."
While his personal interaction with Robinson was brief, Duffner has combined the lessons of the legendary Grambling State coach with his learning experiences under Woody Hayes, Ralph Staub, Rick Carter and others to build the foundation for his coaching career, which is now in its 37th season.
While the aforementioned coaches may have passed on a wealth of information about Xs and Os, or strategy, what's most important is the teachings beyond the football field.
"You've got to be yourself. In coaching it's the most important tool," Duffner said. "You can't try and change that, it's what creates those important relationships whether you're coaching college kids or professionals."
And after 37 seasons in the coaching business, Duffner has consistently relied on his most important tool, whether it's as an assistant with the Jaguars or leading Holy Cross to a perfect season.
The 25th Eddie Robinson Award will be presented on Jan. 6, 2012, in Frisco, Texas, on the eve of the FCS national championship game. The Sports Network presents and Fathead.com sponsors the national awards presentation.