It’s 570 miles from Williamsburg to Cincinnati, and it takes a good nine hours to drive there — assuming light traffic. But there’s a clear connection between the city’s football team, which as you might have heard is headed to the Super Bowl, and William & Mary.
The Bengals have had a meteoric rise over the past two seasons, and three W&M football alums have been a part of it. Mark Duffner ’75 is a senior defensive assistant, Robert Livingston ’10 is the secondary/safeties coach and Mike Potts ’08 is the scouting director (college).
All three were there in 2019 when the Bengals had the worst record in the NFL at 2-14. And in 2020, when they were only slightly better at 4-11-1. And they’re here now, as Cincinnati (13-7 counting three postseason wins) is making the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1988.
“It’s been a magical ride,” said Livingston, a former Tribe defensive back from 2007-09, who has been on the Bengals’ staff since 2015. “It’s been a long year with ups and downs, but the constant is how great the guys are. We’ve got a lot of great guys.
“They love each other, they care about each other, and they play hard for each other. It’s been a journey I’ll take with me the rest of my life. I’m just thankful to be a small piece of it, and I don’t want it to end.”
Duffner, who has 25 years of coaching experience in the NFL, understands how hard it is to get this far.
“I feel very fortunate and blessed,” said Duffner, a Tribe defensive lineman from 1972-74. “I was telling our players, and have over the years, that it’s so hard to get to this opportunity. It’s 25 years in my past to get here, and finally we’ve got an opportunity for it.
“But we didn’t come here to finish second. We’ve got to finish the play, like we always talk about, by having a successful outcome.”
Potts came to Cincinnati in 2015 as a scout to replace Livingston, who moved over to assistant coach. The Bengals went from 12-4 that season to the 2-14 four years later, but with that came the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft
That, of course, became quarterback Joe Burrow (a.k.a. Joey Franchise). A year later, the Bengals took Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow’s former LSU teammate, with the fifth overall pick.
“We were picking first in the draft less than two years ago and now we’re where we are,” said Potts, a Tribe quarterback from 2003-07. “It is nice to see the fruits of your labor. It was tough going through some of those down years, but we think we have it turning in the right direction.”
Interesting sidebar: In Burrow’s senior year at LSU, two of his coaches were passing game coordinator Joe Brady ’13 and offensive analyst D.J. Mangas ’12. Burrow was coming off a solid junior year that was nothing compared to what would come.
“I went to LSU in August of that year,” Potts said, meaning prior to LSU’s 2019 national championship season. “(Joe and D.J.) were like effusively praising the guy. Just completely raving about him. That was definitely a strong William & Mary connection.”
At this point, you might be thinking, “Wow, there seems to be a lot of William & Mary alums in the NFL these days.” If so, you’re correct.
The most obvious pair is head coaches Mike Tomlin ’95 of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Sean McDermott ’98 of the Buffalo Bills. Tomlin has a Super Bowl ring. McDermott has taken the once-lowly Bills to three consecutive playoff appearances.
Ivan Fears ’76 has been with the New England Patriots since 1999, first as wide receivers coach and now running backs coach and has six Super Bowl rings. Alan Williams ’92 was hired as the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator earlier this month.
Brady is going into his first year as the Bills’ quarterbacks coach after two years as the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator. Kevin Rogers ’74, a former Tribe linebacker and offensive coordinator, is a senior offensive assistant with the Cleveland Browns. (That’s only SOME of the highlights, a complete listing can be found here)
“They talk about Miami of Ohio being the cradle of coaches,” Duffner said. “I’m certain to brag about the fact that it’s in Williamsburg, Virginia. I’m sure proud of that heritage.”
But why William & Mary? Livingston, who played safety at W&M, has a theory.
“You’ve got to work hard in the classroom as well as on the field,” he said. “You’ve got to do both those things really well to have a chance to make it. It gives you that mindset of getting your head down and going to work.
“You get out of practice and have to go to some lab, or something like that. You can complain about it, or you can go get it done. Maybe you can’t always do what you want to do socially because you’ve got to get something done. It’s the work ethic and the type of people who go there. It leads to being successful.”
Livingston and Duffner are proud of two huge defensive stands in the Bengals’ 27-24 win over Kansas City in the AFC Championship game. The first came on the final play of the first half with the Chiefs leading 21-10.
From the 1-yard line and five seconds remaining, Chiefs coach Andy Reid went for it. Patrick Mahomes threw a screen to Tyreek Hill, one of the fastest players in the NFL, but cornerback Eli Apple stopped him for no gain.
Instead of a three-possession game at halftime, it was two.
“It was critical at that point because the momentum swing could have been really tough,” Duffner said. “They were already having a good half against us, but to finish added to the confidence we needed to go into the second half.”
Late in the fourth quarter, with Cincinnati leading 24-21, the Chiefs had first-and-goal from the 5-yard line and 1:30 remaining. Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce are virtually automatic in that situation, but the Chiefs went backwards. A field goal sent the game to overtime.
“We had some extra guys in coverage and eyes on him,” said Livingston, him being Mahomes. “At a critical part of the game, guys were true to their zones.
“Obviously when you give them three shots from inside the 5, you don’t like your chances. It’s a testament to the group of guys we have and their ability to lay it on the line.”
In the overtime, K.C. got the ball first — just as it did a week earlier against Buffalo. On the third play, Mahomes was intercepted by Bengals safety Vonn Bell. That set up a short field, and after three first downs, rookie kicker Evan McPherson’s 31-yard field goal won it.
Give Potts a good hunk of credit for McPherson’s presence on the roster. The Bengals took him in the fifth round of the 2021 Draft, which drew plenty of second-guessing from the national media and beyond. All McPherson has done in the postseason is make two walk-off field goals in back-to-back weeks.
“On draft day, we were getting knocked — ‘You can’t draft a kicker that high, maybe the seventh round or as a free agent,'” Potts said. “He’s made five game-winners for us this year.”
Neither Duffner, Livingston nor Potts have been to this point of a season. Most coaches haven’t. But the two weeks leading up to Sunday night’s game in Los Angeles have offered few chances to soak it in.
“You get so locked into, hey, this is Tuesday, this is Wednesday, we’ve gotta do that,” Livingston said. “I’m sure come March, I’ll finally take a breath and reflect. It’s been so special.”