DETROIT, MI – It’s been a tough adjustment to FBS-level football for UMass. The team has won two games in two seasons, and coach Charlie Molnar was a sacrificial lamb through the transition, fired on Dec. 26.
Mark Whipple, no stranger to Amherst, was hired to take Molnar’s place, and the school announced in March that it would no longer be a football-only member of the MAC after the 2015 season, instead exploring a new conference membership.
In his prior stint as coach of the Minutemen from 1998-2003, Whipple went 49-26 and won the ‘98 Division I-AA championship. Whipple bounced around from there, spending the better part of the next decade in the NFL as an assistant for the Steelers, Eagles and Browns in addition to a two-season stop at Miami under Randy Shannon from 2009-10.
Program building is never easy, and Whipple is trying to get back to basics at UMass. The school’s stadium upgrades and new training facility are completed, which should help generate some momentum on campus and in recruiting, but it won’t matter if the Minutemen can’t win. UMass took a step back in playing its games 100 miles from campus the past two seasons at Gillette Stadium, and for the team to succeed at the FBS level, it’s got to get better, fast.
SI.com caught up with Whipple at MAC media days last week and discussed Whipple’s homecoming, his approach to coaching college vs. the NFL and more.
SI: With recruiting being such a pivotal role and given the transition UMass had, how has that gone so far for you, and what’s your approach been like?
MW: We didn’t have much time – we only had probably about 10 days to recruit, but we found a couple guys, and there were some guys there who will make an impact that have been around in the summer. I think it’s a little bit better than you’d expect in that time period. Right now I think the recruiting’s going pretty well because of the new building. We’ll have a get-together this Sunday, a clambake, for a lot of the kids that we’ve seen and kind of kick it into when we go to camp. Like everybody we’ve piqued a lot of players’ interest, but they want to see how we do. Our performance on the field and the improvement we expect to see will help us in that area.
SI: What is a reasonable level of success and performance for you guys this year?
MW: We’d like to be in the hunt for a championship. That’s always been the goal at UMass. We’re really kind of focused on the first four games, especially the Boston College game, since we don’t go into the MAC until the end of September. That’s a pivotal test for us.
||12-3, Won Division I-AA title
||9-4, Won Atlantic 10 title
||10-3, Won Atlantic 10 title
SI: With your time in the NFL, what are you taking back from the league that is giving you some new perspective?
MW: Schematics is an important piece from the National Football League. I think the two years at the University of Miami will be an asset, in taking those schemes and implementing it and getting it balanced because of the 20-hour rule. You don’t have all the time that you have in the NFL. I think the combination made me a better coach. It’s not what we know as coaches that’s the most important thing; it’s what the players know. You always try to draw a fine line. You push them, but you don’t want to push them over the top.
SI: What do you want your team’s identity to be this year?
MW: One that has a lot of character, plays hard, plays smart, is well coached and wins. Find us a way to win. The MAC seems to be a little bit like the NFL. Anybody can win on any given day. I don’t think there’s a big gap between the top team and the bottom team. You maybe can’t say that in a lot of other conferences. That gives us a chance, and that’s all that you can ask for.
SI: The MAC has this propensity for developing playmakers. You’ve always got that crop of guys who really make a difference. Who do you guys have there that should jump off the page for people?
MW: I think Tajae Sharpe [61 catches, 680 yards, four touchdowns in 2013] has proven in two years that he’s a very good receiver. Penn State transfer Alex Kenney certainly brings the speed element. Our two corners are playmakers in the back end and have a lot of experience. We’re young, there are only a couple seniors, but probably guys have a lot more experience playing in big places (at Kansas State, at Vanderbilt, at Michigan). I think that our big game confidence will form and give them a lot more in camp.
SI: Expectations for Steve Addazio weren’t all that high his first year at Boston College, and he came in and made a bowl game by getting the Eagles back to the basics of football. Do you see evidence in your program that you could have a similar first year?
I don’t know if we have the running back he had (laughs). If I had Andre Williams or Marcel Shipp [who played at UMass under Whipple in 1998 and ‘99], I may go more that way. We’ll always try to play to our strengths, personnel-wise, and it comes back into schemes. We probably do too much in camp, but we’re trying to find out what our strengths are. That’s the sign of any good coach. I have an idea, but we’ve got some kids coming in we haven’t had a chance to work with.
SI: What brought you back to UMass?
MW: It was the best place I’ve ever worked. It’s a great place to live and a great place to have a family. I wouldn’t say winning the Super Bowl [with Pittsburgh] was any bigger than winning the national championship at UMass. I had more effect on the team. It is really the place for me to affect more people. I think that’s the bottom line. The NFL, you can impact the quarterback and those things, but this was a way for me to affect the community, the area and more people.