In Hoosiers, which was too good to be true, Gene Hackman stared
hard at a circle of anxious players and told them, "I love you
guys." In real life, last Saturday afternoon in a redbrick
locker room behind the end zone in Chattanooga, the coach wasn't
reading from a script. Mark Whipple, the first-year
Massachusetts coach whose Minutemen had just upset previously
undefeated No. 1 Georgia Southern 55-43 to win the Division I-AA
national championship, was making it up as he went along. "All
the kids were saying, 'Thank you, thank you,'" says Whipple. "I
just thanked them back."
A year earlier most of those players had suffered through a 2-9
season, the most losses for their school in 104 years. It is
hard to recall a similar storyline--last-place team, new coach,
a run of suspenseful wins and upsets culminating in a national
title--without turning to Hollywood. Yet even in a world of
doctored scripts and special effects, UMass's success would have
seemed unlikely. At his introductory press conference one year
and three days before winning the national title, Whipple had
declared his intention to do exactly that. (Mr. Whipple!) He
explained that he had left as head coach at Brown, his alma
mater, because the Ivy League prevented its football teams from
competing in the I-AA tournament. In various ways throughout the
year he reminded the Minutemen that their ultimate goal was to
win the championship game in Chattanooga. His colleagues in the
UMass athletic department admit that they snickered at him
behind his back.
His players, though, were ready to listen--and to believe. "He set
the goals so high that he made the players bring out talent that
they may not have known they had," says senior linebacker Khari
Samuel, an All-America this year.
Whipple introduced his own version of the West Coast offense,
which he had been honing at smaller colleges (including stints
at Union, New Hampshire and New Haven) over two decades. The
41-year-old Whipple has been a keen strategist since he called
his own plays while quarterbacking Brown to a pair of
second-place Ivy finishes in 1977 and '78. "He has a
photographic memory," said running backs coach Mike Cassano, who
also worked for Whipple at Brown. "He watches game tapes all
week and doesn't take a single note. He keeps it all up here."
To get it all from up there to down on the field, Whipple needed
a new quarterback and new receivers. He found them at the
football equivalent of garage sales and secondhand shops. His
6'3" junior quarterback, Todd Bankhead, came from Palomar
College, a juco near San Diego, where last season he split
playing time with a freshman. Bankhead threw for 3,919 yards and
34 touchdowns in the Minutemen's 15 games this year--and well
into December blithely wandered the Amherst campus in sandals.
Senior wide receiver Jimmy Moore was plucked from his parents'
home in Austin, having quit the team at SMU after four games
last season because of coaching changes. Starting freshman
receiver Adrian Zullo of Pompano Beach, Fla., was the National
Scholastic champion in the 100 meters and MVP of the state
championship football game. He was also 5'7" and 151 pounds.
Whipple was the only football coach to offer him a scholarship.
The Minutemen began their season at No. 3 Delaware, a I-AA
semifinalist in 1997. UMass was alive until the final minute,
when senior tight end and eventual All-America Kerry Taylor
dropped the go-ahead touchdown. "I was getting congratulated
because we'd kept it close," Whipple says. "I went in the locker
room, and the kids were really down. I said, 'That's good.'"
In winning their next four games, beginning with an upset at
Richmond, the Minutemen became the Last-Minutemen. Nine of their
games were decided in the final 60 seconds or in overtime. They
won six of those: recovering a fumble to set up the winning
drive at Richmond; surviving when New Hampshire missed an extra
point and a field goal in the final 2:20; stopping a Lehigh
comeback inside the 10-yard line in the second round of the I-AA
playoffs. In all they beat six nationally ranked teams. Most
impressive, they scored more than three times as many points and
threw for more than three times as many yards as they had the
year before. At the same time, sophomore tailback Marcel Shipp
was rushing for a school-record 2,542 yards in UMass's 15 games.
As for Whipple, he was unaware of any excitement he was causing.
"I'm not a good one to ask," he said while sitting in a football
conference room on campus last week, wearing long johns and no
shoes. "I give somebody five dollars to go get me lunch so I can
stay inside and keep working."
Here's a secret about miraculous seasons: No inspirational music
plays in the background, and the games don't take place in slow
motion. If anything, the year moves along too quickly. At 10:30
on the night of Dec. 14, having just returned from its semifinal
win in the playoffs, a 41-31 fourth-quarter comeback at
Northwestern State in Louisiana, the coach and his 10 assistants
were breaking down videotape and beginning to plan for the
upcoming championship game when Whipple was struck by a
revelation. "This was one of the great wins I've had in my
career," he announced, "one of the great things that's ever
happened to the football team at this university, and we haven't
even had a beer." So they went down the street to Rafters, the
local sports bar. "And we talked about recruiting," he says.
Awaiting UMass in the final was four-time national champ Georgia
Southern (14-0), the powerhouse of I-AA this year. So formidable
were the Eagles that computer guru Jeff Sagarin rated them ahead
of 47 Division I-A schools, including Houston, Iowa and
Washington State. Their option attack had set 15 regular-season
national records and rushed for 69 touchdowns. Redshirt freshman
fullback Adrian Peterson alone had scored 26 regular-season
touchdowns, obliterating the I-AA freshman record of 19
previously held by Randy Moss. In the open field Peterson kicked
up huge divots of sod like a racehorse.
In what may have been the crucial moment of Saturday's game,
Georgia Southern won the toss...and elected to kick. Had the
favorite driven it straight down the underdog's throat, the
result might have been different. As it was, Whipple was
permitted the opening statement. Two days before the game he had
told his players the name of the play they would be running to
start the game. They had been preparing it since August. "We
called it Chattanooga," Whipple said. Bankhead went to the
shotgun, both backs moved up and to the right, the left-side
wideout backed off the line and moved to the right; the right
guard and tackle and right-side receiver shifted right. The
receiver in the backfield went in motion. The ensuing pass to
the tight end gained only four yards, but the weird formation
alone rattled the No. 1 team.
The underdog, by contrast, was supremely focused, moving down the
field as if in its two-minute offense. Whipple was calling the
plays from the sideline without conference, without so much as a
play card. On defense UMass recovered six fumbles and intercepted
a pass. Three of those loose balls were picked up by sophomore
linebacker Kole Ayi, including one in the first quarter that he
ran in from the nine-yard line for a touchdown. The Minutemen
successfully faked a punt at midfield while leading by 10 points
in the second quarter and went on to score. They then threatened
an onside kick, forcing a Georgia Southern timeout. With 4:09
left in the first half, UMass was ahead 38-14, having held
Peterson to 33 yards and two fumbles.
Georgia Southern, which would end up outgaining UMass 595 yards
to 462, closed to 38-33 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Whipple merely adjusted again. He ordered handoffs to Shipp, who
rushed for a championship game-record 244 yards while padding his
team's lead and running out the clock.
"This is just one of the unbelievable turnarounds in the history
of college football," said UMass athletic director Bob Marcum.
Best of all, from the Minutemen's point of view, it happened
just before Christmas, a time when virtually all the major
colleges have already hired or retained their head coaches for
next season. Which means that Whipple should be back at UMass
for at least one more season--a sequel to the miracle--before
his inevitable graduation to a job in Division I-A.
out the clock.