Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Mark Whipple embracing second UMass football stint as teacher, motivator

By Peter Cappiello

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UMass head coach Mark Whipple. (Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

UMass head coach Mark Whipple. (Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Mark Whipple, on his way to a 10-year reunion in 2008 celebrating the Massachusetts football team he coached to an NCAA Division I-AA championship, saw things were a work in progress. He recalls passing a campus of newly finished buildings and ones under renovation, including the Campus Center.

“I was impressed with the things that were going on,” he said. “I had a good feeling. It was a good feeling in my gut.”

Whipple is back in his first year as coach since his original run from 1998-2003. This time, it’s the team that’s under construction.

The Minutemen went 2-22 overall with a 2-14 Mid-American Conference record in their last two seasons, the program’s first since moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. Then-coach Charley Molnar was fired about a month after the season ended.

Still, Whipple, who was hired in mid-January, hasn’t lost his good feeling. He believes his coaching know-how and familiarity with the program will be an asset as the Minutemen continue their transition to the FBS.

Whipple boasts 31 years of coaching experience between college and three NFL teams. He won a Super Bowl in 2006 as quarterbacks coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he coached Ben Roethlisberger.

He also worked with Donovan McNabb as an offensive assistant for the Philadelphia Eagles. Whipple was most recently a quarterbacks coach for the Cleveland Browns from 2011-2012.

“The biggest difference is in college, when a player gets in trouble, then it’s the (fault of the) head coach,” Whipple said. “In the NFL, when a player gets in trouble, it’s the player. I slept easier in the NFL than I do here.”

Whipple acknowledged that the UMass program has room to grow, but said he wants his players to carry themselves with pride and confidence.

That was the M.O. of Whipple’s teams in the late 1990s, said his former quarterback Todd Bankhead. He credits Whipple with giving his team conviction.

“One of his biggest strengths is motivation,” Bankhead said in a phone interview. “Guys will run through a brick wall for that guy. His raw emotion and his fire … It’s the kind of attitude where you’re not going to back down from anybody. You couldn’t wait to play whoever you were facing that week.”

Bankhead, who won one NCAA title in his two years playing for Whipple, said the coach specializes in schemes and matchups. He believes Whipple will rigorously train today’s Minutemen like he did with the 1998 championship team, which went 2-9 a year before Whipple’s initial hiring.

“He expects a lot from his players,” Bankhead said. “I know for myself, I didn’t want to let him down, to be honest. The team environment that he fosters, I don’t want to let him down or my teammates down.”

Bankhead, still a follower of UMass football, said he believes team unity is necessary this year against a “loaded” schedule, which includes Penn State, Colorado and Vanderbilt. The Minutemen lost their season opener, a 30-7 beating by Boston College at Gillette Stadium on Saturday.

Whipple’s son, Austin, a redshirt freshman, said players have quickly bought in to his father’s philosophy.

“The success he’s had in the past speaks volumes with all of us and we’re learning a lot,” said Austin, a transfer quarterback from Penn State. “He knows we can win and be successful. Obviously the past couple years haven’t been great winning-wise, so I think the biggest thing is everyone has more confidence in each other about the ability to win.”

Whipple said he is keeping the larger picture in mind. The goal is to win games, but he is equally concerned with making a positive impact on the life of a student athlete. It’s why he took the UMass job.

“I’m a teacher, that’s why I got into this thing,” he said. “I think you can do a lot more teaching here – not just football wise, but life skills – than you do at some other places. That was intriguing.

“And it’s a challenge. I needed a challenge.”

Peter Cappiello can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @petecapps.

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