AMHERST — Cruising in his car from his off-campus apartment to UMass football practice one afternoon, senior Darren Thellen peeked out the window and saw a strange sight. Beside the road, gradually fading into the distance as Thellen drove past, was Charley Molnar. The Minutemen’s new coach was running to work.
“He has a car, but you never actually see him drive it,” said Thellen, a defensive back. “He’s always either on the bike or jogging.”
Running to work, or anywhere for that matter, is nothing new for Molnar. When he was Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator under Brian Kelly for the past two seasons, he made it a personal goal to hit the road by 5:30 every morning. If his shoes touched the asphalt at 5:31, he would be furious at himself for the rest of the day.
Barring any unforeseen setbacks — inclement weather and injuries never have stopped him in the past — Thursday will mark Molnar’s 1,490th straight day of running, a streak he proudly dates back five years. Running gives him clearance, distance from what he is inundated with as a coach.
“Really, the best thing is, it gives me over an hour a day, to get off on my own, away from the phone, from people knocking on my door, where I can just think about my schedule, what I need to accomplish, what I accomplished yesterday,” Molnar said.
“I don’t need any tools to run. It could be anywhere. I could be on a recruiting trip, hot weather, up in the snow, and I can always find a place to get a run in.”
But running a football program? Now there’s something different.
Molnar, who replaced Kevin Morris as UMass coach last Dec. 8, inherits a team shrouded in the new. The uniforms have a different design. The team will play home games at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough — 94 miles from McGuirk Stadium on campus. And as part of an entirely new staff, UMass brought in the fiery Molnar, who traveled with Kelly from Central Michigan to Cincinnati and finally to Notre Dame.
Given the opportunity to direct his own shop, Molnar has (ahem) hit the ground running.
“It’s pretty exciting, to see that transition, knowing where he came from and knowing where he is now,” said receiver Deion Walker, who transferred from Notre Dame when Molnar left. “He didn’t really change as a person. He was pretty fiery and upbeat at Notre Dame, and now he’s more vocal, but he’s still the same person, so that’s pretty cool.”
While playing football at Lock Haven, Molnar ran during the summers to stay in shape. Now, at his 13th school, having been around the block in more ways than one, he gets recognized while running around Amherst. Fans stop their cars, honking and waving at the new coach. Molnar never stops. He politely waves back, and keeps on jogging.
“I love him, I love the way he works,” said freshman receiver Tajae Sharpe, whom Molnar singled out as a surprise performer during training camp. “He expects the most out of everybody. Perfection and nothing less and that, so that helps us as a team.
“I’ve never had a coach like that. It’s different. It’s new. It’s not easy getting up early every day like this. You see coaches expressing emotions like that, running like he does, it gives us a spark as a team.”
Lighting a fire is one thing, but sparking results might prove difficult in Molnar’s first season. With Thursday night’s game at UConn, the Minutemen begin their first season in the Mid-American Conference at the Football Bowl Subdivision level after transitioning from the Football Championship Subdivision. Players basically recruited to play Division 1-AA will get thrown into the flames against talented MAC teams such as Ohio and Toledo.
Comparing a football program to the colonial Massachusetts houses that still stand today, Molnar emphasized the importance of building a strong foundation to weather the storms. And the challenge already has arrived.
Quarterback Kellen Pagel is sidelined with postconcussion syndrome, leaving Molnar, a former quarterbacks coach, with redshirt freshman Mike Wegzyn, the projected starter, and true freshman A.J. Doyle.
Molnar has aspirations of one day turning UMass into a top-20 program and winning a BCS game. For now, he’s enjoying the journey.
“That’s the whole fun, putting everything together,” Molnar said. “It’s been a lot of fun getting all the constituencies. That’s what makes this such a great job for me at this time in my career.
“It’s been a great experience for me. Every time I go into a meeting and I see our players, they feel more and more like mine. Just the looks on their face, how excited they are, I mean, how could you not get excited if you were me and you stand in front of 105 guys just listening and waiting on every word you say?
“Every day has been a great day.”
And every day starts with Molnar lacing up his Adidas running shoes. He never eats anything. Just steps out his door and hits the road. He wants to run a marathon one day, if the timing lines up with offseason workouts and camps.
“He’s out there running every day, working hard just like us,” Thellen said. “No matter the weather, he’s running every day. He doesn’t take a day off. That’s very respectable as a coach to do that, for players to see your head coach out there working hard.”
Said Walker, “It’s crazy. I see him running all the time. He did that at Notre Dame, too. I just remember, in the summer when he first got here, we’d see him and think, ‘Well, there’s the new OC.’ He’s running somewhere. Then in the winter, we’d go to work out, and he’d be indoors running too.”
The times when Molnar hasn’t run, he’s felt the exercise pangs. Before this five-year streak, he went another two years without missing a day. But in between, he injured his meniscus. After a Saturday scrimmage, Molnar went running for an hour, picking up the pace as the pain got greater, as if going faster would speed up the 60 minutes. During spring ball at Cincinnati, the injury got worse.
“Then I took about a year off, and I just didn’t feel right,” Molnar said. “I wasn’t myself. It really relieves a lot of stress. I’m really a better guy with running. Especially if I run early in the morning, I’m good for the day. If I don’t run until night, I’m kind of keyed up until I get that done.”
But Molnar kept running, right up until the day he got his meniscus scoped. Hours after he went under the knife, still woozy from the anesthesia, Molnar asked his doctor a simple question.
“Can I run today?”