AMHERST — Taking over a football program that’s coming off a pair of 1-11 seasons, Mark Whipple faces a long list of challenges. The University of Massachusetts’ new head coach conquered the first one Tuesday morning at a news conference that felt like a coronation.
“I’ll probably get choked up,” the 56-year-old said upon stepping to the podium, but only after waiting for the applause that had greeted his introduction to quiet down, and for the many in the packed Mullins Center events room who had given him a standing ovation to take their seats. “I already have a bunch of times, seeing familiar faces.”
He paused, took in a breath.
“Sometimes you need to go away to find out where your home is.”
With that, the coach’s lower lip began to tremble. His eyes became watery.
“And I found it,” he managed in a soft voice that was cracking.
Whipple needed to say no more. This man who during his first tenure as head coach had led UMass to its greatest gridiron glory — the 1998 Division 1-AA national championship — was back. Back home.
And with just a few words he had met the challenge of rising to the level of familial emotion that filled the room.
“It’s a little soggy outside,” athletic director John McCutcheon had said a few minutes earlier to the rainy-day assemblage, “but nothing but sunshine in here.”
The crowd heard from a dais of practically giddy university officials, with board of directors chairman Henry Thomas revealing that we were one day from his birthday and “I could not have a better birthday present than having coach Mark Whipple back in the fold.”
UMass president Robert Caret spoke of the importance of pride and of excellence, saying, “Nobody wants mediocre.”
Even the infamous Sign Man, the longtime fan often seen parading around at athletic events with occasionally clever, often corny signs, made his presence felt, standing in the back of the room with a graphic message for the occasion: “Win with Whipple.”
Although chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy couldn’t be at the party, he sent a message from his travels in India that, when read aloud, elicited the day’s first burst of applause with a reference to the 16th-ranked basketball team.
McCutcheon also drew a parallel to Derek Kellogg’s successful program.
“It wasn’t but a few years ago that I stood at an assembly like this where we were talking about basketball, and I talked about an individual we’d hired to direct that program that was such a important part of our history and that was then becoming a part of our future,” said the AD. “Well, that’s worked out pretty well.”
Not mentioned was the high-profile hire brought on between Kellogg and Whipple: Charley Molnar, who less than three weeks ago was dismissed after two dark-cloud seasons at the helm as the football program upgraded to the Bowl Subdivision.
Whipple, who will have a five-year deal with a $250,000 base annual salary, made an oblique reference to the regime he’s replacing when he was asked, during a huddle with reporters following the news conference, if he felt the need to rebuild bridges between the football program and the fanbase.
“I’m not naive to not think that there were some problems here,” he said. “And I’ve heard . . . ”
He stopped for a beat, then deftly shifted gears.
“We’re going to do what we do,” he continued. “We’re just going to be who we are.”
That’s all he’s being asked to be. Whipple’s first stint at UMass, from 1998-2003, produced the national championship and two other appearances in the NCAA Tournament, plus three Atlantic 10 titles. And that is the theme that he’s setting for his encore performance.
“We will take this program to the next level,” he said. “Winning a championship at the 1-A level.”
The more Whipple spoke, the more you could see the Super Bowl ring he earned during his stint as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers glimmer in the room’s TV lights.
“We’re here to get jewelry,” he said, as if on cue. “That’s the goal. It always has been at UMass, and always will be.”