AMHERST — Mark Whipple, sitting in the future, can see the past.
“It’s right over there,” the University of Massachusetts football coach says, leaning back in a desk chair in his plush new office and motioning toward a large window that overlooks the freshly cut and painted turf of McGuirk Stadium.
Yes, past the silver railings of a porch dotted with red umbrellas and shiny chairs, past the renovated press box high in the air above the stadium seats, just over the Jumbotron on the opposite side of the field — there’s the past.
It takes the form of a derelict one-story shack that used to serve as the Minutemen’s football facility. The walls in the hallway are lined with plaques of former All-Americans, and the lockers are wooden and small. There is a stench of old and better days.
The athletic training room has two recumbent bikes and two training tables. Through another small hallway sits the meeting room, littered with a cluster of elementary-style desk chairs and flanked by a few lockers. Those ones were for the walk-ons, so when the team had gathered in the room they had to leave or sacrifice their privacy. There is no air-conditioning.
On one of the old lockers in the primary locker room — which will now be used by opposing teams — stands a small bottle of yellow Gatorade filled about halfway, which, depending on whom you talk to, is either half-empty or half-full.
“Twenty-three championships won in this locker room,” Whipple likes to say.
The most important one? Whipple, hired in January to once again revive football in Amherst, knows about that. Its memory lives his office. There it is, leaning against the wall: a wooden frame enclosed with a newspaper article in which the headline reads “UMass wins national title.” Or there, resting next to the glossy sink: a coffee mug engraved with the words “1998 NCAA-1AA National Champions.”
The Minutemen won the 1998 national title, coached by Whipple, after finishing 2-9 the year before and winning 19 games in the previous four seasons combined. Why, then, would he come back?
There was success, he says, waiting to be extracted. “I knew that it had good bones, and that football was important,” Whipple says, wearing an untucked gray polo and thumbing through his thin white hair.
When Whipple, now 57, was offensive coordinator at the University of New Hampshire in the late ’80s, he noticed something: His team respected UMass more than other opponents. Amherst was different than most places UNH traveled to. Then, as head coach at the University of New Haven from 1988-93, he had half the scholarships and none of the facilities UMass enjoyed. He wanted to be on an even playing field, so he came to UMass.
All of this is important, because it parallels why he’s back now. Before that, though, reflection.
December 19, 1998, in Chattanooga, Tenn.: UMass vs. No. 1 Georgia Southern for the NCAA 1-AA title. It was cold, Whipple remembers, maybe 40 degrees, and that helped the team from the north. The field was slick. The Minutemen, on the road for two of the three playoff games that got them to the championship, were unaffected by playing 1,000 miles south. They ran the ball well — running back Marcel Shipp set 1-AA title game records with 35 carries and 244 yards — and forced seven turnovers. They won, 55-43, and then there was hysteria.
They went to Outback Steakhouse to celebrate, and returned to Amherst at 3 a.m., greeted by manic students sprinting to the parking lot. Whipple? “We were late in recruiting,” he says, “so we had to go out on the road.”
There, in 14 words, is the coach’s essence: He is forever searching for the next challenge, perpetually wanting more and better. It’s how he lifted a program from the dark days once, and it’s why some think he can do it again.
But it’s also why he left. After six seasons in Amherst, where he won 49 games and lost 26, where his team made the playoffs three times, where he won three Atlantic 10 titles, Whipple went to the NFL. He became the quarterbacks coach for the Steelers.
The question was reversed: Why would he leave?
“At that point . . . ”
He continues: “There wasn’t a real true commitment to go to 1-A at that point.”
It was time for the Next Step, and it didn’t come. “It was something I needed in my career, my life,” Whipple says. “I needed to be challenged in a different way.”
Now, after stints with the Steelers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the University of Miami, and the Cleveland Browns, he’s back. “Sometimes,” Whipple said at his introductory press conference in January, when his eyes watered and voice cracked, “you need to go away to find out where your home is. And I have found it.”
That was part of it, sure, but this was, too: Revitalizing the Minutemen, 2-22 since they took that Next Step and jumped to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the sport’s highest level, represented what Whipple, who signed a five-year contract that guarantees him at least $450,000 a year, craves — another challenge.
Then there’s the renewed commitment to football. At 290 Stadium Drive stands the 55,000-square foot, $34.5 million Football Performance Center, a sleek, two-story building with glass windows, fresh smells, and air conditioning. Inside, there is progress: a state-of-the-art weight room, a hydrotherapy pool, custom-vented lockers, two chiseled mannequins decked out in UMass gear, spacious offices with a whiteboard for all coaches, a giant auditorium. Everything is centralized. They’re on an even playing field.
“I don’t think I would have come back if they didn’t have the facility,” Whipple says. “I don’t know, but that was a big part of it.”
“You wanna be a first-class program? You gotta have a first-class facility,” says assistant coach Dave Sollazzo.
The all-in-one-place convenience will cut down on transportation time — players used to have to find rides to their coaches’ off-campus offices — and build the brotherhood, says redshirt senior linebacker and Dorchester native Stanley Andre and junior receiver Tajae Sharpe.
Whipple? He’s fair, Sollazzo says. He’s all football, Andre says. There’s no coach Sharpe would rather play for. They’ll need all of that to achieve what Whipple wants — a conference championship — because they’re young (only three seniors on the roster), and their opening schedule goes like this: BC, Colorado, Vanderbilt, Penn State.
On the grass outside the stadium stands a sign that reads “UMass is coming home.” The Minutemen, who are slated to leave the Mid-Atlantic Conference after 2015, will play three home games at the renovated McGuirk for the first time in two years. It’s telling that the return of football to Amherst coincides with Whipple’s homecoming.
The coach, pragmatic and forward-thinking until the end, says he feels no pressure to bring back UMass football glory. He can see the past but prefers the future.
“I don’t know if it’s ever left,” Whipple says. “I just think, you know, we just hit a, you know, little . . . I don’t know. I don’t look back at much. I just . . . ”
“I’m more worried about today’s afternoon practice.”