AMHERST — “At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, we seek greatness in all that we do,” then-chancellor Robert C. Holub practically gushed during an April 2011 news conference to announce the football program’s upgrade to the Bowl Subdivision. “Our move to the top of the college football world now becomes part of our overall move towards ever-greater national prominence.”
Seventeen months later, the Minutemen embarked on what was to be their first of two consecutive 1-11 seasons. So much for greatness and national prominence. The day after Christmas, head coach Charley Molnar was dismissed with three years and $836,000 remaining on his contract.
After stumbling on its way into the spotlight, UMass now will attempt to step toward a brighter future by returning to the glory days of the past. On Monday, the university announced it will hold a news conference Tuesday morning to introduce Mark Whipple as head coach.
Or should that be “reintroduce”?
Whipple, 56, was introduced to Minutemen fans once before, when he was hired in 1998 to take over a team coming off a 2-9 season. To say that the new coach turned around the program would be an understatement. In his first season in Amherst, Whipple led UMass to its greatest football glory: the national championship in Division 1-AA, now known as the Championship Subdivision.
That 1998 team set school records for wins (12), points (524), touchdowns (73), total yards (7,074), and passing yards (4,050).
During Whipple’s six seasons, UMass made the NCAA tournament two other times and won three Atlantic 10 championships.
Whipple was 49-26 with the Minutemen before leaving after the 2003 season to become quarterbacks coach of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, and he again made an immediate impact. He mentored Pittsburgh’s rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, to a 13-0 record as a regular-season starter, and the team made it to the AFC Championship game. Roethlisberger was the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the next season the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
After three seasons in Pittsburgh, Whipple was let go when Mike Tomlin replaced Bill Cowher as head coach. One day later, Whipple was hired as an offensive assistant by the Eagles, and he spent two seasons in Philadelphia.
In 2009, he left to become offensive coordinator of the University of Miami. After two years there, the entire Randy Shannon staff was fired, and Whipple ended up back in the NFL, as quarterbacks coach of the Cleveland Browns. That job ended in a clean sweep of the coaching staff following the 2012 season.
Whipple was out of football in 2013.
In 16 seasons as a head coach — including six at the University of New Haven, which he twice led to the NCAA Division 2 tournament, and four at his alma mater, Brown — Whipple has compiled a record of 121-59. He has not been a head coach since leaving UMass 10 seasons ago.
Nonetheless, Whipple’s name surfaced immediately after the UMass job became vacant. He was popular during his years in Amherst and remained so even after departing. And his return comes at a time when the program is in dire need of a positive vibe.
Molnar’s two seasons at the helm ended under a dark cloud not simply because of the team’s feeble win-loss record. There was a perceived disconnect between the coach and the school’s alumni and players, past and even present.
When a video surfaced in October showing players engaging in snowy wrestling and boxing matches during a winter practice at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, athletic director John McCutcheon launched an investigation.
In firing Molnar, McCutcheon emphasized the importance of UMass football being seen “as a program that is energized, that’s positive, that’s going in the right direction, that cares about the student-athletes.”
So the program is handing the keys to an old friend, a friend from when times were good.