When Mark Whipple thinks back to the challenges he faced in his first year as the University of Massachusetts football coach in 1998, a year removed from a 2-9 season, he remembers a conversation he had with quarterback Todd Bankhead prior to the Minutemen’s season opener against Delaware.
“I said, ‘What do you think,’ ” Whipple recalled. “And Bankhead said, ‘We’re going to be really good. These guys think we’re going to win. We’re fine.’ ”
UMass lost that first game, then went on to win the NCAA Division 1-AA Championship.
Sixteen years later, Whipple senses a similar optimism growing as he embarks on his second stint in Amherst.
But this time around, the challenge is even greater. In the last two seasons under Charley Molnar, the Minutemen went 2-22 in their rocky transition to the Mid-American Conference of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“If you were there this morning at the workout, you wouldn’t say this is a 1-11 team,” Whipple said in a visit to the Globe Thursday. “This group, they carry themselves with some confidence. They feel like they have a chance to be successful and that doesn’t really have to do with me, that’s somewhat the nature of the players.”
Come July, the Minutemen move into the state-of-the-art Football Performance Center — complete with new coaches’ offices, locker rooms, and training facilities. At the current facilities, players are not allowed to shower because the pipes are not suitable to be used in winter temperatures.
“After an hour-and-a-half workout, the players had to wear their stuff back to the dorms,” Whipple said. “This will be a real focal point for the future and for the past for the players that have played for UMass. There’s a place they’re always welcome.”
It’s fitting that Whipple is the first coach to occupy the new building, considering it was the same one talked about before he left for the NFL in 2003. More than 10 years later, it is almost complete.
“I would not have been as interested in this program if they didn’t have the building. It’s also a sign of the administration saying this is important, what we’re doing. That building, when I was here before, we spent time putting it together and talking about it.”
After playing home games exclusively at Gillette Stadium the last two years, UMass will play three games at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst.
With 24 incoming players, including Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel (quarterback) and Penn State transfer Alex Kenney (receiver), Whipple said he is confident he has a strong core as he pieces together his pro-style offense.
“I’ll let you play any position you want,” said Whipple. “I’ll make some adjustments as we go, but what’s happened is in the past and we’ll move on from here and I think they’ve embraced it.
“We’re a little more talented than we thought and, more importantly, the attitude has been phenomenal.”