In another lifetime, before Rich Gunnell was Boston College’s interim head coach and before Kobay White was the Eagles’ leading receiver, White was an intriguing recruit hiding out in Harrisburg, Pa., and Gunnell was trying to carve out a start in coaching after starring at BC for four years.
When White made one of his first visits to BC in 2014, Gunnell was barely five years removed from putting together one of the best careers of any receiver to come through the Heights. Gunnell spent two seasons as a graduate assistant, first under Frank Spaziani and then Steve Addazio, then went out to Framingham to chart his own course as head coach at Marian High School.
The next year, White decided to commit to BC. Not long after, his phone rang.
“It’s coach Gunnell on the phone,” White said. “He’s like, ‘I’m BC’s new wide receivers coach.’ ”
In the four years since, Gunnell has earned respect across the locker room for not only having a level of experience and youth that allows him to connect with players on their level, but also a savvy and intelligence that translates from the meeting rooms to the field.
When Gunnell was named interim head coach after Addazio’s firing earlier this month, the news gave the locker room a jolt of much-needed energy.
“It was actually crazy when we were in the team meeting, and they break it to us that coach Gunnell was going to be the head coach,” White said. “Because no one had any idea. No one had any clue. When they said that, you could see everybody in the room’s faces light up.
“He’s just one of the really respected coaches. He’s a guy that, he’s going to keep it real with you. He’s going to tell you how it is. If you’re doing good, if you’re doing bad, regardless, he’s going to keep it real with you.
“He relates to us on a player level. He tells us all the time, ‘I was in your shoes. I know how it is.’ As a player, you hear that and it’s comforting. The toughest thing is you can’t really complain about certain stuff because he’s like, ‘I did the same thing.’ There’s not much that you can really say that he hasn’t done.”
The numbers Gunnell piled up as a player speak for themselves: Third in career receptions (181), second in career receiving yards (2,459), fourth in touchdowns (18), and tied for second in 100-yard games (8).
“He’s one of the best, if not the best to come through here and do it,” said Eagles captain and receiver Ben Glines. “You’ve got to have respect for that. To get an opportunity to be coached by him, the things he’s done in this stadium, that’s just an opportunity that doesn’t really happen a lot in college football that I’m fortunate to have.”
But Gunnell also has a rapport that goes beyond the receivers’ room. Whether he’s chatting with defensive backs or offensive linemen, he’s a go-to for players.
“He brings a lot,” said offensive lineman Alec Lindstrom. “He came here, he’s a legend here, and he’s been in it more recently than some other people so he knows how it feels. He knows how we’re feeling. He’s really a players’ coach. He’s good and he gets in with the guys, and we have good personal relationships, and he just brings that extra experience to how we are and how it is.”
Gunnell’s immediate focus will be on preparing the Eagles for their trip to the Birmingham Bowl in Alabama on Jan. 2 against Cincinnati. The Eagles pulled to 6-6 with their win over Pittsburgh in the final game of the regular season, and a bowl victory would give them seven wins for the sixth time in seven seasons.
“My job is to keep these guys together, keep them focused on the task at hand, and that’s just to win this bowl game,” Gunnell said.
Even if it is on a temporary basis, BC athletic director Martin Jarmond handed the program keys to Gunnell because he saw something in the 32-year-old.
“I really appreciate his confidence in me and what he sees in me, even though I might not see it in myself,” Gunnell said. “But just listening from him, it’s starting to build my confidence, and [I’m] trying to be the leader I want to be as I move forward in this coaching career.”
It’s something players are using as a motivator as well.
“It’s super important for our team right now in general to, one, send the seniors out the right away, and then two, to kind of bond together around coach Gunnell,” said Glines. “It’s a huge opportunity for him as a head coach and representing BC. So I think everyone on this team wants to win this game for him, and kind of jumpstart his career in whatever way that may be.”
As flattering as it may be, Gunnell’s challenge will be to find ways to keep the team tightly knit as the program goes through a series of transitions. Along with the search for Addazio’s successor, the Eagles will go into the bowl without star running back AJ Dillon, who declared for the draft on Monday.
“We have great kids, and that’s who we are at BC. They’re willing to stick together and fight for this win,” Gunnell said. “That’s what they care about. They care about winning too. Regardless of what’s going on, they play for each other. It’s about the kids and the coaches that help build that relationship and develop them the last few years.
“They’re going to do it together and that’s going to be my main message to them is just stick together throughout this thing right now.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.