Whipple is back with Minutemen
Coach Mark Whipple is all smiles during UMass Football Media Day in Amherst Wednesday, when he discussed his team's prospects for the upcoming 2014 season.
Recorder file/J. Anthony Roberts
New UMass footbal coach Mark Whipple met with the press Wednesday afternoon in Amherst, where he discussed his team's 2014 prospects coming into the season.
Recorder file/J. Anthony Roberts
Mullins Center 1/14/13. Mark Whipple is introduced as the New UMass Football Coach
AMHERST — One week shy of the 10th anniversary of his departure from UMass, Mark Whipple returned to campus Tuesday to begin his second term as the Minutemen’s head football coach.
Whipple, who reached an agreement in principle with the university, was introduced in a packed Mullins Center conference room. He now faces the decidedly uphill task of restoring credibility and success to a program that has struggled mightily in its first two seasons of Division I FBS competition with a combined 2-22 record.
It was a similar spot that Whipple stepped into in November of 1997, when he left his head coaching position at his alma mater, Brown University, to take the reins of Minuteman football. UMass, then a Division I-AA program, had just endured a 2-9 season, and Whipple opened his first press conference by declaring that his goal was to win a national championship. Just over a year later, Whipple and UMass did exactly that, finishing 12-3 and driving all the way to the 1998 I-AA national title.
On Tuesday morning, the 56-year-old Whipple was visibly emotional as he stepped to the Mullins Center podium. Although his speech wasn’t fiery or animated, it featured much of the same determination he’d showed just over 16 years earlier.
“Sometimes you need to go away to find out where your home is. And I found it. Thank you,” said a choked-up Whipple to appreciative applause. “That’s why I’m back. It’s because I have a lot to give. I told my wife, as we discussed this, I can make a bigger impact than I’ve ever made in my life with people young, old and in between at the University of Massachusetts. That’s what I’m really, really excited about.
“I will represent this place better than I ever have. And I’ll try to do it better than anybody ever has.”
In his six previous seasons with the Minutemen, from 1998 through 2003, Whipple compiled a 49-26 record, with three 10-win seasons, three trips to the Division I-AA playoffs and the 1998 national championship. UMass went 10-3 in his last season, with a first-round playoff loss at Colgate. Less than two months later, on Jan. 22, 2004, Whipple announced he was leaving UMass to become quarterbacks coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
During three seasons in Pittsburgh, Whipple mentored quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and earned a ring for the Steelers’ Super Bowl XL victory in February of 2006. When Bill Cowher resigned as Steelers head coach and was replaced by Mike Tomlin, Whipple was not retained, later signing with the Philadelphia Eagles and spending the 2008 season as an assistant to head coach Andy Reid.
Whipple returned to the college ranks for the 2009 and 2010 seasons at Miami (Fla.), serving as the Hurricanes’ offensive coordinator and assistant head coach to Randy Shannon. Miami went 16-10 in that span with a pair of bowl appearances.
When Shannon’s staff was let go after the 2010 season, Whipple joined the Cleveland Browns as quarterbacks coach in early 2011. His name surfaced at UMass when then-head coach Kevin Morris was fired in November of 2011, and Whipple discussed the job with athletic director John McCutcheon before deciding to stay with the Browns. He would remain with Cleveland through the 2012 season, after which Browns head coach Pat Shurmur and his entire staff were fired.
Whipple stayed out of coaching through 2013, and admitted Tuesday that wasn’t always easy to do.
“It tested my marriage, but we’re all right. I couldn’t stay out much longer,” Whipple joked, with his wife Brenda sitting in the front row. “Last year, I’ve kind of found myself, ‘What do you really want to do?’ I’ve been in the NFL six years, and it was time to come back and be a head coach. It went by fast, but really not as fast as these last five days have gone.”
Charley Molnar was fired as UMass head coach Dec. 26 after two seasons on the job, each ending at 1-11. McCutcheon said that Whipple emerged from a field of approximately 70 candidates, later trimmed to about 14 and four of whom were interviewed in person.
“We always knew from the beginning he was probably somebody we would take a real hard look at,” said McCutcheon. “We really evaluated what our options were, and he still emerged as the top guy. He’s got the kind of personality young people will relate to. It’s no mystery why his former players think so highly of him.”
McCutcheon said the five-year agreement with Whipple calls for a base salary of $250,000 plus incentives, and should be finalized by the end of this week.
During Whipple’s first stint in charge, the discussion to upgrade the UMass program from Division I-AA to Division I-A proved lively, but unproductive. Now that the Minutemen have entered Year 3 of life in Division I-A as Mid-American Conference members, Whipple will set about re-energizing the fan and alumni bases left disgruntled and disconnected by the first two difficult seasons.
“I’m not naive to think there weren’t problems here,” said Whipple. “We’re gonna do what we do now, and we’re gonna be who we are. And we’ll have problems. That’s what head coaches do, we solve problems. And I think I’m good at it. I’ll try to bring a little bit more expertise, a little bit more knowledge and savvy than I had 10 years ago.”
UMass will split its six home games in 2014 between Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, its full-time home the last two seasons, and its on-campus home, McGuirk Alumni Stadium, currently under renovation. The Minutemen open their season Aug. 30 against Boston College at Gillette.
“We will take this program to the next level — winning championships at the I-A (FBS) level,” said Whipple. “That’s the first goal. It’s always about winning the next game; I haven’t changed that much.
“We’re here to get jewelry,” he continued, his Super Bowl ring taking up considerable space on his right hand. “That’s what it’s about. Six years we were here, at least (UMass) got three pieces. It still drives me nuts they didn’t get six pieces.”