UMass football assistant Wissman savors homecoming

  • Shelburne Falls native and former Mohawk Trail Regional High School star Dave Wissman was named the new defensive line coach for the UMass football team earlier this month, UMass Athletics Photo

  • New UMass defensive line coach Dave Wissman spent one memorable season as an assistant on Dick Howe’s coaching staff at Frontier Regional School in 1997. Recorder File Photo/Peter MacDonald

  • After several stops in western Massachusetts, Shelburne Falls native Dave Wissman went to Sacred Heart University for nine years before catapulting into his new gig as UMass’ defensive line coach. Recorder File Photo/Peter MacDonald

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It’s 39 minutes, door to door, from Dave Wissman’s home in Guilford, Vt., to McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. Since taking a coaching job with the UMass football team earlier this month however, Wissman could just as easily float back and forth the whole way.

The Shelburne Falls native and former Mohawk Trail Regional High School three-sport standout was recently named UMass’ defensive-line coach. After nine seasons with Sacred Heart University football in Fairfield, Conn., the last six as defensive coordinator, Wissman joined head coach Mark Whipple’s staff and has hit the ground running in preparation for the 2017 campaign.

“This experience is a little surreal for me right now,” explained Wissman after Tuesday’s practice at the Football Performance Center at UMass. “I’ve been here about a week, learning what’s going on, how everything operates. As simple as a practice plan, how we meet daily... it’s a little more detailed than my time down at Sacred Heart. It’s exciting. It’s starting to sink in a little bit now.”

Wissman’s road to UMass began at an early age. As a kid, he used to pick tobacco not far from the facility that now houses his corner office. The son of former major leaguer Dave Wissman Sr., he had his own illustrious career at Mohawk before graduating in 1981. There, he scored 1,296 points on the basketball team, including 560 as a senior, and clubbed nearly .500 as a junior on the baseball team. But football was his passion, his future. Wissman served as the team’s star quarterback and defensive back, playing for coach Dave Bodenstein. His senior season, the Warriors went 9-1-1, won the Intercounty League title and played in the Western Massachusetts Division II Super Bowl. In a game for the ages, Hoosac Valley Regional School handed Mohawk its only loss, 7-6, in a game played in the familiar confines of McGuirk Stadium.

“Growing up in the Falls, going to Mohawk, it was just a great experience there playing for Coach Bodenstein,” he recalled. “He was a big mentor, kind of turning the screws for me for football. Not so much the game and the X’s and O’s but how to deal with kids, how to get the most out of them. That old saying, coach them up, not down.

“It’s one of those things, small towns, we all played three sports,” he continued. “Of the guys that I played (football) with in the fall, half of them were farmers, so they were doing their chores in the morning, going home after practice and milking (cows) in the evening. I always say it was a great town to grow up in. My dad still has a house up there. My brother-in-law still has a business. Any time we’re going up Route 2, my wife and I always dive in and go across the Bridge of Flowers and reminisce. I do love getting back there.”

After graduating from Mohawk, Wissman took his football talents to the University of New Hampshire. That’s where his journey first crossed paths with Ed Pinkham, who served as UNH’s secondary coach and eventually defensive coordinator.

“He was like my second father up there; he really was,” Wissman, a captain at UNH, said of Pinkham. “He’d be banging on my door in the morning and at night, as far as academics go, keeping me in line and watching over me.”

It was also at UNH that Wissman met Paul Gorham. They were Wildcat teammates and roomed together, forming a bond that would come full circle when Gorham, then the head coach at Sacred Heart, eventually hired him for the 2009 season. That wasn’t before several local coaching stints came calling. Wissman made his bones on the staffs of several area schools, including 11 years running the Eaglebrook School program.

Nonetheless, he said one of his best coaching experiences came during a one-season spell as an assistant with Frontier Regional School in 1997 under long-time head man Dick Howe. Wissman, just a spry 34-year-old at the time, helped lead the South Deerfield side to an 8-2-1 record, reaching the Western-Central Massachusetts Division III Super Bowl before falling to Northbridge High School, 38-20.

“Working that one year with Dick Howe was probably a top-three coaching experience for me,” he said with a smile. “It was a great, great, memorable experience. Coaching is coaching. Obviously (at UMass), there’s a little more pressure. But I think, ultimately, it’s working with kids, trying to get the most out of them.”

During his Sacred Heart tenure, Wissman worked his way up to defensive coordinator, a position he held for the past six seasons. The Pioneers won back-to-back Northeast Conference Championships in 2013 and 2014 while advancing to the FCS Championships during both campaigns.

He never lost touch with Pinkham, his former coach and mentor, however. After UNH, Pinkham’s coaching journey took him to stops at Elon, Holy Cross, Minnesota, Colgate, Rutgers and Western Michigan. He was the defensive coordinator at Western Michigan this past season, when the Broncos ran the table undefeated during the regular season and earned a Cotton Bowl berth after winning the MAC Championship game.

“I’ve grabbed his knowledge of the game,” Wissman said of Pinkham. “When he was at Elon, I flew down there. When he was at Colgate, I spent some time out there. Two years ago I flew out to Western Michigan when he was out there. I never lost that connection with him.”

So when Pinkham was hired as the new defensive coordinator at UMass in February, Wissman took notice. Gorham was already on board in Amherst as the program’s Director of Football Operations. The stage was set for a UNH reunion.

“When Coach Pinkham was hired, I think it was maybe 10 days after that that he called me and said, ‘We had a position change and there’s an opening and would you be interested in taking a look at it,” Wissman recalled. “I went through the interviewing and all that stuff and here we are. It’s neat being back with those guys.”

Now coaching directly under Pinkham, Wissman is excited about the opportunity. The pair have never coached on the same staff, but together they’re tasked with reshaping a UMass defensive unit that ranked 108th in scoring defense (35.5 points per game) in 2016. Pinkham’s Western Michigan defense was an impressive 15th in scoring a year ago (19.8 points per page) and 26th in total yardage allowed (353.6 yards per game).

“He’s a hard driver but I like that,” Wissman offered of Pinkham. “He’s not going to cut me any slack. I’m just another guy paid to do a job and he expects me to do that job. I know his temperment and I know what his expectations are. He’s a stickler. You’ve got to do your homework, you’ve got to be prepared to do your thing. That’s the way it should be. Nothing is free in life — here today, gone tomorrow — and this business is fickle. The key thing is to win.

“Attitudinally, Coach Whipple seems very happy and the kids are buying in,” he continued. “Most of the kids are upbeat about the defense. It’s a little simpler, it’s very downhill and it encourages us to play fast. That’s the big thing. But as far as my connections with (Pinkham and Gorham), it’s made that transition much easier. They’ve been great and I’m happy to be here.”

Wissman takes over a defensive line unit that has had three coaches in the last three seasons. First and foremost, he hopes to bring some stability to the position, knowing the upperclassmen on the team haven’t had that during their tenure.

“My thing right now is I’m just trying to create relationships with my (defensive) linemen,” he explained. “They’ve had a number of coaches the last few years, so they’ve seen a revolving door of personalities. I think the one thing in talking with all of them, they just have to learn to trust somebody. For me, that’s been my first week, learning these kids and getting to know what they can and can’t do. Bottom line, the kids have to know you before they operate for you. No matter what I say, it’s nothing personal. That’s the tact I’ve always taken and, knock on wood, I’ve been pretty successful.”

Learning the UMass landscape is also vital for Wissman. The Minutemen will play their second season as a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) independent this fall after leaving the Mid-American Conference (MAC) following the 2015 campaign. The good news for local fans is that the bulk of this year’s home slate will be played at McGuirk, not on the other side of the state at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. The maroon and white, which will play their annual spring game on April 20, open the 2017 season in Amherst with a home game against Hawaii on Aug. 26. Old Dominion, Ohio University, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State will all make the trek to McGuirk in the fall.

“Learning everything that’s going on here, the expectations, that’ll take a bit of adjusting because everything is a little different,” said Wissman. “You go from program to program, the terminology is different, the techniques are a little different. Right now my thing is get on the right path, do what’s asked of me and go from there.”

Wissman and wife Mary built their home in Vermont back in 1997. Throughout all the wild twists and turns of his coaching career, the pair decided to keep it as their primary residence. That meant some crazy trips back and forth at weird hours through Connecticut, often along the winding roads of the Merritt Parkway and Massachusetts when he could manage during football season at Sacred Heart. Things are a little bit more manageable now.

“Its been kind of a long road for me,” he began. “Between the prep scene and being down at Sacred Heart for nine years, I’ve been on the road quite a bit. That’s a lot of hours and time away from my wife and my dogs and my chickens. She’s a schoolteacher and she’s been at her school a long time, so she’s been kind of holding the line back here.”

The shorter trips up and down Route 91, occasionally detouring through West County, have been a long time coming.

“We made a decision, rather than keep picking up and moving around, that I’ll go do my coaching thing and some day, I’ll get back,” Wissman said. “Some day is finally here.”