Ex-UMass players pulling for former coach Mark Whipple

Saturday, January 18, 2014
At Tuesday morning’s press conference, Mark Whipple is expected to lay out his vision for what many around the program are hoping will be his next great building job for the University of Massachusetts football program.

Many players who were part of Whipple’s previous turnaround in Amherst that culminated in the 1998 Division I-AA championship were eager to watch it develop.

That year, Whipple inherited a team that had finished 2-9 in 1997. In his first game, the Minutemen nearly upset No. 3 Delaware. Kole Ayi, a sophomore linebacker on that team, said Whipple’s reaction to that game set the tone for his entire six-year tenure at UMass.

“Delaware was a perennial powerhouse at the time and we hung in with them. We kind of saw it as a moral victory. But we got home and he worked us and kicked the crap out of us,” said Ayi, who works in sales in his native Nashua, N.H. “He let us know it was unacceptable to lose no matter who we were playing. That attitude permeated through the whole program.”

Cliff Bolden, a junior offensive linemen that season, said the team’s confidence in its new coach was immediately obvious.

“It was clear after the first game we played for him, if you trusted his system, he was going to put us in position to win,” said Bolden, who works in sales in Waltham. “After that it was tough, but we knew if we followed what he had for us, we’d see the success we were looking for.

“It was a lot of hard work. But looking back, you can see the process where he took us from and where we went,” Bolden continued. “We went from 2-9 to a national championship. It was incredible. If you told us before the season that would happen, I don’t think anyone would have believed you. But from Day 1, he told us we would win a national championship.”

Quarterback Todd Bankhead arrived as a lightly recruited junior college transfer. He credits Whipple for squeezing every ounce of talent out of him.

“You sensed from the outset that he was just a winner. He instilled a lot of toughness in a lot of guys. He knows how to treat each individual player and what motivates them. He was very tough on me, but without a doubt, he got the most out of me. It went a lot better than I could have ever dreamed of,” said Bankhead, who is in law enforcement in California. “He knew how to push my buttons and get me going in the right direction. He didn’t treat everyone like that. He knew how to get each guy going differently. He knew exactly who would be motivated by what and got the most out of everybody. He was great about putting each guy in position to succeed. That was huge.”

Kerry Taylor, an All-American tight end in 1998 who now works in the fitness industry in Rhode Island, said the players wanted to live up to Whipple’s confidence in them.

“A player will do anything for a coach that’s confident and believes in his team. From Day 1, we believed that this guy was going to do everything possible to make us successful,” he said. “That’s why we were able to turn our season completely around when he came aboard.”

Taylor believes Whipple can resurrect UMass again.

“Being coached by him, I firmly believe he has the ability and the drive and the motivation and the capabilities of a leader to be able to turn a program around and bring it to what it could potentially become,” Taylor said.

Bankhead said Whipple’s return was the ideal answer for UMass.

“Barring (Alabama coach) Nick Saban having the world’s greatest affection for foliage or an unhealthy addiction to Antonio’s Pizza and deciding to come to Amherst,” Bankhead said, “there couldn’t be a better fit.”

During former coach Charley Molnar’s two-year tenure, many former players were turned off by Molnar’s dismissal of the program’s past accomplishments in the Championship Subdivision. Whipple’s return had them eager to get back involved.

“I’ll be around probably more,” Ayi said. “It’s not about us, it’s about the kids, but if (Whipple) fosters a situation where we can be involved, we want to support them.”

Taylor agreed.

“We have a lot of fond memories of him, that coaching staff and that seasons. I’ll definitely be involved more. I’ve kept track of his career and all the coaches who helped us grow as men and players.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage