UMass hits home run with hiring of Mark Whipple as football coach

Tuesday, January 14, 2014
AMHERST — Decisions don’t come much easier than this for Division I athletic departments.

The University of Massachusetts football program badly needed a home run with this coaching hire. If Mark Whipple wasn’t available, it’s not obvious who would have been the right choice to bring the Minutemen to respectability and beyond in the Mid-American Conference and the Bowl Subdivision.

Whipple was not only available, but he wanted — maybe even needed this job — at this time. Once that was clear, including other candidates in the hiring process was simply doing due diligence and creating a Plan B if something had gone wrong with the Whipple negotiations. But this was Whipple’s gig to lose from the moment Charley Molnar was shown the door.

The turnaround in morale is remarkable. When the football season ended and athletic director John McCutcheon initially announced that Molnar was staying, the program felt stuck in the mud. At that point, 2014 seemed like a long slog toward Molnar’s eventual firing as few people had faith in the former Notre Dame offensive coordinator’s ability to lead the Minutemen to respectability in the MAC any time soon.

But the whirlwind from UMass’ about-face decision to can Molnar on Dec. 26 made the Minutemen at least interesting. And now bringing back Whipple has created legitimate excitement in the program not seen since before the Molnarmen took a whipping from UConn to open the 2012 season.

Before coaching a game, Whipple solves a few problems for UMass:

1. The alumni like him. When the Minutemen upgraded to FBS football, the school was counting on alumni support. But Molnar quickly alienated a lot of former players. On social media, many former players have not only been rooting for Whipple, but openly campaigning for him to be hired.

2. He’ll sell some tickets. UMass fans that weren’t sure they wanted to spend money to see mid-level MAC teams take the Minutemen to the woodshed, are far more likely to be optimistic enough to buy tickets. He won’t have to convince fans he’s capable of rebuilding.

3. His teams will be more fun to watch. Even during down years at UMass, the Minutemen were entertaining on offense. It’s hard to believe they won’t move the ball and score points even before wins start piling up.

4. He understands UMass and all of its bureaucracy and baloney. He won’t be surprised when something takes a long time to get through Whitmore and will know who can help him when it does.

It’s interesting to wonder what might have happened if UMass used the momentum of it’s 1998 championship to upgrade then. Whipple might have stayed longer and UMass might be in the American Athletic Conference by now.

Whipple was an unapologetic proponent of moving up to I-A football during his time at UMass, but he didn’t have an administration interested or willing to make the investment. So he left in frustration. People have been talking about him coming back from the moment the upgrade was announced.

Whipple will be trying to live up to his own high standard when it comes to rebuilding. Going from 2-9 the year before he arrived to the 1998 Division I-AA championship is stuff of legend in Amherst. A turnaround of that magnitude would be almost impossible to repeat.

After 1998, most people thought it would be just a matter of time before Whipple landed in the big time. But his lack of FBS experience scared some suitors off back then. He bounced around with three different NFL gigs and a brief stop at the University of Miami. As an assistant his work was praised, but his chances to advance were tied to his head coaches and they never had quite enough success.

Whipple, who didn’t coach in 2013, was almost hired at Boston College in 2006 and Connecticut in 2012 before being left at the altar both times. If he’d gotten either job, his reuniting with UMass would never have happened, making this return seem all the more fated.

There’s a belief that it never works the second time around, that the sequel is never quite as good as the original. But facts don’t really bear that out. Bill Snyder returned to Kansas State and returned it to Big 12 power status. Earlier this week, Louisville brought back Bobby Petrino for a second go around.

Whipple II is a much different situation. It’s harder to be nationally relevant in the MAC at the FBS level than it was in the Atlantic 10/CAA at the FCS. Whipple will have to be effective recruiting in a hurry. Expect some fifth-year and junior college transfers to land in Amherst quickly. But if he gets UMass to a bowl game, any bowl game in the next few years, his exalted status in the Pioneer Valley will continue to grow.

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