Matt Vautour: Mark Whipple Part II has a chance to be memorable

Last modified: Saturday, January 18, 2014

No one took Mark Whipple seriously when he predicted a national championship in his last introductory press conference at the University of Massachusetts in December of 1997.

Coaches make pie-in-the-sky promises at these events that are as much pep rallies as they are media events. It’s OK and even expected to not only dip toes into hyperbole, but dive in for a big splash.

So when Whipple talked about winning a Division I-AA championship, it felt more like pom-pom waving than a true prediction.

But he not only led UMass to that title, but did so in his first year. Just over 15 years later, when Whipple was reintroduced Tuesday at the Mullins Center, he had a high bar to live up to not only on the sideline, but in his introductory press conference. Given what he promised last time out, people were certainly going to pay attention.

If Tuesday was again an indication, Whipple II has a chance to be memorable.

He started by telling people that even when he was gone UMass held a special place in his heart, which always plays well with fans.

“After the interview, I drove around here and got out and walked. This is a special, special place. I will represent this place better than I ever had,” Whipple said. “I needed to broaden my horizons and compete at the highest level. But every day I looked at the scores here and talked to the kids and talked to the people. This is perfect.”

Whipple missed being a head coach. During his year away from the sidelines last season, he attended high school and college games to stay connected to football, but he said they drove him crazy at times. He missed the game.

“I have so much to give to kids, so much knowledge that was just being wasted,” Whipple said.

It’s not just football knowledge he’ll bring to Amherst. His ability to be the face of the program and an ambassador for it was quickly on display.

In two years, former coach Charley Molnar never figured out how to effectively present himself as confident and humble at the same time, and couldn’t embrace the future at UMass while still being deferential to the program’s past. That wasn’t why Molnar failed in Amherst, but it was a large part of why many influential people didn’t care if he succeeded.

Whipple solved both issues masterfully. He told a crowd filled with mostly people who already think he’s been brilliant at UMass that he’ll be better this time and presented the past as the foundation to the programs’s promising future.

Whipple didn’t promise a turnaround as quick as last time, but didn’t lower expectations.

“I’m not looking for a one-year fix. We’re going to do it the right way. We’re going to be honest and coach with integrity,” Whipple said. “We’re going to put our players in the best position to succeed. We will take this program to the next level. Winning a championship at the I-A level. It’s always about winning the next game. I haven’t changed that much. But we’re here to get jewelry,” said Whipple, wearing his Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl championship ring on his right hand. “That’s what it’s about. I was here six years and we got three pieces. It drives me crazy that we didn’t get six.”

His new players weren’t in Amherst, but many watched the press conference online and came away impressed.

Freshman linebacker Shane Huber tweeted: “If that press conference didn’t get you pumped up I don’t know what can !! Let’s get that JEWELRY #InWhippleWeTrust.”

Sophomore linebacker Jovan Santos Knox echoed Huber on Twitter.

“Very impressive, can’t wait to get started !! #UMassFootball #UMassNation.”

While he might not turn things around as quickly on the field as last time, morale as improved even faster. Less than a month after fans were mired in the prospect of another year of Molnar struggling, Whipple has made football fun again.

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