Coach Mark Whipple has brought fun back for UMass football. Will wins follow?

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014

Two years into his college career, Jovan Santos-Knox just assumed that playing Division I football just wasn’t as fun as he thought it was going to be. There wasn’t much joy around the UMass team and he figured that was true everywhere.

“I honestly thought, I guess that’s how every Division I program is,” said Santos-Knox, a junior linebacker. “I didn’t know what to expect because I had never been anywhere else.”

Part of the lack of enjoyment came from the Minutemen’s record. Back-to-back 1-11 seasons aren’t going to make anybody smile. But the frustration went deeper than that. Not long into Charley Molnar’s two-year tenure, which ended when he was fired on Dec. 26, the players began grumbling about the mood the coach created around the program. Players grew tired of being berated and belittled, and by the end of both seasons, dreaded going to practice.

The older players, who’d preceded Molnar would bristle when he’d blame the team’s struggles on having “One-Double-A players.” The players Molnar brought in didn’t realize it could be better.

“I just thought that’s how it was around every campus and every university,” junior Tajae Sharpe said.

But with Molnar now coaching wide receivers in Idaho, the dark cloud appears to be lifted. The increase in positive energy up and down the roster is palpable now that Mark Whipple, who was popular with his players during his previous stint at UMass, has returned. Several players who had quit the team at the end of last year when it looked like Molnar would be back, have returned.

“We’re all out here having fun. We’re out here talking, getting excited about practice,” junior center Matt Sparks said. “Nobody is dreading going to practice. We love it.”

Junior linebacker Kassan Messiah agreed.

“It’s almost like night and day. Football is always going to be fun. But it wasn’t until recently I realized how much more fulfilling it could be. My experience now is letting me see that,” Messiah said smiling broadly. “I didn’t know any better. But now that I’ve been through a spring and half of camp with Coach Whipple, it’s unbelievable. I’m like, ‘why did it have to be that way last year?’ Coach Whipple is a very balanced coach. He gets on us, but he knows how to laugh and have fun. I didn’t realize before how much of a difference that makes. It’s like a family now. We all enjoy coming to practice every day. My first memories of playing were out having fun. I’ve gotten that back now. It’s not a chore. “

Whipple spread the credit to his assistant coaches.

“I hired guys that know how to coach and said ‘do your job.’ I think it’s more about the assistant coaches. It’s more important to hire a good staff and I think we did a good job there,” Whipple said.

But modesty aside, Whipple has set the tone. He’ll get on the players when it’s called for and showed a willingness to discipline when he dismissed would-be starter D’metrius Williams last week. But he hasn’t set up the wall between himself and them the way Molnar did. He’s willing to talk and joke with his players.

“Guys aren’t walking around on eggshells. Coach Whipple stresses ‘football should be fun for you,’” said junior safety Joey Colton. “That’s why kids started playing this game. That feeling should never leave you. Every coaching staff likes to focus on discipline. But the old staff maybe over-focused on discipline instead of football. This coaching staff is all about ball.”

Jamal Wilson shared his teammate’s view.

“It’s a lot more fun because everything isn’t so uptight. The coaches are humans and actually talk and have fun and joke,” Wilson said. “They’re more comfortable to be around.”

Like he did in his first stint at UMass, Whipple has treated the players he recruited and the players he inherited as equals.

“We have UMass guys. I know who a UMass guy is. It’s a guy that wants to play hard and play for championships and do the right thing,” Whipple said. “That’s what I’ve seen from these guys. They’re our guys. We’re all UMass. We’re trying to bring everyone together. It’s not always going to be perfect, but if we get perfect effort, it’s going to get better.”

In the end, talent, execution and game-planning, usually, go much further than just enjoying playing. Plus, it’s easy to be upbeat in August with no losses. But the players are optimistic that the refreshed attitude will give the Minutemen a push in the right direction.

“Every one is more positive,” Santos-Knox said. “The coaches believe in us and we have the coaches’ back. We want to play for them and they’re coaching for us. It feels like we never had that before and now we’re really coming together. People are excited to come to practice and get better. Everyone is more competitive. When you’re having fun playing football, the best is going to come out. We can’t wait to show the last two years wasn’t us. We’re a good football team and we’re going to win football games.”

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