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Editorial: New UMass football coach Mark Whipple faces many challenges in his return

Mark Whipple begins his second era as the University of Massachusetts football coach Saturday afternoon just as he began the first in 1998 — leading a team for which there are low expectations because of recent poor play. To the surprise of many then, Whipple turned around a lackluster program by guiding the Minutemen to a 12-3 record and national championship.

Sixteen years later, Whipple faces far more significant challenges for the future of UMass football when his team opens its season against Boston College at Gillette Stadium. On the field, the Minutemen’s record (2-22) has been abysmal since beginning play in college football’s top tier, the Bowl Subdivision, and their games often lacked competition and excitement. UMass lost support from alumni and other fans with several missteps since 2011 — the hiring of former coach Charley Molnar, joining the Mid-American Conference and moving all home games off-campus to Gillette in Foxborough.

Molnar had a good pedigree when he came to UMass — 28 years of experience coaching college football, including two as an assistant at Notre Dame — but his time in Amherst was a disaster. His off-the-field problems were as significant as his team’s poor play. Molnar’s questionable training techniques and alienation of alumni helped create a negative environment that led to his firing in December.

The decision to move up from the Football Championship Subdivision meant that UMass left behind games against traditional rivals such as New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Delaware. Instead, the Minutemen are playing in a conference based far from New England and against teams that are obscure to fans here.

UMass made the correct decision earlier this year to leave the MAC after 2015. But that means UMass will either have to play an independent football schedule or find a suitable conference willing to take on the Minutemen. Probably the best fit is the American Athletic Conference which would give the Minutemen games against familiar rivals Connecticut and Temple. But UMass must improve its performance to show that it would be an attractive member for that or any other conference.

UMass fell short of its goal of attracting more fans from to its games when it moved them all during the past two seasons to Gillette Stadium, which seats 68,756. But last season, 94,981 fans attended the six home games, an average of 15,830. That is just above the 15,000 needed to avoid being placed on probation by the NCAA. This season, three of the Minutemen’s six home games are back on campus at the 17,000-seat McGuirk Stadium, and eventually we hope that UMass returns to playing a majority of its home games in Amherst.

At a time when UMass football faces an uncertain future, its biggest asset is Whipple. He’s a proven winner at the collegiate and professional levels, known for developing quarterbacks who can direct the high-powered offense he prefers. Playing exciting football doesn’t guarantee wins, but it should bring more fans to the games.

Whipple embraces UMass and its successful football history and he has re-engaged alumni who were disaffected while Molnar coached the team. “Sometimes, you need to go away to find out where your home is and I have found it,” Whipple said in January. “I can make a bigger impact than I have ever made in my life with people, young, old and in between at the University of Massachusetts and that’s what I’m really excited about.”

While we don’t expect a national championship in Whipple’s first year bacl, he is restoring respectability to the UMass football program and it is headed in the right direction to compete in a postseason bowl.

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