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Tom Masella back coaching UMass defense, enjoying Pioneer Valley

Fordham University head coach, Tom Masella coaches his team against Army during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Point, N.Y., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011.  (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

Fordham University head coach, Tom Masella coaches his team against Army during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Point, N.Y., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

It wasn’t hard to convince Tom Masella to come back.

During his last stint as the University of Massachusetts defensive coordinator, Masella liked working for Mark Whipple and liked living in the region.

So when Whipple was hired, Masella was one of the first to join his new staff.

“I appreciated working for him the last time. There’s not a lot of coaches I would work for again, but he was one,” said Masella, who led the UMass defense in 2002 and 2003. “He’s great to work for. He really enjoys football.”

During his first stint at UMass, Whipple gave his defensive coordinators considerable autonomy. He allowed Don Brown, Neil McGrath and Masella to run their defense without much interference. He lays out what he wants and trusts them to execute it. Masella, 54, said understanding those expectations has been valuable.

“You know who you’re working for and what he’s looking for. You don’t have to go through that feeling out process of what the head coach expects,” Masella said. “I know what he wants out of our defense and our coaching style. It’s been good.”

When Whipple left UMass to become the quarterbacks coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 2003 season, Masella was hired as the head coach of Central Connecticut State. He led the Blue Devils to two first-place finishes in the Northeast Conference before being hired at Fordham. He led the Rams to a Patriot League title and a first-round Division I-AA playoff game at UMass in 2007. But it was his only winning record in six seasons.

In 2012 he was hired as the associate head coach under Walt Hameline at Wagner, Masella’s alma mater. Hameline became the head coach at the Staten Island school in 1981, Masella’s senior year.

“He’s done a lot for me in my life and a tremendous amount for me in this profession,” Masella said.

Masella, a career defensive coach, didn’t balk when Hameline asked him to work both sides of the ball when the quarterbacks coach left a week before the season started. Masella was overseeing the defense while coaching the quarterbacks at the same time. Wagner eventually won the Northeast Conference title.

“Strangely enough it worked well the first year,” Masella said.

It work so well that Masella became the offensive coordinator in 2013, but with a young unit the Seahawks sputtered to 3-8.

Masella was glad to be back on defense, but thought the brief cameo was a useful exercise.

“It’s given me a perspective. I think I’ll be a better defensive coordinator because of it. I can see what offenses are trying to do. I can see it better from the offensive side of the ball,” he said. “I’ve always considered myself a defensive coach. But it’s good to go to the other side and see it from a quarterback’s perspective and an offensive coach’s perspective.”

Masella plans to use multiple defensive fronts like he always has, but the Minutemen’s base will switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

“They’re picking it up. The coverage concepts they used (under former coach Charley Molnar) are much different than what we run,” Masella said. “Some days it looks really good and some days we struggle. It’s just a process. The more they do it, the better they’ll be and they’ll just start to play. I still think we’re thinking a lot. We don’t want our players to think too much. We want them to go play and react.”

While the players are still learning, Masella liked their effort and attitude.

“The kids have been great. They’ve worked hard. They’ve done what we asked,” he said. “Now we just have to get comfortable doing what we’re doing, a little bit faster and a little bit more physical. We have to keep pushing these kids to set the bar high.”

Off the field, Masella is enjoying being back in western Massachusetts. He and his family enjoyed the Pioneer Valley so much the last time, he stayed even when he became the head coach at Central Connecticut State, making the hour commute from Belchertown to New Britain, Conn.

“It’s good to be back up here. Things haven’t changed all that much. There’s a lot of good people in the area. We’re happy to be back, there’s no question.” Masella said. “I really liked it up here when we were here last. Sometimes when you take a job, you’re apprehensive. This felt like home.”

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

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