Charley MolnarGCOs career path has brought him to the UMass sidelines

Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012
GCo Related story: Daily run a key part of Charley Molnar's routine

AMHERST - A day before the press conference that would officially make him the head coach of the University of Massachusetts football program, Charley Molnar stood over a rack of ties at a Jos. A. Bank store.

He wanted a maroon one, the right maroon one, to give his dark suit some UMass color. After a few minutes of searching and comparing, Molnar, 51, took a cellphone picture of the winning tie and sent it to Meg, his wife of 29 years, for final approval as he headed to the register.

The tie was among the final steps of a 28-year coaching journey that was all pointing toward this Dec. 8, 2011, announcement.

New Jersey roots

Molnar's love affair with football began on his family's couch in their home in Morristown, a New Jersey suburb of New York City. He and his father, a tool and die maker also named Charley, began watching football together as soon as young Charley was old enough to understand the game. Giants games were the most important, but any televised game could hold their interest.

"My dad played high school football and has a real love for the game. He really taught me to be a fan of the game," Molnar said. "We would always watch the Giants, but we could always find a reason to like a team."

He already had a few years of Little League baseball under his belt when he signed up for youth football in sixth grade. Playing baseball was better than sitting at home, but it was a lot of standing and waiting around in the field as batter after batter took advantage of the lack of control of most preteen pitchers.

Football meant action. Molnar joined the Twin Town Tigers and was immediately hooked.

"I just loved everything about it. The contact, the running around. It was just like playing (in the backyard). That's how we played. We all played rough and we ran around and tackled each other. It was a natural evolution from the backyard to the football field," he said. "Baseball didn't have the appeal of little league football, where every play was so full of action. I didn't like standing around then and I still don't."

Coach Walt Cueman didn't think much of Molnar when he showed up for practice as a freshman at Bayley-Ellard, a Catholic High School in Madison, N.J. But it didn't take long for Molnar's desire to please to make an impression on the veteran coach.

"When he came in, Charley was a little guy," said Cueman, who eventually became an assistant at Williams College. "There were questions about his size, but his heart was never a question. If we needed a gunner on the punt team, Charley was always there to volunteer. Every single place that you looked at football practice, Charley was always there. We'd go on defense and he'd end up as the nose guard as a freshman. The minute you said, 'I need,' he'd jump in."

It wasn't just freshman exuberance. Throughout Molnar's four seasons, Cueman and his coaches would arrive at the locker room long before the players were expected to show up and find Molnar already at his locker preparing.

"He was the steadiest, most reliable guy you could ever have on your football team," said Cueman, who has been an occasional visitor at UMass practices and plans to attend some games this season. "In that school when the nuns needed something to be done, it was the same thing. It wasn't just football. That's who he was as a 14-to-18-year-old kid. It's always been his M.O."

In football-rich northern New Jersey, Molnar was a good player for the Bishops, standing out at receiver and defensive back, but not good enough for any big-time college interest. He chose Lock Haven, a small school in central Pennsylvania moving from Division III to Division II.

"I was recruited exactly at the level I was at. I wasn't real big," said the 5-foot-10 Molnar. "I think I was 160 pounds when I entered college. It was the perfect place for me to go to college."

Molnar was a four-year letterman in football, majored in political science, was a senator in student government and was his fraternity's president. But every day that passed he moved further away from a career in government, certain his future lay in football.

"I always had a strong interest in government, but football was really my true passion," Molnar said. "I was fascinated with all the areas of football even as a player."

Meager beginnings

After serving as a student coach during the spring of his senior year, Molnar planned to go home to New Jersey to be a high school football coach. But Lock Haven coach Jack Fisher offered him a job coaching the wide receivers. Molnar said yes before Fisher finished asking the question.

"I didn't look at it like I was coaching the receivers at Lock Haven. It could have been the Dallas Cowboys," said Molnar, who coached at his alma mater for three seasons. "I remember being so nervous that I was going to do something wrong. I'm kind of a perfectionist and I was afraid of not doing something exactly the way it was supposed to be taught."

Then, like now, he barely slept.

"I used to stay up all night thinking about what are we going to do in practice," Molnar said. "I remember being so hyped up for those meetings. It was like I was playing. The on-the-job training was just phenomenal. It gave me a lot of confidence early in my career. I felt like I was more prepared than other guys."

Even today, Lock Haven holds a special place in Molnar's heart. His family will take long detours to stop at Original Italian Pizza for sandwiches or a slice. But he hungered for something bigger than Division II.

With no connections, he needed a little luck breaking into the Division I ranks, and he got some during an interview for a graduate assistant job at Virginia. Wearing a new pair of shoes he could barely afford on his meager salary, Molnar drove his early 1970s Dodge Omni from central Pennsylvania to Charlottesville, Va., wearing the only suit he owned.

The interview was with Cavaliers defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, who is now the head coach at Boston College. As one of a handful of candidates, Molnar got the feeling that Spaziani already had another candidate in mind. Despite his new footwear, Molnar thought he wasn't going to get hired.

But fortune intervened. Head coach George Welsh happened to walk through the office during the interview and noted that Molnar was the first applicant to show up in a suit.

The aspiring coach and the Virginia legend made small talk and connected. Welsh had been an assistant at Penn State, not far from Lock Haven, and his daughter Sally and Molnar's wife had both been French majors.

Finally, Welsh turned to Spaziani and asked if Molnar had been offered the job.

"Spaz said, 'Well, no, I've got a couple other guys,'" Molnar recalled, laughing at the memory. "Then George said to him again, 'Offer him the job.'"

Not giving Spaziani a chance to change the coach's mind, Molnar jumped in.

"I said, 'If you're offering the job, I accept,'" he said. "George was so far ahead of the curve at that time. He was a great organizer and very big on player development and strategy. I was being inundated with football knowledge each and every day and I just sucked it all up."

Molnar studied every drill book he could find and copied practice plans from the back of the American Football Coaches Association newsletter. He used some exactly and modified others.

He hasn't used them in years, but Molnar kept most of those notes. The walls of his UMass office are mostly empty and a coffee mug with a picture of his infant grandson Charley Molnar IV is a rare personal effect. In one of the filing cabinet drawers behind his desk are copies of lots of those old drills, many stuffed inside an old blue Virginia folder, acquired during his grad assistant days.

After two years under Welsh, Molnar, like most young coaches, bounced around. While coaching isn't an easy life for a single guy with long hours and regular travel, it was even tougher for Molnar, who has eight children ranging from 27-year-old Charley III, who is a graduate assistant coach at UMass, to 9-year-old Dominic.

His ever-growing family moved for jobs at seven schools in five states over 15 years before Brian Kelly hired Molnar to coach quarterbacks and wide receivers at Central Michigan in 2006. It was a huge development in Molnar's career as the two clicked quickly and grew together.

The one year at CMU was Molnar's best season as a coach to that point. Not only did the Chippewas go 10-4, an improvement from 6-5 the previous season, but Molnar tutored freshman quarterback Dan LeFervor to better passing numbers than any other freshman in the nation.

A year later Molnar followed Kelly to Cincinnati. In three seasons the Bearcats won the Big East championship twice and briefly became a national power. In 2010, Kelly was hired as the head coach at Notre Dame and named Molnar his offensive coordinator.

"Winning two Big East championships at Cincinnati and developing those teams was a great experience for me," Molnar said. "Coaching at Notre Dame allowed me to see all the things that are out there that can help make a program successful."

Through most of his time at Cincinnati and all of his time with the Fighting Irish, Molnar felt ready to be a head coach, but was waiting for the right job. UMass was on his radar even before the school fired Kevin Morris in November. The idea of leading the Minutemen from the Championship Subdivision to the Bowl Subdivision appealed to his desire to build something.

"The day that I read in the paper that UMass was moving into the Mid-American Conference was the day I set my sights on UMass football," Molnar said. "I waited and bided my time until I heard UMass was making a change at the top."

Molnar wasn't on athletic director John McCutcheon's original list of candidates to pursue, but the man who had no network of coaches in 1987 had plenty of supporters to recommend him in 2011, including Kelly.

"I was a strong advocate. I thought this was a great fit for Charley," the Notre Dame coach said. "He saw the transformation with me at the Mid-American Conference level at Central Michigan. I felt like with his experience of having to do more with less, which he's going to have to do at UMass, there wasn't a better candidate in my mind. He's got the type of energy to be out there raising money, out there recruiting coaches and talking about the program."

Instant impression

The combination of energy, experience and a detailed plan for building the program helped convince McCutcheon.

"When you look at Charley's energy, demeanor, charm and style in addition to his experience, it didn't take long for me to realize that this guy was pretty special and could be a great fit here," McCutcheon said.

If Twitter and messageboards were any indication, UMass fans, who knew little about Molnar beyond his Notre Dame pedigree, were impressed by the coach's performance, not to mention the maroon tie, in the opening press conference.

"We're going public. Buy in. This place is a stock and the price is going to skyrocket," Molnar said that day, his enthusiasm and volume rising as he delivered what amounted to a campaign speech to the media at Gillette Stadium and Minutemen fans watching over the Internet.

From that press conference forward, Molnar's excitement at being a head coach has been evident. The former political science student has spoken at town hall-like meetings around the state, sharing his vision of MAC championships and bowl games and trying to convince fans and potential fans to come along for the ride.

It'll be a difficult job of turning those dreams into reality. There are plenty of people that wonder if anyone can build a winner at a school where football has never been a priority before, while playing home games 100 miles from campus.

"I'm not motivated by the skeptics. What really motivates me is the people who believe. I hate to disappoint," Molnar said. "The people who have bought in, those are my guys, the ones who believed in us when nobody else did. I want to validate their belief in us."

He'll get his first chance Aug. 30. when Molnar's Minutemen head to East Hartford to take on Connecticut (7:30, Rentschler Field). He can't wait to walk on the field.

"In my 28 years of college coaching, I always had my eyes set on being a head football coach," Molnar said. "It's something I've looked forward to my entire life."

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