A Mark Whipple-UMass sequel? It’s not far-fetched for the Minutemen

Last modified: Friday, January 03, 2014

The University of Massachusetts needs a football coach and Mark Whipple needs a job.

According to several sources close to Whipple, the former Minuteman coach who led UMass to the 1998 Division I-AA National Championship is interested.

That combination alone is enough to get some fans excited.

Would it work?

Whipple, 56, would solve some of the program’s off the field problems:

■ Whipple taking over a team that had been 2-9 the year before and winning a national championship in his first season is legendary in UMass circles. He’s the only coach the school could realistically hire who would increase ticket sales before he’s coached a game.

■ The rift between the program and its former players would end instantly. Whipple is well-liked by most of the players who played for him and many have used social media to openly campaign for his return.

■ He has a high-scoring offensive system that would make the team more watchable as it gets better.

But it’s rare that a coach returns to the spot of past glory. Even when they do, the sequel is rarely as good as the original.

During his time at UMass, Whipple looked like a rising star. But he’s flown under the radar in the 10 years since he left. He won a Super Bowl ring as the quarterbacks coach in three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He spent two seasons as an offensive assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, two more as the offensive coordinator at the University of Miami and two years as the QB coach for the Cleveland Browns.

He didn’t coach in 2013 after Pat Shurmur’s entire staff was fired by the Browns after the 2012 season.

During his tenure at UMass, Whipple embraced the role of promoter and spokesman for the program early, but by the end he was more interested in X’s and O’s than shaking hands. For him to be a successful candidate, he’d have to revive early Whipple because the building job the new coach signs up for is about more than designing successful systems.

But there’s no reason to think that the chance to be a head coach again wouldn’t ignite his interest in being the “face of the program” that athletic director John McCutcheon said he’s looking for.

Whipple, who was long an advocate for upgrading UMass to Bowl Subdivision football (Division I-A at the time), left the school partially because the school wasn’t interested in making the necessary financial investment in an upgrade and he didn’t want to spend his career in I-AA.

He’d be returning to a different campus and administration than the one he left. There are still skeptics. The ad-hoc committee on FBS football distributed a report at the Dec. 12 faculty senate meeting that presented the upgrade as a financial failure that is hurting the university. But with huge capital investments in a new press box and facilities building, the administration doesn’t appear to be hedging on its commitment to the program.

Still, Whipple would be coming in with his eyes open. He knows how the bureaucracy works on the state and campus levels. His familiarity with the place would lessen the adjustment period.

Even if Whipple wants to return, there’s no guarantee that the interest is mutual as little of the administration remains from Whipple’s tenure. UMass’ use of a search firm makes the process that much more unpredictable. Carr Sports Associates could produce candidates who might have never appeared on the school’s radar without them.

Here are some other names worth considering:

Neal Brown, Kentucky offensive coordinator — The former UMass wide receiver has been an also-ran each of the last two times there was an opening in Amherst. But his salary at Kentucky — $550,000 according to the Cats’ Pause — might put him out of UMass’ price range.

Rob Ambrose, head coach Towson — He was the offensive coordinator at Connecticut during that program’s rise in the Big East and then turned the Tigers from one of the Colonial Athletic Association’s weakest teams into a Championship Subdivision power. Towson will play for the FCS Championship next week.

Ambrose’s potential candidacy might be hurt by the accusations of a former player in the Towson student newspaper that Ambrose mistreated players in practice. Given that Molnar faced similar accusations, that might be enough to scare off the administration.

Bob Shoop, defensive coordinator Vanderbilt — Shoop was the defensive backs coach on the 2006 UMass team that advanced to the FCS Championship game. He struggled previously as the head coach of Columbia, a school that has had two winning seasons since 1971, but he’s been a key part of Vanderbilt’s revival. Shoop is well-liked by former players and is reportedly interested.

Don Brown, defensive coordinator Boston College — Brown, who succeeded Whipple in Amherst, is respected around college football and well-liked by the alumni and fan base. But the former UMass head coach angered some people in the administration when he left to become the defensive coordinator at Maryland in 2009. That could hurt his chances.

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