Josh Walfish: The pros and cons of Mark Whipple

  • FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 file photo, Massachusetts head coach Mark Whipple reacts on the sidelines during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Boston College in Foxborough, Mass. In Mark Whipple’s two stints as the UMass coach covering 11 years and time spent in FCS and FBS, No. 5 Georgia is his pick as the Minutemen’s toughest opponent. Such playmakers as quarterback Jake Fromm and tailback D’Andre Swift make the Bulldogs heavy favorites on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File) Michael Dwyer

Staff Writer
Published: 11/18/2018 10:48:32 PM

AMHERST — At some point in the near future, UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford and football coach Mark Whipple will sit down to talk about the Minutemen’s 2018 season.

This conversation shouldn’t be any different than the previous chats between the pair, but the atmosphere in which it is taking place is vastly different. There is a large vocal outcry from the fan base for Bamford, in his fourth full year at the school, to move on from Whipple and instill his own coach at the helm. To them, five years of four or fewer wins is not good enough, but this year’s 4-8 record was the most frustrating.

There is little doubt that this season was a disappointment on many levels. The conversation in July and August centered around the hope and optimism that the Minutemen would qualify for a bowl game this year. This was Whipple’s best FBS team ever and coming off a strong finish to last year, UMass was going to take that jump. But of course it never happened.

So now Bamford has the unenviable task of making a decision about the future of the football program. Is Whipple the right man for the job still? Does UMass need to go younger in an age where young head coaches have turned the sport on its head with their ideas? Or is Whipple doing the best job anyone can ask for in a tricky situation at UMass, one that is continuously getting better thanks to donors like Marty Jacobson?

One of the biggest positives going in Whipple’s favor is his offense, which should once again finish in the top-third nationally in points and yards per game. No one UMass will be able to find on the market will be able to improve much over what the Minutemen are doing already on that side of the ball. Whipple has shown he is an excellent recruiter of offensive talent and has a lot of good young weapons returning next year, so the attack should not have too much of a drop off next year.

Of course, the Minutemen have struggled on defense in all five of Whipple’s seasons in charge, including a horrid stretch to begin this season. UMass showed little depth on that side of the ball this year and there were significant dropoffs when the backups had to play because of injuries or suspensions. But even when the starters were playing, the Minutemen struggled with the fundamentals, a major reason the Minutemen will finish the season ranked in the bottom five in the country in rushing defense.

Another point in Whipple’s favor is how much his players enjoy playing for him and how well he can read the team. Yes, television cameras often find Whipple upset about something on the sidelines, but that’s the type of passion that makes Whipple popular in the locker room. The players love it that Whipple is so passionate on game days and that he’s going to defend them whenever possible. But Whipple also has a good sense of when to ease off the gas and be more positive with his guys — the Connecticut and Liberty wins being prime examples of that.

Then again, the on-field results speak for themselves and as much as players love playing for Whipple, they love winning more. The Minutemen underachieved this year and a lot of that must fall on Whipple. The offense and defense played well together in the same game just once against an FBS foe – Charlotte on Sept. 22. The offense’s worst performance of the season just happened to coincide with the defense’s best showing of the year. Whether that’s a sign of a team not being prepared or the coach not putting his players in positions to succeed, it needs to be fixed immediately.

It was Whipple who ushered UMass into its FBS era and the resources and facilities are slowly starting to match that transition. It is fair to ask whether or not Whipple can recruit better players now that he has those tools to sell in recruiting. There is an argument to be made that Whipple inherited a mess five years ago and it is much harder to turn around programs in this era of college football. One could even make the case that the problems with UMass football are far bigger than any one head coach.

But those are debates for us to have on Twitter in the coming weeks as Bamford thinks about this decision. One way or another, Bamford’s choice will dictate the direction of this program for the next decade.

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