Whipple Rescues Umass Football From Perception Problem

What’s worse than finishing your football season with a 1-11 record?

Doing it two years in a row while battling the negative perception your fans have of your football program.

That’s what happened at UMass over the last two years. It led to the firing of coach Charley Molnar after only two years of a five-year contract. To replace him, UMass has turned to Mark Whipple, who returns to Amherst 10 years after his initial departure.

Whipple led UMass to its Division 1-AA national championship back in 1998, the coach’s first year at the state’s flagship university. Over the course of his five-year tenure, UMass won nearly twice as many games as it lost.

Whipple’s return appears to be a first step toward wining back fans who, especially over the past few months, have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of UMass football.

Concerns with the program under Molnar reached a crescendo early last fall, when a video of the team’s conditioning workouts held during the 2012 winter offseason—featuring one-on-one wrestling and boxing “combatives” between players spurred on by teammates and coaches—led to a petition, circulated by UMass alumni who were football players, asking that the quality of the program be improved and “the improper treatment of the current players” stopped.

Change.org has since closed the petition, but the first 100 comments and signatures can still be found at http://www.change.org.

Despite his success as offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Molnar’s UMass teams struggled mightily on the field of play. Yet it appears that his termination was chiefly the result of off-field issues. There were problems with the “perception of the program,” as UMass athletic director John McCutcheon phrased it when he fired Molnar the day after Christmas.

“What we want to have is a program that all of our constituency groups—whether it’s on-campus, our alumni, our supporters, potential recruits out there, high school coaches, you name it—view as a program that is energized, that’s positive, that’s going in the right direction, that cares about the student athletes,” McCutcheon said in an interview following Molnar’s departure.

An independent group is looking into concerns related to the video of the off-season workouts. They were expected to submit a report to UMass-Amherst Chancellor Kubble Subbaswamy by mid-January, but had yet to do so by press time.

Regardless of the group’s findings, McCutcheon said that the video was not a factor in Molnar’s firing.

UMass owes Molnar approximately $836,000 for the three years remaining on his contract. McCutcheon said Molnar will be paid by “external sources,” not with university or state funds.

At close to a million dollars, that price tag isn’t likely to quell criticisms from faculty members already concerned with the time, money and effort the state university is investing to make the jump to upper-division football. More than $30 million is already being spent to renovate UMass’ on-campus McGuirk Stadium, even though the team will continue to split its home games between Amherst and the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium in Foxboro for at least the next three years.

But for now, UMass officials are embracing the arrival of Whipple, and the promise of moving forward while holding onto the past.

After leaving UMass, Whipple went on to the NFL, where he worked in a variety of offensive coordinator roles for the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers, winning a Super Bowl with the Steelers in 2005. He also got experience in big-time college football coaching at the University of Miami (Fla.).

“Sometimes you need to go away to find out where your home is,” a visibly emotional Whipple said at his introductory press conference in early January. “And I found it. Thank you.”

“I told my wife I can make a bigger impact than I’ve ever made in my life with people young, old and in between at the University of Massachusetts. And that’s what I’m really, really excited about,” Whipple continued. “Because I believe in this place. It hit me after the interview, when I drove around here and got out and walked—this is a special, special place.”

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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