Whipple's return raises the bar at UMass

The University of Massachusetts Alumni Association has a simple motto: “You were. You are. UMass.”

When UMass athletic director John McCutcheon, working with chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy and the 12-person advisory committee established to help with the football coaching search, finished sorting through the 70-person field and decided on a second go-round for Mark Whipple, that motto was especially appropriate.

Whipple was UMass’ head coach from 1998 to 2003, leading the school to a Division I-AA national title in ’98. Whipple is the UMass head coach tasked with righting a listing ship, one that is taking on water with a 2-22 record so far during the transition to Division I.

And for better or worse, Whipple will be the face of UMass football going forward.

Why for better or worse? Well, the return of a well-liked coach -- one who led the Minutemen to the top of the FCS heap before leaving for a job in the NFL -- may please fans and alumni initially and soothe those whose feathers were ruffled by former coach Charley Molnar.

That’s the “for better” part.

“Sometimes you need to go away to find out where your home is,” Whipple said to open his remarks at his introductory news conference in the Mullins Center in Amherst on Tuesday, his voice catching a bit. “And I’ve found it.”

The coach appears to really care about UMass -- calling it “a special, special place” -- and displayed an easy familiarity with those in the room for his introduction. That will play well with faculty, staff, fans and alumni, a significant consideration at UMass.

But bringing Whipple back and focusing on the highs the program enjoyed during his previous tenure may also raise expectations to an untenable level, considering the daunting tasks at hand for a team that was outscored by its opponents by a staggering 330 points in 2012 and 256 points in 2013.

“Mark Whipple was such a strong part of our football history and we look forward to him directing this program as we move forward,” McCutcheon said in his remarks. “In this profession, our paths take a lot of twists and turns on the path we take and on the roads we take. We’re so happy that the road Mark took led him back to Amherst.”

Henry Thomas, a former UMass football player himself and chairman of the UMass board of trustees, welcomed Whipple back to Amherst and said, “I’m sure I share the sentiments of many when I say, here’s to history repeating itself.”

When it comes to setting expectations, Whipple did himself no favors.

“A long time ago, someone told me that coaches win games, but administrations win championships,” the 56-year-old Phoenix native said. “I learned that at UMass. I believe in this administration and what they are doing for this university ... We will win championships here at UMass.”

Whipple said he learned a lot in the 11 years he was away, working for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns in the NFL and the Miami Hurricanes in the ACC, and that he returns a more knowledgeable coach and more compassionate teacher.

“What I learned was I have so much to give to kids,” he said. “I’ve got so much ability, I’ve got so much knowledge that was just wasted last year. That’s what I’m excited about.”

“Today is a great day for UMass,” Subbaswamy said in a statement, read at the news conference by vice chancellor for university relations John Kennedy. “We’re thrilled to welcome back one of the greatest coaches in the 135-year history of UMass football. Coach Whipple’s winning record during his previous time in Amherst is legendary.

“He not only brought a national championship to the flagship campus, but he instilled a sense of pride in the great tradition of Minutemen football.”

University of Massachusetts president Robert L. Caret called Whipple “the right man at the right moment in time for us.”

“UMass football for 130 years has had huge bursts of excellence,” Caret said. “And what we need to do today, as a first step, is to rekindle that fire in this university to ensure that this program is successful moving forward. It’s important to our future, it’s important to who we are and what we want to be. It’s important to the family of institutions we want to be part of and be recognized as part of, excellence in all that we do.

“Coach Whipple shares that desire. ... He recognizes the need here at the University of Massachusetts, he’s done it before here at the University of Massachusetts, he’s done it in the NFL and a variety of venues. We know he can do it again. We welcome him home and we look forward to working with him.”

It would have been silly to gloss over Whipple’s past success with UMass, as it’s a big part of his appeal and a big part of the reason he got the job. But one wonders if the Minutemen would’ve been better served by focusing more on the process, on the work that awaits, than the desired result.

“In ’98, that was the greatest team that I’ve ever been associated with,” Whipple said. “I can remember in [the] spring game, some alums coming to me and saying, ‘Coach, you’ve got to get some guys. You’re not very good.’ We ended up being pretty good. That’s a testament to the coaches on that staff, it’s a testament to the players, it’s a testament to the University of Massachusetts that they improved every single day and they believed. And that’s what I’m going to bring.”

Whipple, the fourth UMass head coach to serve a second term, said he’s back to take the program to the next level. Then he was asked what that meant.

“Winning a championship at the I-A level,” he said. “That’s the first goal. ... We’re here to get jewelry. That’s what it’s about.”

That’s an admirable goal, and an understandable one. After all, what else was Whipple supposed to say? We want to be more competitive in more games just doesn’t get the fan base fired up.

The first hints of qualifying his lofty goals for the program came when Whipple was asked what type of system he’ll employ this time around.

“I’m here to win,” Whipple said. “Everybody knows I’m competitive. I’ve got to find out what our guys can do. I don’t know what our left tackle can do -- I don’t even know who our left tackle is going to be. So we’re going to put our players in the best position to succeed and give them a game plan to be successful on that Saturday.

“I believe that coaching is confidence,” he continued. “In the NFL, what a quarterbacks coach is, he’s a caddy. ... What you’re doing is giving confidence to the best players in the world. They need that.

“We have to give our kids confidence, that is giving them a plan and an ability to succeed, play by play by play,” he said. “And I’ve always believed philosophically ... that players are afraid to give 100 percent. Human nature, humans are afraid to give 100 percent because they go to bed at night and they say, ‘You know, yeah, I lost, but if I’d really given 100 percent I would’ve won.’ They’re fooling themselves.

“When you give 100 percent in your life and that day, you never fail. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

If Whipple can accomplish that, getting his staff and the Minutemen players to buy in and give their all day-in and day-out, UMass undoubtedly will take steps in the right direction. Does that mean that Whipple’s Minutemen can be at the FBS level what they were under him at the FCS level?

With a new (old) regime in charge, Minutemen fans can at least hope.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.