Whipple brings lengthy resume, experience to NU role
Story by Mike Malloy • Photos by Jeff Bundy
Mark Whipple’s coaching career started before he was a coach.
Whipple, 64, was hired Dec. 8 as Nebraska’s new offensive coordinator, taking over a unit ranked 71st out of 130 FBS teams in scoring last season.
“I’m really excited to be working with Coach Frost,” Whipple said during a Dec. 15 press conference. “I’ve been a lot of places but the one thing that struck me (about Nebraska) is that when you walk into the facility, there’s no feeling that it’s a 3-9 team.”
Whipple’s lengthy resume includes coaching a surefire NFL Hall of Famer, winning a national championship, and signaling in plays to a Heisman Trophy finalist. But it all started when Whipple was still pulling on a helmet.
He left his hometown of Phoenix to attend Brown University where he played football and baseball. Freshmen were ineligible for varsity play when he arrived on campus in 1975, but he began making highlight reel plays back when highlights were recorded on reels for the Bears’ freshman team.
“They called us the ‘Cardiac Kids,'” teammate Bob Forster said. “We had this knack for getting behind, but with Mark and his creative genius, we really believed anything was possible with him back there.”
Whipple threw touchdown passes on the final play of victories against Yale and Dartmouth during that 6-1 season. He and Forster, an offensive guard, played on Brown’s Ivy League championship team the following season. Whipple took over as starting quarterback in ’77 and was team captain in ’78.
“Mark was the brains of the outfit,” offensive tackle John Sinnott said. “He was the kind of leader you wanted to please.”
Sinnott, who played four seasons in the NFL, and his teammates were displeased with an 0-2 start to the ’78 season and were even less enamored with coach John Anderson’s philosophy of run right, run right again, then run right some more.
Trailing at halftime in the third game of the season against Princeton, the players had had enough.
“We revolted,” Sinnott said. “(Anderson), God rest his soul, was an old offensive lineman. Offensive linemen aren’t known for their creativity.”
Whipple proposed that he be allowed to call plays in the huddle.
“He wasn’t disrespectful, but he knew what his strength was, and that was recognizing defenses,” Sinnott said.
Whipple’s arm and brain led Brown to a comeback victory that day. The team finished 6-3 and averaged 26.5 points in their final seven games after scoring three in the first two.
“He should have been compensated as one of the coaches,” Forster said. “Anyone could see Mark was destined for a wonderful career in coaching.”
As a compensated coach, Whipple led Division II New Haven to a nation-best 50.5 points a game in 1992. The tiny Connecticut school drew much more attention than it was accustomed to the following year when a Sports Illustrated writer said the team had “the best offense in college football” after averaging 52.5 points and 557.6 yards a game.
Whipple then went 24-16 in four seasons at his alma mater, helping the Bears set Ivy League records in yards-per-game (483.6) in 1997. The following fall, Whipple took over at Massachusetts where he would become the winningest coach in school history. The Minutemen won the FCS national championship under Whipple in 1998.
He left the college game for several assistant coaching gigs in the NFL. He was quarterbacks coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2004-06, where he helped Ben Roethlisberger set NFL rookie records for completion percentage (66.4) and passer rating (98.1). With Whipple on the sidelines, the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005.
After stops in Cleveland and Philadelphia, Whipple returned to UMass as head coach from 2014-18. Three times Whipple’s teams were nationally in the top 20 in passing yards, many of those being accounted for by receiver Randy Isabella, now in his third year with the Arizona Cardinals. Isabella finished at UMass with a school record 3,526 yards in 44 games and was second in the nation with 102 catches in 2018.
Whipple spent the past three years as the offensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Panthers. Whipple again led a brilliant offense, but his biggest coup came prior to the season when he encouraged quarterback Kenny Pickett to stay in college for one more season. Pickett, who finished third in the Heisman balloting this year, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June that he would have gone pro rather than play for another offensive coordinator.
“If he left, I was definitely leaving,” Pickett said.
Pickett threw for 4,319 yards (fifth in nation) and 42 touchdowns (third) this season while the Atlantic Coast Conference champions averaged 43 points a game, third best in the country. The NFL-bound Pickett may prove to be a valuable recruiter for Nebraska if Whipple’s low-pressure recruiting style is any indication.
“I tell ’em here’s Kenny’s number, call him,” Whipple said. “Ask him why did he come back to Pitt? How was our relationship?”
Frost said he wanted to turn over the offense to someone who had a wealth of experience and that Whipple’s “intelligence and personality” separated him from other candidates. That shoulder-shurgging demeanor was on display in Whipple’s first meeting with the media.
“I got into coaching to help people when I left Brown. I think I can help here,” he said.