JERREY ROBERTS UMass Football Head Coach Mark Whipple smiles at the end of his team's first practice Aug. 4 at UMass.
AMHERST — If it were up to him, UMass coach Mark Whipple would rather not play against his friends. While he’s gotten used to it over the years, he’d certainly prefer to play someone he doesn’t know or doesn’t like than someone he’s close to.
But when Whipple returns to the UMass sidelines for the first game of his second stint leading the Minutemen, he’ll do it against one of his closest friends in the game.
Former UMass coach Don Brown, who was Whipple’s defensive coordinator in Amherst and at Brown University, now holds that title at Boston College. The Eagles and Minutemen play at 3 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
“I’d rather not (play). But it doesn’t matter,” Whipple said. “It’s BC and UMass not me verse those guys.”
Whipple and Brown helped turn UMass from a solid regional team in the Yankee Conference to the 1998 Division I-AA national champions. But they’ve been friends and competitors well before that.
They first met on the field when Whipple was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire and Brown led the defense at Dartmouth in 1986.
Both men bounced around New England until they joined forces for two seasons (1996-97) at Brown, where Whipple was the head coach and Don Brown the defensive coordinator before moving to UMass together. After two years in Amherst, Brown was hired as the head coach at Northeastern, where he turned the Atlantic 10’s worst program into a playoff team.
When Whipple left to become an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brown replaced him in Amherst and kept the Minutemen among the elite programs in the FCS from 2004-08. Whipple’s son Spencer, who is now UMass’ tight ends coach, even spent a year playing for Brown in Amherst.
Brown’s defense and Whipple’s offense tangled again in the ACC. Brown left UMass to become the defensive coordinator at Maryland for two years (2009-10), the same two years Whipple was the offensive coordinator at Miami.
The two talk regularly in and out of season, but those conversations go quiet when they’re preparing to play each other.
“The bottom line is the phone line will be quiet for 10 days or so and then we’ll talk the rest of the season,” Brown said. “That’s the way it goes.”
Whipple said they’d reconnect shortly after, no matter who wins.
“We’ll talk after the game or Sunday,” he said.
They root for each other’s squads when they’re not playing. Like Whipple, Brown has warm feelings for UMass and was glad to see his friend back at the helm.
“I was tremendously happy for him. He’s a good friend and I want to see good things to happen for him and UMass,” Brown said. “It was a great choice by UMass.”
Brown was the defensive coordinator at Connecticut when the Minutemen and Huskies opened the 2012 season. He said that game has blunted any sentimentality of playing this game.
“To be as honest and I’m being honest as a heart attack, I haven’t even thought about Whipple and UMass,” Brown said. “I’ve just been grinding so hard just to get my guys right and it’s not like I haven’t played UMass since I’ve left.”
Whipple recognized Brown’s influence on the Eagles’ evolving defense.
“You can see how much they’ve improved defensively and how much they believe in what he does,” Whipple said.
Whipple and Brown aren’t the only interconnected members of the UMass and BC staff. Eagle head coach Steve Addazio was the head coach at Cheshire (Connecticut) High School (1988-94) when Whipple was the head coach at nearby Division II New Haven University.
Boston College defensive coordinator Ben Albert is a UMass alumnus. Offensive coordinator Ryan Day’s brother, Tim Day, played quarterback and wide receiver for the Minutemen.
UMass quarterbacks coach Liam Coen’s father Tim Coen played at BC and Coen played at UMass under Brown as did Minuteman linebackers coach Charles Walker. Each team has graduates of five different high schools — Catholic Memorial, Doherty, Everett, Worcester Academy and the Dexter School.