McDonnell to Santos: An emotional handoff for UNH football

  • University of New Hampshire interim football coach Ricky Santos (left) addresses the team during a practice session on Tuesday in Durham. Santos, a former UNH quarterback, takes over for longtime coach Sean McDonnell, who took a leave of absence Monday to deal with health issues. Courtesy of UNH Athletics

  • University of New Hampshire interim football coach Ricky Santos (center) addresses the team during a practice session on Tuesday in Durham. Santos, a former UNH quarterback, takes over for longtime coach Sean McDonnell, who took a leave of absence Monday to deal with health issues. Courtesy of UNH Athletics

UNH Insider
Published: 8/29/2019 6:54:31 PM

DURHAM – The University of New Hampshire football team did something this week that it had not done in the last two decades: The Wildcats practiced under the watchful eyes of a head coach other than Sean McDonnell.

McDonnell announced to his team on Monday evening that he was taking a leave of absence to deal with health issues.

Ricky Santos, one of the greatest Wildcat players ever under the tutelage of McDonnell, takes over the program on an interim basis and ran his first two practices on Bremner Field on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.

“I think it went well,” Santos said after his first practice Tuesday. “I think the guys responded. The message beforehand was that this is all about leaving this place better than it was before and having a place where coach Mac wants to come back to and that’s everybody’s goal, his goal included, to make sure he can come back and coach and finish this thing on his terms.”

The Wildcats had a couple of days to regroup this week: Most college football teams open their season this weekend. UNH has this weekend off and begins its season on Sept. 7 with a 1 p.m. game at Holy Cross.

The team plays at Florida International in Miami on Sept. 14 and plays its home opener against the University of Rhode Island on Sept. 21 at 6 p.m. in Wildcat Stadium

It’s been an emotional week for the Wildcats, who heard the news that McDonnell, a 1978 UNH grad, was stepping away to deal with undisclosed health issues at the end of a team meeting on Monday.

“It was heartbreaking,” said senior linebacker and captain Michael Balsamo. “He’s a big part of our family. He’s the head guy and without him there’s a big hole.”

Director of athletics Marty Scarano expressed great confidence in the ability of Santos and the rest of the coaching staff to lead the team forward and said that he expects McDonnell to return to coaching the team, but it’s unclear when that might be.

An intense, passionate, engaging and fearless leader respected throughout the Colonial Athletic Association and all of college football, McDonnell has been the face of the program and has built it into one of the nation’s best since taking over for his own mentor and coach, Bill Bowes, for the 1999 season.

“Honestly, the biggest challenge is going into that first game without him,” said senior captain and safety Pop Lacey. “Everybody who’s been here, excluding the freshmen, we’ve never gone into a game, gone into a practice, pretty much gone into a situation where we knew we weren’t going to have him or we knew he wasn’t going to be our leader.”

Between them, Bowes and McDonnell have led the program for nearly half a century (McDonnell is in his 21st year, Bowes coached 27).

Santos was thrust into the starting lineup at quarterback as a redshirt freshman midway through UNH’s first game in 2004 at Delaware, the defending FCS national champion. He led the team to a win in that game, kick-starting his standout career, and led the Wildcats into the national playoffs, too, beginning a string of 14 straight playoff appearances in the tournament.

That streak ended last fall and the goal since then has been to start another.

Santos, after an earlier stint as wide receivers coach at UNH, returned to the team last winter as associate head coach and quarterbacks coach. He had spent the last three seasons as an assistant at Columbia University.

Now, with his coach’s lessons to guide him, Santos will carry on McDonnell’s mission.

“You come in and you’re young and you’re a kid and you think you know everything and you realize you don’t know anything and he instills all these morals and values in you,” Santos said. “Ultimately those are the same things that we’re leaning on right now to get us through this tough time. We talk about it all the time. We train for adversity so when you get to real-life situations that are hard, you’re ready for it. Because of him, we’re ready to battle through a situation like this.”

The transition, said Lacey and Balsamo, has been as smooth as possible.

“Coach Santos did a phenomenal job,” Balsamo said. “He’s a UNH legend. He knows the ins and outs of UNH, the culture, what to expect.”

His message?

“Just to stay together,” Balsamo said. “The head guy’s gone. There’s not that one key leader, the head coach, so we absolutely need to stay together. Just one heartbeat. Coach Santos did an awesome job preaching to us that we need to stay together. Coach Mac is sick. But once we get on the football field we’ve just got to compete every day just like coach Mac would want us to.”

All. Together.

“We trust in Coach Santos,” Lacey said. “We trust in our coaching staff and we trust in everybody that’s here on this field. That’s the main focus and that’s the main thing, that we trust in ourselves and we trust in everybody that we still have here and we just pray for a speedy recovery for our coach. That’s all we can really hope for and do right now.”




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