In Hoosiers, which was too good to be true, Gene Hackman stared hard at a circle of anxious players and told them, "I love you guys." In real life, last Saturday afternoon in a redbrick locker room behind the end zone in Chattanooga, the coach wasn't reading from a script. Mark Whipple, the first-year Massachusetts coach whose Minutemen had just upset previously undefeated No. 1 Georgia Southern 55-43 to win the Division I-AA national championship, was making it up as he went along. "All the kids were saying, 'Thank you, thank you,' " says Whipple. "I just thanked them back."
A year earlier most of those players had suffered through a 2-9 season, the most losses for their school in 104 years. It is hard to recall a similar storyline—last-place team, new coach, a run of suspenseful wins and upsets culminating in a national tide—without turning to Hollywood. Yet even in a world of doctored scripts and special effects, UMass's success would have seemed unlikely. At his introductory press conference one year and three days before winning the national tide, Whipple had declared his intention to do exactly that. (Mr. Whipple!) He explained that he had left as head coach at Brown, his alma mater, because the Ivy League prevented its football teams from competing in the I-AA tournament. In various ways throughout the year he reminded the Minutemen that their ultimate goal was to win the championship game in Chattanooga. His colleagues in the UMass athletic department admit that they snickered at him behind his back.
His players, though, were ready to listen—and to believe. "He set the goals so high that he made the players bring out talent that they may not have known they had," says senior linebacker Khari Samuel, an All-America this year.
Whipple introduced his own version of the West Coast offense, which he had been honing at smaller colleges (including stints at Union, New Hampshire and New Haven) over two decades. The 41-year-old Whipple has been a keen strategist since he called his own plays while quarterbacking Brown to a pair of second-place Ivy finishes in 1977 and '78. "He has a photographic memory," said running backs coach Mike Cassano, who also worked for Whipple at Brown. "He watches game tapes all week and doesn't take a single note. He keeps it all up here."
To get it all from up there to down on the field, Whipple needed a new quarterback and new receivers. He found them at the football equivalent of garage sales and secondhand shops. His 6'3" junior quarterback, Todd Bankhead, came from Palo mar College, a juco near San Diego, where last season he split playing time with a freshman. Bankhead threw for 3,919 yards and 34 touchdowns in the Minutemen's 15 games this year—and well into December blithely wandered the Amherst campus in sandals. Senior wide receiver Jimmy Moore was plucked from his parents' home in Austin, having quit the team at SMU after four games last season because of coaching changes. Starting freshman receiver Adrian Zullo of Pompano Beach, Fla., was the National Scholastic champion in the 100 meters and MVP of the state championship football game. He was also 5'7" and 151 pounds. Whipple was the only football coach to offer him a scholarship.
The Minutemen began their season at No. 3 Delaware, a I-AA semifinalist in 1997. UMass was alive until the final minute, when senior tight end and eventual All-America Kerry Taylor dropped the go-ahead touchdown. "I was getting congratulated because we'd kept it close," Whipple says. "I went in the locker room, and the kids were really down. I said, 'That's good.' "
In winning their next four games, beginning with an upset at Richmond, the Minutemen became the Last-Minutemen. Nine of their games were decided in the final 60 seconds or in overtime. They won six of those: recovering a fumble to set up the winning drive at Richmond; surviving when New Hampshire missed an extra point and a field goal in the final 2:20; stopping a Lehigh comeback inside the 10-yard line in the second round of the I-AA playoffs. In all they beat six nationally ranked teams. Most impressive, they scored more than three times as many points and threw for more than three times as many yards as they had the year before. At the same time, sophomore tailback Marcel Shipp was rushing for a school-record 2,542 yards in UMass's 15 games.
As for Whipple, he was unaware of any excitement he was causing. "I'm not a good one to ask," he said while sitting in a football conference room on campus last week, wearing long Johns and no shoes. "I give somebody five dollars to go get me lunch so I can stay inside and keep working."
Here's a secret about miraculous seasons: No inspirational music plays in the background, and the games don't take place in slow motion. If anything, the year moves along too quickly. At 10:30 on the night of Dec. 14, having just returned from its semifinal win in the playoffs, a 41-31 fourth-quarter comeback at Northwestern State in Louisiana, the coach and his 10 assistants were breaking down videotape and beginning to plan for the upcoming championship game when Whipple was struck by a revelation. "This was one of the great wins I've had in my career," he announced, "one of the great things that's ever happened to the football team at this university, and we haven't even had a beer." So they went down the street to Rafters, the local sports bar. "And we talked about recruiting," he says.
Awaiting UMass in the final was four-time national champ Georgia Southern (14-0), the powerhouse of I-AA this year. So formidable were the Eagles that computer guru Jeff Sagarin rated them ahead of 47 Division I-A schools, including Houston, Iowa and Washington State. Their option attack had set 15 regular-season national records and rushed for 69 touchdowns. Red-shirt freshman fullback Adrian Peterson alone had scored 26 regular-season touchdowns, obliterating the I-AA freshman record of 19 previously held by Randy Moss. In the open field Peterson kicked up huge divots of sod like a racehorse.