Pitt OC Mark Whipple has done it all, but quarterbacks are his specialty
If necessary, Mark Whipple can perform almost any task on a football field.
You need chalk lines drawn on the field before a game? He’s done that as a small-college coach.
How about something a little more challenging, such as winning a national championship? Did that at UMass in 1998.
Prepare a quarterback to go to and win the Super Bowl in his second season? That, too, when he mentored Ben Roethlisberger with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005.
Finally, this one: Build relationships with his players and their families that last a lifetime? He saw that come to fruition when that championship UMass team returned last season for a 20-year reunion.
“I saw the kids come back married with children,” said Whipple, who was back for his second coaching stint at UMass.“But what really struck me is their parents came back. The effect you can have on a family, that was really broadening to me. We’re going to try and do the same thing here.”
The ‘here’ of which Whipple speaks is Pitt where he was recently hired to be coach Pat Narduzzi’s fourth offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in five seasons.
His next undertaking: Perfect the game of junior-to-be quarterback Kenny Pickett.
In his first two seasons at Pitt, Pickett was partially crafted by Shawn Watson, who was fired at the end of last season when the passing game hit a dead end.
Narduzzi has high hopes for what Whipple can do with Pickett, who completed only 43.3 percent of his passes (29 of 67) for 274 yards, one interception and no touchdowns in the final three games against Miami, Clemson and Stanford. Total points: 26.
“I’ve always had the utmost respect on who he is, how he did his business, the relationships he had with his players,” said Narduzzi, who played and coached against Whipple when he was at Rhode Island. “That guy turns quarterbacks to gold. It’s his style. He brings a passing game that we definitely needed.”
His secret to coaching quarterbacks? Whipple laughed and said, “Well, they have talent.”
Whipple, 61, is an Ivy Leaguer with a degree in political science from Brown, but that’s only part of what caught Narduzzi’s attention.
He has worked for and along side some of biggest names in the NFL, including Bill Cowher and Dick LeBeau with Steelers, Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles and George Allen and Roman Gabriel with the Arizona Wranglers of the USFL in 1984. Whipple said Gabriel was “a mentor to me.”
Whipple was hired by the Steelers before the 2004 NFL Draft as their quarterbacks coach – after Brown classmate Chris Berman put in a good word – and said he got lucky when the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger.
The rookie quarterback started the season behind veteran Tommy Maddox, who was injured in the second game against the Baltimore Ravens. It was Whipple’s responsibility to get his protégé ready immediately.
“We never expected Ben to play until Tommy got hurt,” Whipple said last week. “I wasn’t really ready for it. Thank, God, Ben was more ready than I was.”
Roethlisberger took the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game that season and the Super Bowl in ’05. There, Roethlisberger, who has not always had warm relationships with Steelers assistants, told the New York Times what Whipple meant to his early development.
“Coach Whip has been awesome with me,” Roethlisberger said before Super Bowl XL. “He’s not a big yeller, a ranting and raving guy, which is good for me. I like to just be able to talk to my coach, and he’s been able to help me grow as a quarterback.”
Roethlisberger said Whipple told him, ”’I’m not going to try to change anything you do; just go out and play football.’”
Coaching quarterbacks seems to come naturally to Whipple.
“I played it in college, I called the plays in college, I called the plays a lot in high school,” he said.
“I’ve been doing it for a long time. You get to know people and learn a lot. That’s the great thing about this game. I’ve learned a lot just in the two weeks I’ve been (at Pitt). “
Maybe he does have a secret: “You try to individualize each quarterback and don’t put those guys into a cookie cutter.”
Whipple was with the Steelers until Cowher retired after the ’06 season. He moved to the Eagles in 2008 and the Miami Hurricanes for the next two seasons, leading the offense to a total of 5,483 yards, third-most in program history.
After two years as the Cleveland Browns’ quarterbacks coach, the Tarrytown, N.Y., native went back to UMass where he hoped to revive the program like he did in 1998.
The first time, he took a program that was 2-9 in 1997 and had won 19 games in four seasons and turned into a national champion in one year. The second time, from 2014-18, he had less success and parted ways after last season in a mutual agreement with the university.
Still, he won more games at UMass than any coach (65), setting the record, fittingly, in a 2017 victory against Maine at Fenway Park. Whipple, the Arizona high school player of the year in 1975, not only played quarterback at Brown, but some shortstop for the baseball team.
“I want to thank Mark for his commitment to our football program for 11 years,’’ UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He came back to UMass when this program needed a strong leader and respected mentor.
“Mark provided the steady hand we needed in our early years as an FBS program and leaves our program in much better standing than when he came back in 2014.”
But when he left UMass, he knew he wasn’t ready to quit.
“My wife told me I have a lot more to give,” he said. “I got into coaching because I want to help people. It wasn’t I want to win a Super Bowl, I wanted to win a national championship. It was about helping people.”
Finally, he accepted Narduzzi’s job offer after spending, perhaps, too much time on the golf course.
“I was in Arizona, played enough golf,” he said. “(Golf pro) Gary McCord told me, ‘You’re not good enough to play this game, get coaching.’
“So, that’s what we’re doing.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.