“Tears. There were tears all over the locker room,” Pop Lacey said bluntly.
Lacey was a former captain of the UNH football team and is recalling the emotions that he felt when he heard the news that head coach Sean McDonnell (Coach Mac) was going to miss the entirety of Lacey’s senior season due to medical concerns.
“We were hurting deeply. I know this was a guy that some of us looked up to as a father figure, especially some of us being so far away from home,” noted Lacey. “It was just heartbreaking.”
The team finished the 2019 season with a 6-5 record behind the leadership of former UNH quarterback Ricky Santos. Today, Coach Mac is back in the driver’s seat and Santos is back as the quarterbacks’ coach. Despite everything that’s gone on in the past year Santos, the players and especially Coach Mac are excited to battle for each other when the season kicks off in the beginning of March.
Coach Mac is one of the most decorated head coaches in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and has been described as the root of UNH football by sophomore quarterback Max Brosmer. He noted that “there’s a different feeling when he walks into the locker room.”
Lacey went as far to say that Coach Mac is similar to Nick Saban in terms of his importance to a collegiate football program. Saban is the current head coach at the University of Alabama and one of the most highly regarded coaches in the nation.
“He’s a guy who really cares about his players, and he’s the rock of the entire organization.”
The former captain emphasized the importance of Coach Mac to the program by telling a story during his own recruiting process to UNH. Lacey, who is from Pennsylvania, is the oldest child in his family and explained that his mom was adamant on meeting the head coach who would be taking care of her oldest son before she gave the green light. Coach Mac drove from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania to meet her and reassure that her son would be in good hands in Durham.
Losing such a profound figure in a locker room could make for a tough transition especially for a team with a lot of seniors on defense like the 2019 Wildcats were. Santos even admitted that taking over for a coach with such a lengthy resume was daunting at first. Lacey described the first couple weeks of transitioning to Santos as “different”, noting that it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t good, just different.
After the initial adjustment period took place Lacey explained that the coaching styles were different, but it seemed like Santos had been in the job for years and it didn’t take long for things to seem normal.
“He did a great job of rallying the team. We fell one game short of making the playoffs, and I really couldn’t have been any happier with the person that filled Coach Mac’s shoes. Coach Santos is one heck of a coach,” said Lacey.
Despite the success Santos saw after being thrown into the fire a year ago, he says that as of right now he doesn’t plan on looking for a head coaching job elsewhere. Currently and assistant to Coach Mac, Santos hopes to be in Durham for a long time.
“Right now my goal is to be the next head coach that takes over for Coach Mac when he does retire; that’s what I’m working towards every single day. After talking with [Coach Mac] and the administration I think we’re all on the same page that I’ll have a great opportunity to be the next head coach.”
Coach Mac has been back in his full-time position since the spring and obviously a lot has happened since then in terms of the COVID-19 outbreak. Although a fall season did not end up being played, the school and the conference worked all summer to try and figure a way to get athletes on the field. Even after missing all of last season for medical reasons, Coach Mac says he did not have any reservations about returning to the sideline this fall had games been played.
“I had great belief that the people in the positions that were making the decisions were going to make good ones and I think they did,” praised McDonnell
The head coach also noted that he hadn’t gotten the sense from any of his players that they were thinking of opting out due to COVID-19 concerns. He said that from his point of view everybody seemed like they had bought in.
Since students have returned to campus in August, the school implemented a phased restart for teams to begin practicing again. Being with the team again after so many months has been described as “incredible” by Santos. Coach Mac is also excited to be back and had nothing but praise for the school and the way things have been handled to this point.
“I think the university has done a great job with testing procedures and testing policies, giving us the opportunity to make sure our players are safe, and our coaches are safe.”
Coach Mac noted how excited the players are to finally be back in the weight room and back on the field with teammates and coaches after going through some of the phases that the school put in place.
As for how the team looks to this point, Coach Mac says it’s too early to tell. He says there’s a lot of work to do but he’ll know a lot more by about Nov. 1.
Photo courtesy of Gil Talbot.