Mark Whipple knows football. He knows quarterbacks, too.
The 64-year-old New York native had a good thing going at Pittsburgh, where he had just helped win an Atlantic Coast Conference championship while calling plays for a Heisman candidate quarterback in Kenny Pickett and an offense that ranked third in the nation in scoring at 43 points per game.
But he left that to be the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Nebraska. The same Nebraska that just finished 3-9 and loses key pieces on offense and defense. The same Nebraska that enters the 2022 season with a fifth-year head coach on the hot seat in Scott Frost. Why?
Simply put, it’s Nebraska. Whipple remembers what the program was once like.
“I’m a guy that likes challenges,” Whipple said on Wednesday at Memorial Stadium as he met with the media for the first time since his hiring. “I’ve been everywhere, done everything, but I haven’t been at Nebraska. I hadn’t coached in the Big Ten. So, why not?”
Whipple’s Husker nostalgia runs deep. He was teammates with current Nebraska interim running backs coach, Ron Brown, at Brown University in the late 70s. They’ve been friends ever since, and Whipple used to watch Nebraska practice for the Fiesta Bowls in Arizona when Brown coached for the Huskers.
Whipple remembers the Husker fans during those Fiesta Bowls. He remembers the time Arizona State upset the Huskers at the Fiesta in 1975. He remembers being at his family’s Thanksgiving when Johnny Rogers ran the punt back for a touchdown against Oklahoma in the Game of the Century. He remembers Jerry Tagge. Heard Tom Osborne speak at conventions.
Whipple knows Nebraska football, and he wants to help get it back on track. That starts with building an offense with Frost. He wants to take what was good from last season—the Huskers gained 446.6 total yards per game, 23rd in the country—and tweak what wasn’t so good, like scoring points to match those yards. Nebraska averaged 27.9 points, 71st in the country.
“I said we’re going to work together. This is collaborative,” Whipple said of the offense he wants to run next season. “This is like, ‘You’re (Frost) a smart guy, you’ve had a lot of success, you’ve had the No. 1 offense at Oregon. What you did at UCF.’ I don’t have all the answers. It kind of goes back to ‘Remember the Titans’—at a certain point, you say, ‘I need help.’ He knows these guys that way. So we’ll both be involved.”
Throughout his 40-plus-year coaching career, Whipple has worked with the best of the best. Current Ohio State head coach Ryan Day was a grad assistant for Whipple while he was the head coach at UMass. Current Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is a good friend, too. So is longtime coach Don Brown, or “Donnie” as Whipple called him, and Paul Chryst and Kirk Ferentz.
You can say Whipple’s coached some pretty good quarterbacks in his career, too. Those names include Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. That happens when you get to coach in the NFL’s Pro Bowl. All three of those guys have taught Whipple the traits that he wants in his quarterbacks. To be a leader. To be tough. To work hard at their craft.
And if you hurt feelings along the way, so be it.
“Those guys are, and excuse my French, but they’re pricks,” Whipple said of the quarterback greats he’s coached. “I’ve never seen a winner at the quarterback position be a nice guy, and that really goes back to the competitive nature that they instill, and that’s what Kenny did at Pitt, and bringing that out of him, and being honest with me as a play-caller. I don’t need yes men, I need you to tell me the truth—what do you like and don’t. I’ve got enough stuff, Scott’s got enough stuff.”
Whipple will need to figure out what he has in Nebraska’s quarterback room, which has two scholarship players left after four-year starter Adrian Martinez entered his name in the transfer portal. Second-year freshman Logan Smothers has a bit of experience, with only one game under his belt. True freshman Heinrich Haarberg is still developing and didn’t see the field in 2021.
Then there’s the transfer portal, where many quarterbacks are looking for a fresh start. Whipple said he and Frost are taking a look to see what’s there.
“I’ve had a ton of calls, been doing it a long time,” he said. “We’ll just see what fits. We’re talking to people, we’re working at it.”
Whomever the quarterback is that trots out for the first snap against Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27 is going to have the offense tailored to fit what he does well. Whipple isn’t a fan of trying to stick a square peg in a round hole. A lot of the terminology will stay the same with some differences, he added.
One of the hardest years Whipple had as a coach was in 2004 when he left UMass and had to flip everything and teach a rookie quarterback by the name of Roethlisberger in the NFL.
“This won’t be as difficult as that,” he said. “We’ll marry the things that way, we’ll want our guys to play fast and feel comfortable.”
Whipple wants to gear the offense to the quarterbacks he has, so when a play comes in they feel confident that they can communicate it to the other 10 guys on the field.
“There’s a relationship built between the play-caller and the quarterback, and the time you spend afterwards, the time you spend with the starter that’s different than the second and the third,” Whipple said. “In this day and age, it seems like guys get hurt more. The game is much faster, so you have to get more than one guy ready in the way you prepare. And that’s from the top of the NFL and that’s what we’ll do here.”