This column will feature interviews of UNH players taken at the CAA Media Day event held July 28 at the M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Coach McDonnell’s interview was taken at his office Aug. 12 at the University of New Hampshire after one of the Wildcat practices. After the interviews I’ll provide commentary on the practice as well as photos taken that morning.
Left, Head Coach Sean McDonnell, Center, Sean Jellison, right, Dino Vasso.
Interview with Head Coach Sean McDonnell
TT: Coach, good morning.
SM: Terence, good to see you again.
TT: In your experience as a coach, from the time you began until today, how has the mind-set of the recruits changed?
SM: I think it’s a MTV generation. What I mean by that is, there are a lot of bells and whistles in a lot of different ways. Whether it’s a website, facilities, recruiting trips, recruiting brochures and all of that, a lot of these kids, the first thing that they hear, see, know about a university is through some other thing before they get to see the nuts and bolts. I think that’s good and I think that’s bad.
TT: How many years overall have you been coaching?
SM: 1979, I started coaching high school, and college in 1984.
TT: In 79 or 84, what did the kids want coming out of high school going into college?
SM: Probably wanted to know if he was going to have an opportunity to play and play early like everybody does. Then he wanted to know if he was going to get a scholarship, then he just wanted to know what your school was like, and what the kids were like back then.
TT: Last year’s high school seniors, what did they want to know?
SM: Who’s going where, what was your record, and what was your facility like, what are your TV appearances. The right ones, they wanted to know similar things like the guys that were old school wanted. Good academics, good people, good chemistry, what you can do to help them become a college graduate and get them moving along in their careers.
TT: What is the selling point for New Hampshire?
SM: People. I think, as in anything in life, anything you do when you’re in a business of getting kids interested in a school or university, the people in that school are going to be your best selling point. They have to come across as genuine. They have to come across as caring. They have to come across as knowledgeable. If you have those three ingredients, I think you’re going to be able to spur an interest in a kid who’s got his eyes and head focused on the right things.
TT: What are some of the challenges you face when you go out and try to recruit a kid to come to New Hampshire?
SM: I think the No. 1 thing we have as a challenge is our facilities. Not so much our practice facilities or our weight room, but it’s our stadium. Again, that’s MTV. You were here last year when we played. We had 16,000 people here for the Villanova game and it was loud. It was full, it was exciting, and in that game, nobody knew that we don’t have a plush stadium, with plush seating and plush concession stands. They knew one thing, that it was exciting in that stadium on that day.
TT: Define for me the ideal New Hampshire recruit.
SM: 1. SMART, 2. TOUGH, 3. GREAT CHARACTER. I think you can interchange any of those parts. We look for football players. We look for kids that are going to develop. You find something in them that maybe other people don’t see, whether it’s from watching them in a basketball game, a summer practice or a game tape or something of that nature. You want to see how they’re going to compete. They have to have skills to play, but one thing you want to see is, do they play smart, they’re a heady kid, and will they compete.
TT: With that formula you just gave me, do you tell your assistants to go out and get me that kid, or go out and get me kids, and we’ll just weed them out?
SM: Well, what we try to do is we work, and we talk an awful lot about what I look for in a kid. So that they understand when they go there and they get a kid that we want to sit down with. When we bring him to the table, we’re going to recruit the kid. That we have a lot of questions answered about what the intangibles are for him. Then I got to meet the kid. And then our assistant coaches that were with me for a while, Sean McGowan (defensive coordinator) and Tim Cramsey (offensive coordinator), they know what I’m looking for now just as Chip Kelly, Mike Doss and other guys. It’s important. I want to make sure the kid has enough ingredients in him to help us develop what we think we need in the New Hampshire kid.
TT: Geographically, where does New Hampshire like to recruit from?
SM: We have to start inside out. I think it’s real important we start from inside of New Hampshire right through New England, and then we’ve branched out to Pittsburgh, California and we got a little bit of Florida. We were big in Canada for a while, but as thing go, it doesn’t dry up, but other people find out where we’re recruiting. Again it’s hard to recruit against people that have great academics, great facilities and great tradition. People find out, they’re smart; they’re going to cover the rocks, too.
TT: When a kid has multiple choices, how do you sway that kid to pick New Hampshire over another conference school?
SM: First of all, we can bank on tradition. We’ve won in the last couple of years and we’ve gotten exposure for that. The second part is when we bring them on a visit, or we encounter him or his family, we want them to feel as comfortable as they can about the New Hampshire system. Be as honest as we can with them about the hard work ethic, the spirited practices the challenging energy and stuff like that. When a kid comes up here and finds that’s real, that’s part of it. If he’s your kind of kid, that type of kid, he’s going to really enjoy it. If not, he’s probably going to go someplace else.
TT: Other coaches have told me that the recruitment process timetable has moved up, that teams have to make decisions earlier. Do you feel that’s true?
SM: Yes and No. Because most of the guys that all of us offer are either in the summer, are either 1A prospects, or low 1A prospects, MAC (Mid-American Conference) prospects, things like that. The other kids who haven’t been offered, they’re hoping that maybe it’s a trickle-down effect to them. I think it’s sped up a little bit, but I think the great thing about our sport is that the difference between 1A and 1AA or Football Bowl or Football Championship is that kids will aspire to go to those places right away. Unless it’s maybe a positional thing like quarterback or runningback, receiver, linebacker that a school has a great tradition on. I think the kid’s going to wait to find out if the 1A offer is going to come and put you on hold a little bit, but you’ve got to identify those kids early and let them know that you care, because when they fall off the 1A bandwagon and falls, you want them to say “Hey, New Hampshire was there for me, let’s go talk to them a little bit.”
TT: Speaking about kids coming from FBS to FCS, does New Hampshire take transfers?
SM: Very rarely. We look at it as a thing where: 1. We want to know the kid or the coach. 2. We had to have recruited the kid. 3. We want to know the staff that he’s coming from, if we know people from there. We build from within, and we build from the bottom up. We have not gone for quick fixes or things like that because I think there are other schools that are probably more appealing to those guys than us. We’ve had four or five and they’ve worked out OK, but we’re not looking for it, we’re not searching for it.
TT: Knowing in the spring who was going to graduate, that following fall you probably went out and recruited those positions. Did you fill the needs that you anticipated having?
SM: I think we did some good things. We got two young receivers I think are going to be good football players, Harris and Giansante. I think we got two good tight ends that can play a little bit in Ciccone and Spears. I’m pleased with our offensive linemen, Bowman, Coccia and Johnson. The skill kids we brought in, both defensively and on offense. They’re a couple of years away. Very few guys at New Hampshire are going to come in and play right away, because we’ve been able to redshirt and keep the tradition going. We’re looking more for kids that have got the skills, and we’re going to polish it more and just develop them a little more.
TT: Have you had any recruiting classes that have disappointed you, and if so, can you tell me how that happened, and what did you do or how did you change afterward?
SM: I wouldn’t say disappointed me, I’ve had some that surprised me. And, it’s been surprising for the better. I’ll give you the perfect example, Santos & Ball. Both of those guys were low gets for us. Santos was the fifth quarterback that we offered. He was fourth-string on the depth chart coming out of his redshirt freshman year. He ended up starting the rest of the games after the first game that year. David Ball was a "walk-on." I didn’t think he was fast enough. We recruited another receiver that year that was faster. Both of those guys became the best position players ever. Now that I look at it, the receiver that I recruited before him, Aaron Brown, he went to the Bills camp. He wasn’t bad, but I told David he wasn’t fast enough. And the quarterbacks, they went all over the place DeOssie went to Brown, he’s with the Giants. Tommy Zets went to Youngstown State and was an all-conference” player there. A couple of other guys went out and played, but what surprised me was I didn’t know these guys were going to be that good. They were that good, so that was a pleasant surprise. That’s how it’s looked at for me.
TT: How has the institution here at New Hampshire assisted as far as recruiting goes?
SM: Our administration has done a great job, starting with the A.D., starting with the opportunity to do full-time spring recruiting, and being able to support that. The second thing is, from having gone to school here, I’ve been here since 1991, I’ve formed relationships with admissions, with professors, with deans. If I need people to talk to somebody about engineering, I can call Bob Henry. If I need someone to talk to somebody about marine biology, I can call Len Watson. These guys, they’re friends, they’re colleagues. They know what our beliefs are as a football team, the fact that academics come first. Our reputation in the classroom downtown is more important to me than wins and losses. They understand it’s not a show and not a gimmick, and they appreciate that so we’re able to work together. This university has worked very, very well, and I’m fortunate and lucky because a lot of people in here believe in us. I think it goes back to the kids that we recruit, and the admissions process helped. As thorough as they are, they make sure we’re taking the right kids.
TT: With what you just said about the administration and the care that they have for the football team, is there a possibility the facilities will improve?
SM: If you had been here for 10 years and walked around the facilities, you would have seen that every facility has improved except the stadium. And the reason for that is it’s the most expensive facility. We’ve had very close relationships with two corporations, and then BANG, problems hit with the economy two years ago. Then one of them went to another facet of the university. We’re working hard, and I’m excited because I think there’s a couple of more things in the fire that Marty Scarano (Athletic Director) and a couple of our foundation people are working on. So we’re hoping, but we’re not crossing our fingers. It would be an unbelievable piece to the puzzle. It would be great, but at the same time I think we got enough here to convince people that this is a pretty good place to go to school.
TT: Let’s change the subject a little bit from recruitment to the evolution of college football with respect to New Hampshire. There’s a lot of talk going on about what the CAA is with teams coming and going. How much of that conversation are you involved in?
SM: I just want to make sure that our vision from top to bottom, from the president, to the AD, to the coaches and to the kids is to play the most competitive football we can play. Stay as funded as we can. That means scholarships, that means recruiting, that means all of that stuff. Our university is dedicated to doing that. I want to play in this league, because it’s the best league in the country with the best coaches and the best players. The best academics from top to bottom except for the Ivy League and the Patriot League. I think it’s important that if your institution wants to be great that you associate yourself with people like that. I think that’s why we do it, and that’s why we will continue to do it.
TT: Does the discussion of possibly going FBS ever come up?
SM: NO, and the reason for that is because you have to crawl before you can walk, and we’re still in the infant stages here. We’re trying to get the facilities built here and do the right things. You look at JMU, Villanova, well there maybe glimmers in their eyes about doing those kinds of things. Villanova has been a Division 1 program before. I’d be very interested to know what peoples feelings are about that, having gone through it before and having it taken away only to come back in football as Division III to 1-AA. A lot of people have to go to the games for you to make the money that you need to make. How Connecticut did that and had that unbelievable formula, they had a very strong men’s and women’s basketball program, and the state was at the right time to do it. Can you support that in a couple of other venues in this eastern part of the country? That’s a tough question, I don’t know.
TT: You’ve beaten five FBS programs in a row, and now you’re taking on Pitt this year.
SM: We may have bitten off more than we can chew. The difference between this team and the other teams we’ve played is the physicality of them on the offensive and defensive lines and the mind-set they have on offense. When we beat Rutgers, we caught them at the right time. They had just come off a big win against Michigan State. They were big, strong and physical. They had Brian Leonard playing for them. They were just beginning to learn how to win down at Rutgers, they weren’t ready to focus. Pitt has been a national champion, been to bowl games, have won the Big East. These guys are not going to look past us. We are going to have to be very special to stay in a game against a team like that.
TT: What are you going to tell your players??
SM: It’s your chance to buckle up, it’s your chance to show everybody your abilities and you can play at this level. I’m also going to tell them it’s a “one day season.” Once we play that game, win or lose, it’s done. We have to get ready for the next weekend for Rhode Island, which is probably the most important game.
TT: You’ve gone to the playoffs six years in a row, and won in the first round five of those six. What do you tell the team as far as reaching the playoffs for a seventh year in a row?
SM: I tell them it goes in one-week cycles. Our schedule has changed. It’s a more difficult degree of teams that we’re playing. If we’re looking to be in the playoffs for the seventh year in a row, we’re looking at the wrong things. We’re looking to go 1 – 0 on Saturday night. In fact, we’re looking to win camp. My mind says did we win fall camp, then I’ll go from there. Then, if we win the games that we can, we’ll have a shot. But eight's the magic number. Maybe seven this year with 20 teams, but I’ll tell you it’s going to be hard, and we’d better be ready to go each week.
TT: Any last things you want to say about the 2010 New Hampshire Wildcats?
SM: All I want to say is we’re going to play hard. We’re going to show up, we’re going to have fun doing it. I hope people remember how well we play.
TT: Coach, good luck to you.
SM: Thanks, Terence
Interview with Sean Jellison and Dino Vasso:
Sean Jellison, a runningback, is a senior from Amherst, N.H., is majoring in political science.
Dino Vasso, a cornerback is a senior from Philadelphia, is majoring in studio arts.
TT: Coming out of high school, what was important to you in picking a college to attend?
SJ: It was real important to be close to home. My parents wanted to come to all of the games on Saturdays, so I had to make sure I was at least in driving distance for them. Then I liked UNH because of the coaching staff and I had a good relationship with Coach McDonnell and some of the assistant coaches that were there at the time. That really had a big part in my decision.
DV: I was just looking for a college that had my major. Not every school can fit that need. I was just looking for a place where I could fit in with the coaching staff and players.
TT: Did you take a recruiting visit?
SJ: Yes I did.
TT: Did you take recruiting visits anywhere else?
SJ: No, I did not.
DV: Just “unofficials.”
TT: How important was that recruiting visit to you?
SJ: By the time I went on the visit, I had already made up my mind to go to UNH. So, it was just to go down and meet some of the current players that were on the team, and see what the campus lifestyle was like, and get one last tour and look at the facilities.
DV: It was very important because I had never been to New Hampshire before. It was my first time being in the state. I was new to the whole area, so I wanted to get a feel for what things were like, and what the people were like.
TT: Did you have offers from any other universities?
SJ: No, I did not.
DV: No, I didn’t.
TT: How important was playing time to you?
DV: Not so important. I knew I probably wasn’t going to play right away. That was so important to me. Getting the chance to learn the system so I could play was important.
SJ: It really wasn’t important. Coach told me I would be redshirted. I kind of liked the idea of having 4 ˝ or 5 years to finish out my school instead of trying to rush and cram it into four.
TT: What was the recruiting experience like for you? What was going through your mind when it came time to pick a school?
DV: It was kind of stressful. It can be stressful at times. When it comes to thinking about where you’re going to spend your next four or five years and you’re only 17 or 18 years old. It’s a real big decision. It can be stressful, but you can’t let it get to you. You have to go with your heart and talk to your parents.
SJ: I was kind of just listening to coaches from UMass and the Patriot League had to say about playing time, the school experience and academics, but I don’t think it was as stressful as Dino says his was. Toward the end of the process, it really only came down to UNH. It was a close to home decision. It was easier than what Dino described.
TT: Did academics play a role in your decision?
SJ: Yea, I wanted to go to a good school, but it wasn’t a big part of the decision because the schools I was talking to I knew had good academics and good football.
TT: Did the distance play a factor in your decision?
DV: It kind of did. That’s why it took me a little longer to make my decision. I wanted to stay near home, but when I took my “official” to New Hampshire, I loved the team. It was tight knit, and the community was great. I liked the coaching staff. Once I took my official visit, I think that is what made the decision for me.
TT: What words of wisdom would you offer the next class of high school seniors?
SJ: I just had to help my brother out who went through the same process. I would say what I told him. Take your time to make your decision. Look at all of the offers. Look at all of your options to decide where you would fit best. Like Dino said, that’s where you’re going to spend the next four or five years of your life.
DV: Take your time; it’s going to be a big decision. Talk to your family. Weigh the pros and cons of each school, and go to the school that best fits your needs.
TT: Let’s talk about the 2010 season. What’s going to be different for the New Hampshire Wildcats this year from last year?
DV: We have a similar team on both sides of the ball. We were good last year, I feel like we’re going to be good this year. Finishing games and things like that. Last year we were in a position to win every game, except for our last one. So, I think the big thing is to just finish out games. Like I said, we were in a position to win every game we were in. So, we know we can beat anyone on our schedule.
SJ: The experience that we have on the team. We lost some guys, but on the defensive side of the ball, some guys have stepped up that all have experience. On the offensive side of the ball, our O-Line was young last year, so they have a full season of playing together. So now we’re a better team with a lot of “game” experience.
TT: What will the defense do differently in 2010 than it did in 09?
DV: Just the same things we talk about every year. We got to tackle, we have to fly around. Just the same thing that Coach McDonnell and Coach McGowan preach every day.
TT: What will the offense do differently this year than last year?
SJ: I don’t think we’re going to do too much different. We got some guys back from injuries and suspensions. So, I think we’re going to continue to put up points like we have in the past.
TT: How do you feel about being picked to come in third by the CAA coaches?
SJ: It’s nice to see that the coaches believe that we can finish that high, and we as a team believe that we can win the whole CAA. It’s nice that the coaches and other leagues respect the hard work that you’ve put in over the years and respect the team you have coming in. We definitely think we have a chance to win it all.
TT: What do you say to the younger players to get their level of play up?
SJ: We don’t really say much. Our team is pretty close knit and motivated. We have people that like to play, and they play hard every game. If kids that are coming in and getting upset that they’re not getting playing time or redshirted, we just tell them we’ve all been through it. We all know what you’re going through, but Coach preaches about the “WILDCAT WAY,”f so if people start to stray away from what we’ve been in the past, we try to reel them back in and bring them along.
DV: Just work hard. You can’t get complacent. Don’t get down on yourself about redshirting or not playing. We’ve all been through it. Guys like me and Sean we redshirted, and now we’re starters and Captains of the team.
Sean Jellison had to leave to go to another interview.
TT: Is there any added pressure to have to live up to being picked first=team ALL CAA?
DV: No, I think preseason honors are just based on potential. It doesn’t matter to me as much as postseason honors which is more about what you did during the season. I don’t look at preseason honors as much as I do the post season honors.
TT: In closing, any final words about the 2010 New Hampshire Wildcats.
DV: It’s going to be a fun year. I can’t wait to strap it up for our first game against Central Connecticut State.
TT: Thank You.
Coach McDonnell was gracious enough to allow me to walk around and take photos on the morning of Aug 12. I thought both lines had good size. The Wildcat running game was impressive. In fact, Coach McDonnell had to yell at the defense several times to pick up its intensity. The QBs and receivers appeared to be in sync. Terrance Fox is back and looks to be the guy who will stretch the field. UNH has a stable of RBs with Jellison leading the way. On this day, the running game was a little too good as it had its way with the defense. Jellsion and Chris Setian powered their way right up the middle zigzagging their way through the UNH defense for several 50 – 60 yarders.
Below are photos for viewing;