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QB thrives playing Whipple ball

PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, Mark Whipple was walking out of a high school outside Orlando, Fla., wondering if his sales pitch to a recruit had enticed the player to consider the University of Massachusetts. Whipple was pondering whether Amherst was for him as well.

After six seasons as the Minutemen's coach, and only a few months removed from a disappointing loss in a snowstorm at Colgate in the NCAA Division 1-AA football playoffs, Whipple was at a career crossroads. He was 46, had been a collegiate head coach for 16 years, and had won a national championship in his first season at UMass. But he felt that 1-AA football was a dead end for big-time coaching ambitions.

Whipple felt he was getting nowhere in his quest to move up to Division 1-A. Each time he ventured into those waters, he heard the doubts about whether he could recruit -- a laughable notion, considering all the talent that had flowed to UMass. Indeed, recruiting was something Whipple did better than most coaches.

Whipple also had toyed with the idea of coaching in the NFL, a move that would earn him more money, better exposure, and an impressive line on his coaching resume. He had talked to the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers about assistant jobs, but nothing panned out.

"My name was out there," said Whipple. "Some people knew who I was."

People like ESPN's Chris Berman, a fellow Brown graduate who had been praising Whipple's coaching skills for years. Berman had a lot of connections in the NFL, and he talked up Whipple, pushed a little, and finally a door opened.

Now Whipple is the position coach of arguably the hottest commodity in the NFL, Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With the Steelers one win away from the Super Bowl, lots more people now know about Whipple, who last spring was the person on the Steelers staff who first pushed the idea of using the No. 1 draft pick on Roethlisberger.

Shortly after Whipple was hired by head coach Bill Cowher last Jan. 24, the new quarterbacks coach went to Miami of Ohio and sat down with Roethlisberger and his parents so he could get a feeling for the person behind the player.

"In a way, it was like recruiting again," said Whipple with a laugh.

The difference was that this time he didn't have to sell Roethlisberger on the Steelers as much as he had to gather data with which to sell Cowher and the rest of the Steelers front office on the young quarterback.

Over the course of this season, the rookie player and the rookie coach have bonded, learning the business of the NFL with fast-paced, on-the-job training.

"The first difference in the NFL that you see is that this is their livelihood," said Whipple. "In college, they still have a sense of purpose and they play hard, but it's still something that they're doing along with a lot of other things."

For Whipple, the learning curve was especially difficult because the Steelers' offensive system is the opposite of everything he had taught his teams for the previous 16 years. His wide-open passing attack just wouldn't fly in ground-it-out Pittsburgh. "There was so much to learn," said Whipple. "And the terminology was all different. It was like going to a foreign country and learning another language. I not only had to learn it from [starting quarterback] Tommy Maddox, who knew more than I did; I had to then teach it to Ben, who was maybe one step or two steps behind me. It was one of the hardest things I've had to do."

But it was something that Whipple wanted to do. He had been treading water at UMass, struggling to maintain his enthusiasm at a school where the future of football was being questioned. "It was the unknown," said Whipple.

Besides, Whipple has made a career of taking on challenges, dating back to his days as quarterback at Brown, and later his stint as head coach there. In both positions, he turned the Bears into winners.

Whipple continued his winning ways at New Haven and at UMass. He developed a reputation as an offensive whiz who could conjure something out of almost nothing and do it quickly.

With the Steelers, there was something there before Whipple arrived. But he added something. Just as he won a national championship in his first year at UMass, in his first season in Pittsburgh, the Steelers are one win away from the Super Bowl.

On Sunday, Whipple will perform his job as he has done all season, serving as the go-between for Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt in communicating from the press box with Roethlisberger on the sideline.

"The best thing about it is that we haven't lost with him at QB," said Whipple. "It's a lot better than it was at the end of last season."

Whipple only smiles at the suggestion that he may be perceived as better now than he used to be. "All of a sudden I'm smart?" he asked with a shake of his head. "I'm no different than I was last year. But one thing is different: If I do get back into college coaching, I can talk to the players and tell them, `You want to get into the NFL, I know how to do that. I know what that's about. I can get you there.' "

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