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Sean McDonnell, head coach of UNH football, reflects on 23 years

McDonnell is known for seeing the Wildcats to back-to-back national semifinal appearances and three conference championships.

Sean McDonnell announced his retirement last week after 23 years as head coach of the University of New Hampshire’s football team. Coach Mac, as he was affectionately known by many, not only played as a Wildcat in the 70’s, but led them to a near-record 157 wins during his tenure.

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McDonnell is known for seeing the Wildcats to back-to-back national semifinal appearances and three conference championships. He was named Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year twice. And he says he couldn’t have done it without his family and the support of the university.

The family would tag along on away games, with McDonnell’s wife Jenny organizing trivia games for the players on the bus, and his sons, Timmy and Tommy serving as ball boys, or encouragement when McDonnell needed it.

McDonnell’s record of wins is only topped by one other UNH coach: Bill Bowes. McDonnell took the reins from Bowes in 1999 but says the Hall of Famer taught him lessons he’s carried with him through his years at the helm. First and foremost, the UNH football program was about integrity: You represent your family, you represent the university and you represent the state of New Hampshire.

Coach Mac says he doesn’t have any immediate plans now, other than visiting his son and new granddaughter, but that he has every intention of following along with UNH football for years to come.

“This place is ingrained in my heart, my soul,” he says.

UNH Athletics announced Tuesday that alumnus Rick Santos will succeed McDonnell. Santos played as quarterback for UNH before graduating in 2008, and went on to join the coaching staff. He’s served the last three seasons as a quarterbacks’ coach and associate head coach, including a six-month run as interim head coach when McDonnell was on medical leave.

All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with Coach Mac about his time at UNH. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Peter Biello: So, Coach Mac, many people change jobs or careers throughout their lives. But you've said whenever you walked on the UNH campus, you knew it was where you wanted to be. How were you so sure about what you wanted to do in your career?

Coach Sean McDonnell: Well, when I landed on this campus back in '74 and had to visualize what a college town was all about, it was Durham, New Hampshire. This beautiful, quaint little New England town, it felt so much like a college town to me when I was here as a student. And then the location between the ocean, Boston, the mountains, the skiing, all that stuff, it was a place I wanted to be.

When I graduated, I went to Manchester, which wasn't too far away from it. So I'd get back there and then made some three or four different stops and one of the last stops I was at was at Boston University and we came up here to play and I was coaching at a city school and it was good and I loved it. But when I got back on this campus today that the energy in the stadium, seeing the people here, seeing the sight of Cowell Stadium, it was then, is something I always wanted to get back to that type of college setting. And fortunately, I was able to do that.

Peter Biello: So, your record of 157 victories has only been topped by former UNH football coach Bill Bowes. You've said Bowes was a mentor to you. What lessons did you learn from him?

Coach Sean McDonnell: The first thing that I learned, the most important lesson I learned, was the integrity of the football program represented three important parts of your life. The first one, you represented your family. The second one, you represented the university, and the third is you represented the state of New Hampshire. And when I came here, [Bowes] would talk about that in such a powerful message about how you handled yourself, how you carried yourself, how you represented the program. And Coach Bowes gave us the blueprint here at UNH on how to continue to do that stuff. And then also was still involved and at times gave us help on making it better. So I owe a debt of gratitude to that man who let me coach here, play here. But more importantly, the direction he put me in.

Peter Biello: And how would you describe that manner of being that he inspired in you and the players that you've coached?

Coach Sean McDonnell: The first thing is an understanding of what it means to be part of a football program that is basically the front porch of the university, as most athletic programs are hockey and football here at UNH and now, basketball and soccer. You have a responsibility to make sure that not only do you do the right things on the field and play hard, you know, work hard, be a great teammate and, you know, have the opportunity to win games, but also doing the most important things off the field.

And that's becoming a graduate of this university, doing a great job in the classroom, doing a great job downtown, representing who and what we are. And that message was crystal clear from your freshman year as an incoming freshman to your senior second semester, getting ready to walk across the stage. That was an as important part of the journey as playing in the games on Saturday.

Peter Biello: You've thanked your family for their support during your time as head football coach, your wife Jenny and your sons, Timmy and Tommy. How did they support you during your time at UNH?

Coach Sean McDonnell: In a lot of different ways. And the two boys, they had opportunities to travel with me to games as ball boys, equipment guys and just were part of it all the time and were around the scene of practices and stuff like that. They grew up with UNH football, they grew up with the players. They had interactions with the other coaches, the staff and the players. It was just fabulous to see that. Then as they got older and understood what was going on in the game, the strategies, and if we were vying for a playoff position, they were always right there, telling me, 'Don't worry, Dad. We win this game, we're in.' All this stuff. And it was an amazing trip to have with them.

And then my wife, Jenny, she was the first lady of football here. And to the players and even to the assistant coaches, she was either like a mother or sister to them and she would tell you: she knew absolutely very little about the game of football, but she knew of an awful lot about the game of life, how kids were supposed to be treated, and she would help them with everything other than football. If a kid was homesick or wasn't feeling well or there was a kid that was struggling to do things, she was always there for him. She'd go on away trips and have trivia things with the guys on the bus. It was a fabulous, fabulous connection for my family. And very, very, very unique and more importantly, a very big part of what we did here at UNH. They were instrumental in making us successful as everybody else was.

Peter Biello: So, what advice would you give to the incoming UNH football coach?

Coach Sean McDonnell: Well, I think the guy that's going to come after me has to understand the fabric of the University of New Hampshire, has to understand the culture of the football program. And most importantly has to embrace all three aspects of the university: academics, athletic and social. And then he has to embrace the state of New Hampshire. I think the next guy in will have a great opportunity to continue to be successful here because the support of the administration, the support of the university and support of the state has been second to none. And I don't think that's going to change. And I think that'll give the next guy in all the support that he needs to take care of and do a good job.

Peter Biello: And what's next for you?

Coach Sean McDonnell: Not sure. Gonna go on Dec. 22 and get on a plane and fly out and see my son Timmy in Colorado with his lovely wife Erin and baby Gracie, someone I haven't seen yet. Spend about 10 days out there and then come back and start cleaning up around the house and doing the little things, and then take a deep breath and see where I want to go from there with it.

Peter Biello: And do you think whatever else you'll be doing, you'll be following UNH football games?

Coach Sean McDonnell: I'll be following UNH football games till I leave this place until I leave this universe and whatever it is, this place is ingrained in my heart, my soul. There's a lot of people that were ever so good to me and the kids still in this program. I'll be following this thing for a long, long time. This ride has been unbelievable. The journey has been unbelievable. And from even just the people around the state and the people in the university system, we couldn't have done it without them. And I just want them to know how much I appreciate what they did for us.

Peter Biello: Well, Sean McDonnell is the former head coach of UNH's football team. He recently retired after 23 years in the position. Coach Mac, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Coach Sean McDonnell: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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