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Santos Named Interim Head Football Coach at UNH

Sep 30, 2019 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson
written by KEN HAMWEY, Contributing Writer

Former Bellingham High and UNH Hall of Fame quarterback Rick Santos (pictured right) was named the Wildcats’ interim head coach on Aug. 26, when the school announced that Sean McDonnell was taking an indefinite leave of absence for health-related reasons. The 62-year-old McDonnell was entering his 21st year as head coach of his alma mater.

When Santos talked about his long-term goals after he was hired as associate head coach earlier this year, he said that becoming a college head coach was his prime objective. He also said his immediate goal was “to get UNH back to the playoffs, back to national prominence and back to a top-25 ranking.”

The 35-year-old Bellingham native has now reached his goal to be a head coach, but he didn’t expect it to happen this quickly or this way. Santos played for McDonnell during his four years as the Wildcats’ QB and became an all-American.

The high regard that Santos has for his coach is evident. “We hold Sean in high esteem,” Santos said. “He’s the one who’s motivated us and he’s such a selfless person. We’ll go one practice at a time and one game at a time, and we’ll work to get the program as strong as possible for coach Mac’s return. He’s mentally tough and he’s resilient. He’ll be back.”
Santos said that he’s honored and humbled to get the opportunity to direct the Wildcats. He emphasized that “everyone will work together in dedicated fashion.”

Santos also knows that McDonnell will be available for guidance. “He gave me some advice, like he always does,” Santos noted. “He was great. He was strong and he wasn’t making it about himself. He let me know he’s going to be a sounding board for me if I have any questions. It’s a hard thing for him to step away because this has been his life for so many years. His family and football have been the two most important things.”

Marty Scarano, UNH’s director of athletics, said the department is focused on McDonnell’s health and noted that the football program was in capable hands with Santos at the helm.
“Our entire department is aligned in doing everything to support Sean with the intent of getting him back to coaching his program,” Scarano said. “This will be the ultimate team effort. The administration, coaching staff, and most of all the student-athletes will give everything we have to support Jenny and Sean during this challenge.

“UNH football is in great hands with Ricky Santos as its interim head coach. Ricky will carry on the principles that coach Mac has instilled in our nationally recognized program to ensure that the team maintains its standard of achievement, both on and off the field.”

Santos offered some insight into what the short term involves: “I’ll be the point man with a lot of this stuff, but the good thing is we have a veteran staff,” he said. “When I was the receivers coach here, I worked with the offensive and defensive coordinators. We want to make sure that our student-athletes are well taken care of mentally and that we can keep everything going in the right direction. It’s Sean’s program—it’s always going to be his program.

“The good thing about coach Mac and this program is that we train for adversity. Everything that he believes in, the values, our mission statement— everything we do we put these guys in adverse situations on the field, in practice and during our conditioning programs. We condition these guys mentally and physically so that when they get into the real world and something bad does happen, they have a frame of reference to go back to.”

At Bulletin deadline, the Wildcats were 0-2, losing to Holy Cross (13-10) and to Florida International (30-17). The season’s opener, against Holy Cross, was a disappointing loss for UNH. A fumble late in the game enabled Holy Cross to score and win the contest.
After working as UNH’s wide receivers coach from 2013 to 2015, Santos spent the last three years as an assistant at Columbia, and he got results as the Lions’ QB coach. The Ivy League university won 14 of its last 20 games, the first time that’s been achieved since 1961.
During his playing career at UNH, Santos led the Wildcats to a 37-14 record and four NCAA playoff appearances.

Once a fifth-string quarterback, Santos finished with 123 touchdown passes for 13,212 yards. He passed for 165 yards and a touchdown in the Hula Bowl and had his number (2) retired in 2007. In his 2004 rookie season at UNH, Santos was named the ECAC Rookie of the Year and the Atlantic 10 co-Rookie of the Year.
As a junior, the 6-foot-2 Santos also won the Walter Payton Award, the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy at the 1-AA level. He was inducted into the UNH Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016. Last November, he was inducted into Bellingham High’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Now married and the father of an 18-month-old daughter (Rya), Santos and his wife reside in Dover, NH, a suburb of Durham, where UNH is located.

Acutely aware that a college head coach must be patient and also relate to players, Santos said that building trust with players is a key factor. “I’ve been in their shoes and can offer advice and also how to manage their time,” he noted. “A solid relationship with student-athletes is so important.”

Santos, who had a brief tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs, played four years in the Canadian Football League, first for the Montreal Alouettes, then for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. When he was released after his second stint with Montreal, he left Canada with two Grey Cup rings. The Grey Cup is the equivalent of the Super Bowl, and Santos was a reserve quarterback when the Alouettes won their two championships.

Santos was no stranger to titles in high school. He led Bellingham High to a pair of Super Bowl crowns and also played forward in basketball on the 2003 Blackhawks squad that won the State championship by downing Bromfield, 49-40.

His roots run deep in Bellingham, and the affection Santos has for his hometown has always been off the charts. “The people in Bellingham have always supported me, and it’s a special place,” he noted. “People have always reached out and showed appreciation for the success I’ve had. The town has a family atmosphere.”

Mike Murphy, UNH’s associate athletic director for media relations, put Santos’ new role in perspective with this comment: “Ricky is the guy who’ll keep the seat warm for Sean.”




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