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Santos Fulfills Grid Goal—He’s Now Head Coach at UNH

Dec 30, 2021 06:00AM ● By Kenneth Hamwey

Rick Santos with his retired BHS jersey.

by KEN HAMWEY, Contributing Writer

Ricky Santos is without doubt the most recognizable player in the football programs at Bellingham High School and the University of New Hampshire. Now, he’s not only the face of the program as a UNH player, but he’s the leader of the Wildcats. The Bellingham native was elevated to head coach last month.

Santos, who played quarterback at BHS and UNH, was a hall of fame inductee at both schools, and his number (2) was retired at both venues. He rewrote the record book for QBs at UNH, earning all-America honors and winning the Walter Payton Award (the 1-AA equivalent of the Heisman Trophy). 

After graduating from UNH, the 6-foot-2 QB signed a free-agent contract with the Kansas City Chiefs but was waived two weeks later. Santos then headed north, where he played for four years in the Canadian Football League. During his time with the Montreal Alouettes, he was a reserve quarterback and earned two Grey Cup championship rings. Returning to UNH after his playing days, he was hired as the wide receivers coach from 2013 to 2015.

A change of scenery occurred from 2016 to 2018 as Santos became the quarterback coach at Columbia University. After that stint, he returned to UNH, where he was appointed associate head coach and quarterback coach. He also served as the interim head coach in 2019 when Sean McDonnell took a leave of absence for health-related reasons. Santos’ record that season was 6-5.

When the 65-year-old McDonnell, who was Santos’ coach at UNH, announced his retirement on December 1 after 23 years, the university moved quickly and made Santos the program’s 20th head coach on Dec. 7.
“I’m humbled and honored to be named head coach for such a storied program and at such a prestigious institution,” Santos said. “We believe great teams are built on toughness, grit, and a family atmosphere. We will work hard to instill these qualities in our young men and cultivate an environment where our leaders thrive.”

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.”
What’s also important to Santos is loyalty. He displayed that attribute by giving 100 percent all four years as a player at UNH (2004–2007) and returning to coach at two different times. He’s also never forgotten his deep sense of loyalty and passion for his hometown.

Santos’ roots run deep in Bellingham, and the affection he has for his hometown and his coaches 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.”

What also is a sense of family is the way McDonnell groomed his star pupil to succeed him.

“Ricky brings a great amount of energy, leadership and the same winning attitude he had as a player to the way he coaches,” McDonnell said. “He has the new voice and fresh ideals that will help us recapture the success UNH football deserves. He may not be New Hampshire born, but he is New Hampshire bred, and I’m excited to see where he leads this program.”
When the 37-year-old Santos talked about his long-term goals after he was hired as associate head coach, he emphasized that becoming a college head coach was his prime objective. His goals now as the program’s leader are “to get UNH back to the playoffs, back to national prominence and back to a top-25 ranking.”  
During his playing days at UNH, Santos led the Wildcats to a 37–14 record and four NCAA playoff appearances.
Once a fifth-string quarterback, Santos finished his UNH career with 123 touchdown passes. He threw for 165 yards and a touchdown in the Hula Bowl and had his number 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. He holds UNH career records in pass attempts (1,498), completions (1,024) and passing yards (12,189).
Santos won the Payton Award as a junior in 2006 and was inducted into the UNH Hall of Fame in 2016. He won the Payton Award as the most outstanding offensive player in FCS football when he threw for 3,125 yards and 29 touchdowns. He was a three-time Atlantic-10/CAA Offensive Player of the Year (2005-07) and four-time All-Conference First Team QB.
At Columbia Santos got excellent results as the QB coach. The Ivy League university won 14 of 20 games during one stretch with Santos directing the offense, the first time those numbers had been achieved since 1961. While at Columbia, he was recruiting in 10 states. “It was recruiting at a high level,” he said.
When Santos was released after his second stint with the Alouettes, he left Canada with two Grey Cup rings. The Grey Cup is the equivalent of the NFL’s Super Bowl, and Santos was a reserve quarterback when the Alouettes won their two championships.
Championship football is what Santos will be aiming for, and he listed what that involves at the college level. “The foundation of any great program or organization is the people,” he said. “When you look at what makes our team and this university special, it’s everyone involved, from the administration to coaches, players, training staff, strength staff, equipment staff, faculty and the entire Durham community. Everyone shares the same vision in making sure we develop our student-athletes and help them reach their full potential.”
Santos, who majored in Kinesiology: Sport Studies with a concentration in sports management at UNH, was no stranger to reaching his potential in high school. He earned varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball, and track. In football, he was a two-time Tri-Valley League MVP, was twice named the Division 5 Player of the Year, was a two-time Metrowest Player of the Year, and, as a senior, won all-State honors.
In November 2002, during the first annual Thanksgiving Day game against Norton, he threw for seven touchdown passes, one of the best high school efforts in Bellingham history. He broke the state touchdown record and led his teams to two Super Bowl titles (2000 and 2001). He also played forward in basketball on the 2002-03 Blackhawks squad that won a State championship by downing Bromfield, 49-40.
In 2018, Santos was inducted into Bellingham High’s Hall of Fame.
Santos resides with his wife, Ulyana, and their children—four-year-old daughter (Rya) and seven-month-old son (A.J.)—in Dover, NH, a suburb of Durham, where UNH is located.

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