Buckley: Former star QB Rick Santos is once again leading New Hampshire among the FCS elite

Durham, New Hampshire – We’d been talking for about five or six minutes, and Rick Santos was talking about the many things he thinks make the University of New Hampshire such a special place. naturally. As a former Home Nations quarterback who is now in his first season as a head coach at the school, Santos knows that part of his job is to sell the school and the program, and to do so with aplomb. Especially now, what with the 9-3 Wildcats heading to Worcester, Mass.? On Saturday for a noon showdown against Holy Cross in the second round of the NCAA FCS Division I Tournament.

And so he went, noting his “admiration for the campus,” when he made his first visit to Durham some 20 years ago as a junior at Bellingham (Massachusetts) High School, that the area is “very beautiful,” “the people have really come to believe in the traditions of the United Nations.”

If you are interested in going to the UN program, Santos said, “You will get an elite education. It is a top 100 public institution.”

wait.

Stop.

It’s all quite off the catalog—we’re now eight minutes into this chat—and Santos still hasn’t mentioned that the UN Guest House is where you’ll find the most economical dining options in all of New Hampshire, if not all of New England. “Gas Station” may not be much in the appearance department, but this small, quirky food stand in the main lobby, just outside the Lundholm Lounge entrance, serves up a delicious, health-packed peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You’re only two dollars. The amount of peanut butter and jelly squeezed between two slices of whole-wheat bread is generous but not runny, which is important if you’re a busy student shuttling between classes, and the sandwich is wrapped securely in cellophane so it can be stored in a backpack for later consumption. All for two one-dollar coins!

“Yeah! That’s new!” Santos said, slapping his hands together. “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. How good that? “

it’s a truly Good is what it is. Why, then, isn’t Santos running into tear-jerking PB&J sandwiches with all that talk of beautiful campuses, nice people and an elite education?

“Because our student-athletes don’t have to pay for it,” he said. This is our nutrition bar, and they get free protein shakes, smoothies, and PB&J’s. So I always forget the price. But, yeah, anyone can walk down the street and buy a $2 PB&J.”

It was a perfect response on so many levels. Santos is 38, which means he’s too young to be considered a grizzly or old school, but not too old to be considered the kind of “boy coach” who needs to be watched by responsible adults in the sports office. Living comfortably somewhere in the middle, Santos is able to pull off the traditional speakeasy that is part of the job while not being too far behind from the period between 2004-2007 when he was the starting quarterback for Home Nations. He didn’t bring in his two-price PB & J’s as sales space because he never thought it could be used like that. (And yes, they should be!) However, when you only mention the gas station to him, he knows all about it. An older trainer, who is more inclined to go straight to an upstairs office after a workout, might not.

If that wasn’t important and obvious to you, we’d ask you to think about something that happened last Saturday in the first quarter of the Wildcats’ first postseason game since 2017. Home Nations and Fordham were about five minutes apart, the game Scoreless, when Wildcats running back Dylan Laube caught a short pass from quarterback Max Brosmer and raced down the right side for an 87-yard touchdown. At about 40, he was joined by teammate Brian Espanet, a senior receiver who had traveled a long drive to keep them from crossing the field. Around the twenty, the two players exchanged a high five and then continued to the end zone.

After the game — namely, after Loeb added three more rushing touchdowns and collected a school record 424 all-purpose yards — a video of the Big Five landed on social media and made the rounds. you did not go Marco Wilson viral fly in the airbut as FCS football goes, it’s done pretty well, thanks to ESPN and a few other sites.

Naturally, there were some holding pearls about unsportsmanlike behaviour. A few concerned citizens wondered why the flag was not thrown. And let’s be real: Laube could have fumbled or fumbled the ball wide as he looked towards Espanet. We’ve all seen that happen.

But Santos was Kool & The Gang in every way.

“You can celebrate in football,” he said, “all the guys sit and row the boat, and I think we need more of that in our sport.” “It’s fine as long as it’s directed at their teammates and not the other team. It wasn’t ridiculous. It wasn’t insulting.”

As someone who believes deeply in home-running style, the 3-point shooters who stage the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and hockey players who have an extra love after the puck at the net, Laube-Espanet’s high order has never been a big deal. If Norman Rockwell had been around and asked him to do a painting, he would have dismissed it as too tacky. But, yeah, it was a celebration before the event happened, and common sense tells us there’s no sense in inspiring game officials to reach into the back pocket.

But Santos said, “It’s very difficult to be successful in football, so it’s difficult to score a goal. I think that moment happened naturally. And it sums up everything we’re trying to do in terms of cultivating a healthy and fun environment.”

Incredibly, Home Nations has only had three head football coaches since 1972. Bill Bowes ran the program from 1972 to 1998, after which Sean McDonnell took over in 1999. McDonnell was coaching the Wildcats when Santos was- Ricky Santos in those days – he was emerging as one of the best quarterbacks in program history, passing for 13,212 yards and 123 touchdowns. He was awarded the 2006 Walter Payton Award, presented to the best offensive player in the FCS ranks. Most importantly in this discussion, Santos went into coaching, this after being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent then played in the CFL. He has been an assistant at both Columbia and the United Nations Foundation, and in 2019, he took over as head coach of the Wildcats when McDonnell had to take a leave of absence due to health issues. When McDonnell retired after the 2021 season, Santos was named as his replacement.

And in the first quarter of his first postseason game, in his first season as a head coach, he got those two guys, Laube and Espanet, in good shape. Before drop. How did McDonnell react? What about the late, great Bowes? They would be upset, wouldn’t they?

“Probably,” Santos said. “Things were tougher. I played with Sean McDonnell, and he played with Bill Bowes. I think it might have been too much for Coach (McDonnell). But I spoke to him. He didn’t say anything about that particular play.”

Let’s take a look at that particular play through the eyes of two of the Big Five themselves,

Espanet: “I saw him running, and I don’t know, I just sent him and ran alongside him. Maybe he was just getting into the picture.”

Loeb: “You don’t always see him in the movie, but he’s the best mind. He’s sometimes 40 yards in front of me making crazy cubes. So I’m glad he showed up next to me.”

Espanet: “I saw myself kind of catching up to him, and I thought if I could catch him, maybe one of the defenders could catch him. I heard him say, ‘Hey, hey,’ about forty.”

Loeb: “I looked back twice, and the second time, about 20, he started raising his hand. And I raised my hand and we did our little thing.”

Espanet: “We’ve done it many times in practice but not in a single match”.

Loeb: “I think as a kid you always dreamed of doing something like that.”


University of New Hampshire’s Dylan Loeb and Brian Espanet reenact the game’s top five. (Steve Buckley / the athlete)

Could they have gotten away with it if, say, Sean McDonnell was still roaming the sidelines?

“Maybe it was our dinner on the floor,” Espanet said. “Times change. People change.”

To show that former quarterback Ricky Santos had the right things to be Rick Santos’ coach, the two players introduce two reminiscences from the recent past.

“Coach Mac has really built a strong program here,” said Loeb. And then he got cancer, and somebody had to step up. It was Coach Santos who stepped up. All we really knew at the time was that he was the great quarterback, winning Walter Payton, and he had all these records. But he took over as the main man without Don. To miss a move. It was without asking our captain. To show this level of confidence under the circumstances was not easy.”

Espanet recalled from spring training in 2019, when Santos was still an assistant.

“I was safely going to him,” he said, “and things got really intense.” “My face mask got caught, and I didn’t take it very well and I was throwing some haymakers.”

McDonnell temporarily fired Espanet from practice.

“You deserved it,” Espanet said. “Coach Mack was definitely right to cut me off from coaching. Well, when I got back into the huddle and looked at Coach Santos, he gave me a wink. And I was, like, OK, this guy has my back.”

The Wildcats are 9-3 overall. They were 7-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association, and captured a share of the title with William & Mary. But given that a lot was already in place when Santos took over, an argument can be made that the real challenge will be next year and beyond as he recruits and develops future Wildcats. Could Rick Santos, a man who looks the other way when high play goes before landing, lead a double life whose flip side consists of being a serious software creator looking to get an award?

One of the Wildcats’ next generation is freshman Caleb Burke, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh. Santos has shut down here.

“Coach Santos said there is a very bright future for this program,” Burke said. He said, “I want guys like you to come over here and help us make this happen.” I took it personally because How he said that.

And he said, Are you ready to go, boy? “You know what I did? I sat in my chair. He’s one of those people that makes you want to do it.”

(Photo courtesy of the United Nations Athletics Association)

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