DURHAM — Earlier this month at the University of New Hampshire football program’s media day, UNH assistant coach Ricky Santos said one of his professional goals was to become UNH’s head coach. He’s reached that goal, but he probably didn’t expect it to happen this soon or this way.
Santos, 35, was elevated to interim head coach Monday after it became known that UNH head coach Sean McDonnell would be taking a leave of absence to deal with a health-related issue.
“I’ll be the point man with a lot of this stuff, but the good thing is we have a really veteran staff,” Santos said. “We have a singular focus right now. The only thing we’re worried about is making sure that these student-athletes are well taken care of mentally, and that we can keep everything going in the right direction. It’s his program — it’s always going to be his program — and our job is to do our part, myself included and all the other coaches and players, so that it’s ready to go when he’s ready to return.
“The good thing about Coach Mac and this program is 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 summer and winter conditioning program. We condition these guys mentally and physically so when they get into the real world and something bad does happen they have a frame of reference to go back to.”
Santos, a former UNH quarterback, joined the UNH staff as the quarterbacks coach and associate head coach earlier this year. He was hired by UNH in a similar role last year, but stepped away after one day on the job for family reasons.
Marty Scarano, UNH’s director of athletics, said he was unaware of McDonnell’s health situation when he hired Santos and gave him the associate head coach title.
“This is all going to be the ultimate team effort,” Scarano said. “It’s not just going to be Ricky Santos standing out front coaching the team. It’s the whole coaching staff.
“It’s in his DNA. (Santos is) an extension of Coach Mac, and this is something that Ricky understands the significance of and I think the issue for all of us is we want to keep this program where it needs to be and turn it back to Coach Mac when he’s healthy.”
Santos, who played his high school ball in Bellingham, Mass., was UNH’s wide receivers coach from 2013 to 2015, and spent the last three years as an assistant coach at Columbia. He ranks seventh in FCS history in career passing yards (13,212) and third in career touchdown passes (123), and earned the 2006 Walter Payton Award as national offensive player of the year.
Santos was inducted into the UNH Hall of Fame in 2016 and is one of four former UNH players to have his number (No. 2) retired.
UNH is scheduled to open its season Sept. 7 at Holy Cross.
“Coach Santos … just a tremendous leader,” UNH cornerback Isiah Perkins said. “When he was playing here I’m sure he was a crazy leader too. Very enthusiastic. High-energy guy. He’s just really positive. Really positive.”
Although Santos didn’t find out that he would be the interim head coach until Monday night, he said within the last week McDonnell told him to be ready to take over in case this situation presented itself.
“He gave me some advice like he always does,” Santos said. “He was great. He was strong. 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 have to step away. This has been his life for so many years. This and his family have been the two most important things.”