DURHAM — Sean McDonnell was back in his normal routine this week, which means he was back to being the head football coach at the University of New Hampshire.
McDonnell stepped away from his job as UNH’s head coach last August to deal with a health issue, a health issue later revealed to be cancer. Assistant coach Ricky Santos — a former UNH quarterback — was named interim head coach, and led the Wildcats to a 6-5 record last season (5-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association).
Sitting behind the desk in his office at the UNH Fieldhouse on Friday, McDonnell made it clear he plans to be back running the show when spring practice begins on March 31. He also said he plans to be on the sideline when UNH opens the season at Kansas on Sept. 5.
“I had always planned that I would come back,” McDonnell said. “The reason I was always planning that is that was the light at the end of the tunnel. Everybody who had been through this surgery who I talked to and had been through this process told me how it was gonna go and that I would be ready to go seven to nine weeks after the surgery. Now you gotta be able to know, ‘Can I still do it at the same level I’ve always done it?’ That’s what I’m going to find out in the spring and what I’m going to find out in the fall.
“I feel very comfortable from watching practice last fall and from seeing how it went that I can delegate some things out there that I always used to think I had to do myself. Gotta be smart. Take your time when you’re coming back. … I think I better be out of the middle of drills. I can’t get run over out there. That would not be a good thing probably.”
McDonnell has a 154-95 career record as a college head coach (all at UNH), including a 98-65 record in conference play. His 98 conference wins rank third all-time.
He guided UNH to 14 consecutive winning seasons from 2004 to 2017, and the Wildcats advanced to the FCS playoffs each year. UNH reached the FCS semifinals in 2013 and 2014.
McDonnell said he watched home games from the old UNH coaches box last year, and watched UNH road games on his computer at home. The toughest part of being away from the team last season?
“Being away from something you’ve done for 40 years — being away from the kids, being away from the coaches, being away from something that had obviously been a huge part of my life,” he said. “When it all came down I remember thinking it had been about 40 years since I didn’t play or coach in the fall. That was the hardest part. Not being engaged in the everyday process of coaching the football team.
“I got to watch practice from afar at times, so I got to observe and tried to make sure that somehow I could get a message to the coaches and the team about what I thought was important for that game and that week.”
McDonnell, one of three two-time recipients of the Eddie Robinson Award as the FCS Coach of the Year, played defensive back at UNH from 1975 to 1978. He was an assistant coach at UNH under Bill Bowes, who was McDonnell’s college head coach. McDonnell’s was elevated to head coach when Bowes retired in 1999.
McDonnell said he’s in a good place health-wise.
“Doing great. Doing great,” he said. “Had three really good checkups in the last two months. Everything they told me needed to happen and was gonna happen has happened. The people at Mass. General were unbelievable and the people at Wentworth-Douglass were off the charts with everything they did. It was amazing to see those people do what they do, and do it so well. I was very fortunate where I was.
“I just want to thank everybody for all the well-wishes and the thoughts, prayers and food. Makes you realize what a great place New Hampshire really is. Very humbling experience.”