DURHAM — University of New Hampshire director of athletics Marty Scarano said he expects Sean McDonnell to return as head coach of the school’s football program, but his return may not come this year.
Scarano announced Monday night that McDonnell, who is in his 21st season as UNH’s head coach, would take an immediate leave of absence to deal with a health-related issue. Associate head coach Ricky Santos has been named interim head coach.
“We don’t know if Sean will be back coaching this year,” Scarano said. “We’re presuming that’s probably not going to happen and Ricky Santos is going to be the head coach along with all the coaches. It’s going to be a collaboration.
“Don’t misunderstand. We expect him to be back coaching and we want to hand this (the program) back to him just as he left it.”
Scarano said McDonnell was not available for comment Tuesday, but added that McDonnell will likely provide details about his health situation in the near future.
“I’m not going to comment on that (the specific health issue), all I would say to you is it’s obviously a serious enough situation that he needs to step away for an indefinite period of time,” Scarano said. “I think at some point in time Sean will probably elaborate on that. I’m not comfortable talking about it without his divulging what it is.
“I’ve known for a few weeks. Sean shared with me as soon as he knew the diagnosis and the prognosis. He knew that he was going to have to address this in a serious way and that it was probably going to demand a leave of absence, so we started talking about the what-ifs, what that means and what our plan would be.”
McDonnell, 62, was on the field coaching during Sunday’s Blue/White scrimmage. He informed his players Monday night that he would be taking a leave of absence.
“He told us he was going to take some time for himself and (Santos) will be taking over until he gets back,” UNH cornerback Isiah Perkins said. “He told the players and staff to have a business-as-usual mentality all the time.
“I had a couple of options coming out (of high school) and he came to my house and met with my family. That was the selling point. I’m from New Jersey and this man flew all the way down and spent the time to come see me. He was the only head coach to come to my house. Everyone else sent their assistants. That meant a lot. When I got up here and saw the culture that he built, it really made me want to come to New Hampshire. I’m glad I did.”
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 led the Wildcats to 14 consecutive winning seasons from 2004 to 2017, and they advanced to the FCS playoffs each year. UNH reached the FCS semifinals in 2013 and 2014.
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 and served as an assistant coach at UNH under Bill Bowes, who was McDonnell’s college head coach. McDonnell was elevated to head coach when Bowes retired in 1999.
McDonnell spent one year as an assistant coach at Manchester Memorial and three years as an assistant at Manchester West before he entered college coaching as the defensive coordinator at Hamilton College in 1983.
“Our aspirations haven’t changed,” Scarano said. “Sean said that to the team (Monday) night. We’re carrying on. We’re going to get back to the playoffs and make some noise. That’s what we’re going forward with.”