By Matthew Stenberg ’14
Quality or quantity?
That is what each person must ask himself when contemplating the future. Do you take a high paying job with little satisfaction, or do you take an average job doing something you love? Maybe go to a big city, or lay low in a small town?
Football coaches generally follow the same path — start off small, and then rise to the top. Most try and reach the Division I level, which is what is deemed to be the measurement for success. But some have a different approach.
Mark McDonough chose quality.
“My dream is to be the head coach at Ithaca College,” McDonough explained. As a player who put in four hard years playing for IC, in Ithaca, NY it comes as no surprise.
Ithaca already has a strong history at the helm with Head Coach Mike Welch, who has commandeered the Bomber’s ship since 1994. “It’s something that I believe that every player who ends up coaching wishes he was able to do,” Coach Welch said about coaching at your alma mater, “it’s a very special thing.”
But for Mark, just how feasible is it? Can it be done?
Life is a journey, so let’s go along for the ride.
Act 1: The Beginning
Scene: Somerset County, NJ
Mark McDonough grew up in Somerset County, New Jersey — an upper middle class area located in the northern part of the state with approximately 323,000 residents. He started off his athletic journey playing soccer, because youth football had an age restriction, and he had always been very active as a kid. “I played soccer because you can’t start playing Pop Warner until you are eight years old,” McDonough stated, “but I was always interested in football.”
He went on to play at Ridge High School, where he showcased his talent in front of a number of Division III scouts. Despite being recruited by an array of different schools, he chose to represent Ithaca College because it provided “the best opportunity in terms of both football and academics.”
Scene: Ithaca, NY
During his playing days at Ithaca College, Mark was a standout linebacker. He played under Coach Mike Welch, who was instantly impressed with Mark’s demeanor. “He was always very dedicated, very passionate about the game of football,” said Coach Welch, “he was just a great competitor.” Mark spent his first season playing on the junior varsity team, where he won the Marty Higgins Award recognizing him as the top player on the team. Over the course of the next three years, he was one of the starting linebackers in all 30 games. He compiled 284 tackles — including 50 for loss and 11 sacks. He played a key part in the passing game as well, breaking up 15 passes and catching four interceptions.
As a senior, Mark was one of the three captains on the team, and led the Bombers to a berth in the NCAA quarterfinals. “He always had a great sense of humor, and natural leadership abilities,” Coach Welch recalled. During that 2001 season, he was invited to play in the Aztec Bowl all-star game, and he also received Ithaca’s Jim Butterfield Award.
However, like most student athletes, Mark had a difficult time adjusting to what life would throw at him next.
Act 2: The Coach
Scene: Springfield, MA
Mark left Ithaca unsure of what to do next. “I was 22 years old, and I had a degree [in Sport Management] from Ithaca College, and I still wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to do with my life,” McDonough reminisced, “I knew I loved football, and I really struggled with the transition of being an athlete, to no longer being in a competitive situation.”
He decided to further his education by applying for a GA in athletic administration at Springfield College in Massachusetts. There, he got a feel for what it was like to be on the coaching side of the game, and immediately fell in love with the idea of becoming a coach. “I really got a taste of the college coaching environment there, and it was really something that I enjoyed,” McDonough reflected, “it was only the second year out of college where I decided that I wanted to become a college coach as a profession.”
Mark was able to work with a number of top-notch coaches while he was working as a graduate assistant at Springfield. He gave a lot of credit to Head Coach Mike DeLong, Offensive Coordinator Mike Cerasuolo, and Defensive Coordinator Jack Holik, who all played a part in teaching him the job. “Being a GA there, they gave me a lot of opportunities as a young coach, such as meetings to run, and recruiting areas to scout out, and they did a really good job of preparing you as a football coach.” Mark liked the fit at Springfield, and stayed there until 2005, where he was offered a job at Division I-AA Holy Cross, in Worcester, MA.
Scene: Worcester, MA
Immediately after he completed his graduate degree at Springfield, Mark landed a full time job at Holy Cross where he coaches linebackers and special teams. “It was there where I really got a lot of my football X’s and O’s,” McDonough elaborated. “It was a little more involved and required more preparation, but I learned a lot of football schematics during my six years at Holy Cross.”
It’s a Division I program, and much different from the style of play at Springfield. He was certainly heading in the right direction to becoming an established coach in college football. But, was that the path he wanted to follow? Was that his destiny?
Mark was at Holy Cross from 2005-2010, where he accepted the defensive coordinator job — for his alma mater, the Ithaca College Bombers. At this point, there’s no longer any question about his future; he is now Coach McDonough.
Act 3: Bomber Nation
Scene: Ithaca, NY
“A lot of people asked me, ‘Why did you leave a Division I school to coach at Division III?’ Well, deep down, I believe that Ithaca is a special place. A lot of people consider it to be a step down at a professional level, but I don’t see it that way at all. I don’t see it that way at all.”
– Coach Mark McDonough
For some, the decision would have been difficult, and most probably wouldn’t have left a Division I program to coach at the Division III level. But for Coach McDonough, it was a no-brainer.
After playing for Coach Mike Welch from 1998-2001, Mark was finally able to coach along side one of his mentors. “You gain that much more appreciation and respect for him, when you work with him,” McDonough explained, “to be as successful as he has, for as long as he has, there’s no question that there’s a sound and very good methodology behind the way that he runs this program.” He enjoyed being able to learn from the man that taught him about the game, and during his first season back, he was able to learn a number of tactics that breeds success as a head coach. “Just being able to see how he does things and how he runs the team is something that I feel very lucky and fortunate to be able to have witnessed.” However, Coach McDonough has learned a lot over the years coaching his previous two teams, and brought a lot to the table. Defense has always been the Bombers forte, and he was going to make sure that the tradition lived on.
Scene: Butterfield Stadium
Coach McDonough, or as his players call him, “Coach Mac,” shared his defensive strategy to his players during their first encounter. If you ever find yourself at Butterfield Stadium to watch a Bombers football game, then you will probably hear Coach Mac yelling from the sidelines at one point or another. “Defense requires intensity and he has that in abundance,” cornerback Mike Vulcano explained, “his intensity resonates throughout the team and is contagious.”
The players on the defensive side of the ball all have the utmost respect for Coach McDonough, and a good number of them feel as if he is the best coach they have ever had. One of those players — safety Tom Scanlon — recalls a specific moment that he shared with Coach Mac:
“In spring football, where we practice without any pads on, Clay Ardoin, our starting running back, stiff-armed me in the face, causing my nose to bleed. While I was on the ground, I was getting ready to run over to Clay and return the favor. Before I had a moment to blink, Coach Mac was sprinting over to Clay, screaming in his ear the entire way back to the huddle. At this point in time, I knew Coach Mac cared immensely about me and the rest of my teammates, and he had my back not only in that certain situation but overall.”
It’s definitely a special relationship that exists both on and off the field, and in some cases; the moments that stick out come in the most crucial situations. Just ask Mike Vulcano:
“Defending Salisbury’s triple option attack is split into 3 phases: QB, pitch, and the dive player. Playing corner, I was almost always responsible for pass, which kept me out of run support, except on one specific play I am responsible for the pitch. Earlier in the game when I was called to stop the pitch I was too fast up field, anxiously trying to make a play. After that series Coach Mac sat me down and told me to slow down once I got in the backfield and let the play come to me. Sure enough, later in the game on a crucial 3rd down and 3, the play was called again where I was responsible for the pitch. The pitch came right to me and I tackled the ball carrier for a loss of yards right on our sideline. As soon as I got up Coach Mac was there just saying ‘I told you! I told you!’ It was a big play and a great moment that I will always remember.”
That was the biggest game all season for Ithaca, when they defeated the No. 7 ranked, and Empire 8 conference rival, Salisbury Seagulls 21-14. The Bombers defense stayed strong, and held a team that was averaging over 35 points per game to just 14.
Yes, Coach McDonough is very good at reading his players, and will stop at nothing to help them succeed. But life, like football, is about making adjustments — especially when you least expect them.
Act 4: The Taste of a Dream
Scene: Ithaca, NY
“I was grateful and flattered that Coach Welch gave me the opportunity to run his program, but I have to give a lot of credit to the guys that I work with on the coaching staff, who are outstanding individuals, and the quality and the character of the team really made this an easy transition for me.” – Coach Mark McDonough
Between weeks seven and eight of the football season, Ithaca head coach Mike Welch left indefinitely on medical leave, as he was to undergo heart bypass surgery. He chose to appoint Coach McDonough as his interim replacement. “He had what we were looking for and I felt very comfortable because he is an excellent coach and he knows what is expected and how the program is run,” Coach Welch explained.
Naturally, the players were very concerned for the health and safety of Coach Welch, but they were confident that Coach McDonough would keep things rolling. “Anytime you lose someone who is as knowledgeable about the game as Coach Welch it is a major loss for your team,” cornerback Brian Garvey stated. “We knew that not having Coach Welch would certainly be an obstacle, but at the same time we were confident in Coach Mac. His familiarity with the program and our team allowed us, as well as Coach Welch, to trust Coach Mac during that period of time. We knew he would step up and we expected nothing less.”
As the defensive coordinator, Coach Mac usually just interacts with the defense, but the head coach interacts with the entire team. “As an offensive player most of the stories and personal information about coach Mac came from the defensive players,” said running back Clay Ardoin. “I was eager to get to know Coach Mac from the stories that I heard. We all have a tight bond as a team so the transition was not a hard one.” Unlike Clay, quarterback Phil Neumann had multiple interactions with Coach Mac. “Coach McDonough runs our strength and conditioning program, and he certainly has helped me in that area.”
With the help of his players and coaches, Coach McDonough was able to take the reigns with ease. He worked together with offensive coordinator Ryan Heasley, and the two of them manned both the offense, and the defense. There were still four games left: two against top 25 teams, and the other against SUNY Cortland in the Cortaca Jug.
Scene: Rochester, NY; Ithaca, NY; Cortland, NY
The first game without Coach Welch was against Empire 8 rival St. John Fisher in Rochester. It was fitting, because that was where Coach Welch was having his surgery. You could sense a certain aura around the team before taking the field. It was neither good, nor bad — just different. The team fought hard, but ultimately came out on the losing end. Then they proceeded to knock off Salisbury and Hartwick at home, before losing a heartbreaker in the Cortaca Jug at SUNY Cortland.
Coach McDonough is now 2-2 all-time as a head coach, and those two losses easily could’ve gone the other way. “I thought he did a great job,” expressed Coach Welch, “I thought he handled himself very well, and he’s very good on his feet, but most importantly, he brought the team together.”
The team played very well during Coach McDonough’s time at the helm, and it didn’t go unnoticed. The only question now: What will the future bring?
Life is a journey.
Some reach their final destination, but most have to take detours.
Fortunately, Coach Welch has fully recovered, and has come back to coach the team. But eventually, when the time comes, someone is going to have to take his place, as he did with the legendary Jim Butterfield himself.
Maybe Coach Mac will be next?
Only time will tell.
From player to coach, it is clear that Mark has made the right decisions. “The best thing about being a coach is helping a player reach his potential,” said McDonough. “When you see them put in the effort, and reach their potential, there’s nothing better.”
The future of the Bombers football program remains a mystery, but one thing’s for certain — Mark McDonough has reached his final destination.
Photos courtesy of Ithaca College Sports Information