Buckley: Former star QB Rick Santos leads New Hampshire back among FCS elite (2024)

DURHAM, N.H. — We had been talking for five, six minutes, Rick Santos going on and on about the many things he believes make the University of New Hampshire a special place. Of course. As a former UNH quarterback who is now in his first season as head coach at the school, Santos knows it’s part of his job 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 noontime showdown against Holy Cross in the second round of the NCAA FCS Division I tournament.


So on he went, noting he was “enamored by the campus,” when he made his first visit to Durham some 20 years ago as a junior at Bellingham (Mass.) High School, that this area “is just so beautiful,” that the “people have really bought into the tradition of UNH.”

And if you’re interested in attending UNH, Santos said, “You’ll get an elite education. It’s a top-100 public institution.”



All this right-out-of-the-catalog hoo-ha — we’re now eight minutes into this chat — and Santos still hasn’t mentioned that the UNH Field House is where you’ll find the most economical dining option in the entire state of New Hampshire, if not all of New England. “The Fueling Station” may not be much in the looks department, but this tiny and misshapen food counter in the main lobby, just outside the entrance to Lundholm Gym, offers a tasty, filling and healthy peanut butter and jelly sandwich that’ll run you just two dollars. The amount of peanut butter and jelly that’s pressed between two slices of whole wheat bread is generous but not oozy, which is important if you’re a busy student rushing between classes, and the sandwich is securely wrapped in cellophane so that it can be stowed in a backpack for later consumption. All for two one-dollar bills!

“Yes! That’s new! That’s only in the last five years,” Santos said, slapping his hands together. “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. How good is that?”

It’s realgood is what it is. Why, then, doesn’t Santos work in the two-buck PB&J sandwiches with all that talk about the beautiful campus, the nice people and the elite education?

“Because,” he said, “our student-athletes don’t have to pay for that. That’s our nutrition bar, and they get free protein shakes and smoothies and the PB&J’s. So I always forget about the price. But, yes, anybody can walk in off the street and buy a two-dollar PB&J.”

It was a perfect response on many levels. Santos is 38 years old, which means he’s way too young to be considered grizzled or old school, but not too old to be looked upon as some kind of “boy coach” who needs to be kept an eye on by responsible adults in the athletic office. Living comfortably somewhere in the middle, Santos is able to ladle out the traditional coachspeak that’s part of the job while not being too far removed from the period between 2004 and 2007 when he was UNH’s stellar starting quarterback. He didn’t bring up the two-buck PB&J’s as a sales pitch because it didn’t occur to him that they could be used as such. (And, yes, they should be!) Yet when you just mention The Fueling Station to him, he knows everything about it. An older, by-the-book coach, more inclined to proceed directly to an upstairs office after practice, might not.

If this doesn’t strike you as important and revelatory, we ask that you consider something that happened last Saturday in the first quarter of the Wildcats’ first postseason game since 2017. UNH and Fordham were some five minutes in, the game scoreless, when Wildcats running back Dylan Laube caught a short pass from quarterback Max Brosmer and raced down the right sideline for an 87-yard touchdown. At around the 40, he was joined by teammate Brian Espanet, a senior receiver who had trekked over to block from across the field. Around the 20, the two players exchanged a high five and then continued on to the end zone.

He gave his teammate a high-five before scoring the TD 😅 pic.twitter.com/noX4qP1O4C

— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 26, 2022

After the game — that is, after Laube added three additional rushing touchdowns and amassed a school-record 424 all-purpose yards — a video of the high five landed on social media and made the rounds. It didn’t go Marco Wilson-flying-through-the-air viral, but as FCS football goes, it had a good run, thanks to ESPN and some other sites.

Naturally, there was some pearl-clutching about unsportsmanlike conduct. A few concerned citizens wondered why a flag wasn’t tossed. And let’s be real: Laube could have tripped or fumbled the ball away as he was looking toward Espanet. We’ve all seen it happen.

But Santos was Kool & The Gang about it all.


“You can celebrate in soccer, the guys all sitting down and rowing the boat, and I think we need more of that in our sport,” he said. “It’s OK as long as it’s directed at their teammates and not the other team. It wasn’t taunting. It wasn’t degrading.”

As someone who believes deeply in home run stylin’, 3-point shooters who stage their own Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and hockey players who have love-ins after the puck is in the net, the Laube-Espanet high five was absolutely no big deal. If Norman Rockwell were around and asked to do a painting, he’d have dismissed it as too corny. But, yes, it was a celebration before the fact, and common sense teaches us there’s no sense inspiring game officials to reach into the back pocket.

But, said Santos, “It’s so hard to be successful in football, so hard to score a touchdown. I think that moment happened organically. And it encapsulated everything we’re trying to do in terms of cultivating a healthy, fun environment.”

Incredibly, UNH has had just 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 — he was Ricky Santos in those days — was emerging as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the program, passing for 13,212 yards and 123 touchdowns. He won the 2006 Walter Payton Award, presented to the top offensive player in the FCS ranks. Most important for this discussion, Santos went into coaching, this after getting a look from the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent and then playing in the CFL. He was an assistant at both Columbia and UNH, and in 2019, he stepped in as head coach of the Wildcats when McDonnell had to take a leave of absence because of health issues. When McDonnell retired after the 2021 season, Santos was named his replacement.

And in the first quarter of his first postseason game, in his first season as head coach, he’s got these two players, Laube and Espanet, high-fiving before a touchdown. How would McDonnell have reacted? How about Bowes? They’d be upset, right?

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

Let’s take a look at that particular play through the eyes of the two high-fivers themselves.


Espanet: “I saw him running and, I don’t know, I just sent it and ran up next to him. Maybe it was just to get into the picture.”

Laube: “You don’t always see it on the film, but he’s the best blocker. He’s sometimes 40 yards in front of me making crazy blocks. So I’m glad he showed up next to me.”

Espanet: “I saw myself kind of catching up with him, and I figured if I could catch up with him, maybe one of the defenders could catch up with him. I heard him say, ‘Hey, hey, hey,’ around the 40.”

Laube: “I looked back twice, and the second time, around the 20, he started to put up his hand. And I put up my hand and we did our little thing.”

Espanet: “We had done it a few times in practice but never in a game.”

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

Buckley: Former star QB Rick Santos leads New Hampshire back among FCS elite (1)

Dylan Laube and Brian Espanet of the University of New Hampshire re-enact their in-game high five. (Steve Buckley / The Athletic)

Could they have gotten away with it if, say, Sean McDonnell were still prowling the sideline?

“Our dinner probably would have been on the floor,” said Espanet. “Times change. People change.”

To make the point that former quarterback Ricky Santos had the right stuff to be head coach Rick Santos, the two high-fivers offer two I-remembers from the recent past.

“Coach Mac really built a strong program here,” Laube said. “And then he got cancer, and somebody had to step up. It was Coach Santos who stepped up. All we really knew back then is that he was this great quarterback, Walter Payton winner, had all these records. But he just took over as the main guy without even missing a step. He was without question our leader. To show that level of confidence under the circ*mstances couldn’t have been easy.”

Espanet’s recollection is from a spring practice in 2019, when Santos was still an assistant.

“I was going at it with a safety, and things got heated,” he said. “My facemask got grabbed, and I didn’t take well to that and I was throwing some haymakers.”


McDonnell temporarily threw Espanet out of practice.

“I deserved it,” Espanet said. “Coach Mac was definitely right to throw me out of practice. Well, when I returned to the huddle and I looked over at Coach Santos, he shot 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, earning a share of the title with William & Mary. But given that much was already in place when Santos took over, an argument could be made that the true challenge will be next year and beyond as he recruits and develops future Wildcats. Can Rick Santos, the guy who looks the other way when pre-touchdown high-fiving is going on, live a dual life whose other side consists of being a serious, eyes-on-the-prize program builder?

One of the next-generation Wildcats is redshirt freshman receiver Caleb Burke, who grew up outside Pittsburgh. Santos did the closing here.

“Coach Santos said there’s a very bright future for this program,” said Burke. “He said, ‘I want guys like you to come up here and help us make that happen.’ I took that personally because of howhe said it.

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

(Top photo courtesy of UNH Athletics)

Buckley: Former star QB Rick Santos leads New Hampshire back among FCS elite (2024)
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