It was more than seven months ago, in the heart of a nasty Iowa winter, that Paul Rhoads hunkered down to gather some offseason intelligence.
Rhoads had just finished 3-9 in his fifth season as the head coach at Iowa State. He was searching for an offensive coordinator, and he believed he had found his man — a gruff former Big 12 head coach who had roots in the hardscrabble region of western Pennsylvania.
Rhoads had spent eight years as the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh from 2000-07 and he felt a kinship with that part of the country. He wanted an offensive coordinator who could build an offense around the twin ideals of toughness and simplicity, and he believed that former Kansas coach Mark Mangino embodied both characteristics.
But he also knew that Mangino came with baggage. His Kansas tenure combusted in 2009, ending after KU launched an internal investigation into his treatment of players. Mangino resigned, entering a three-year sabbatical from coaching.
So before Rhoads pursued Mangino, he called around.
“I was thoroughly convinced that there was nothing there,” Rhoads said on Tuesday during Big 12 media days. “Nothing that gave me any pause or reservation or concern whatsoever.”
So more than four years after leaving Kansas, Mangino is back in the Big 12, the conference that he has called home for most of his coaching career. More importantly, though, he’s back in an environment where his coaching style — an unyielding discipline, a blue-collar toughness — is considered a virtue, not a hazard.
“(I liked) his proven track record as a play-caller — as a tough-guy type of coach — and what he could bring to our offensive mentality that way,” said Rhoads, a graduate of Missouri Western. “But at the very top of the list, was the simplicity with which his offenses have had success.”
Mangino, who brought his son Tommy along to Ames, spent spring practice installing his familiar, no-huddle attack, which is noteworthy for reasons that have little to do with Iowa State. Back in Lawrence, four years after his exit, Kansas coach Charlie Weis has turned to a familiar system, hiring former Mangino assistant John Reagan to run a similar version of the no-huddle spread.
If you listen to Rhoads describe Iowa State’s new offense — various tempos, a balanced attack, a simple design — you might as well be hearing a Kansas player describe Reagan’s scheme.
“The change that I think you’re going to see,” Rhoads said. “Will be in the varying pace that we utilize and also the simplicity of what it is we’re trying to accomplish. We want to be simple where our kids can execute at a high-rate of speed.”
For Mangino, of course, the last few years have been about controlling the tempo. When he left Kansas, he stepped away from football. He spent more time with his family. His wife, Mary Jane, fought a long battle with cancer. But on the inside, the fire burned, and Mangino returned to the sideline last year as an assistant at his alma mater, Youngstown State.
“I think (he’s) thoroughly rejuvenated,” Rhoads said. “Getting back at Youngstown and coaching again, it just boils that blood to a level that people that are in it thoroughly understand.”
Now comes the next chapter. Last season, Iowa State ranked in the bottom three in the Big 12 at 24.8 points per game and 363 yards per game. The Cyclones dropped to 3-9 after playing in three bowl games in four years. And Rhoads is hoping for an immediate upgrade.
So, too, is Mangino. When the former Kansas coach arrived on campus last winter, he set out to build relationships with his new players. He offered his offensive players a standing invitation: Come by my office and talk.
“He reaches out to guys,” said Iowa State tight end E.J. Bibbs. “He reaches out to guys that aren’t doing too well in school work, and he’s just helping them.”
So far, Bibbs says, the Cyclones have embraced Mangino’s demanding style. There is tough love and discipline, he says, but it’s the kind that players crave. Bibbs then began a quick story. During the spring, as Mangino installed his spread offense, there were times when he would stop practice in the middle of a play and demand a better effort. In those moments, Rhoads could be confident his offseason research paid off.
“He knew the league,” Rhoads said. “He understood the league. … There were a lot of things on paper that made me excited about making that first call.”