Vahe Gregorian

November 9, 2013

Three years after KU, Mark Mangino returns to roots with new view on coaching

Former Kansas football coach Mark Mangino returned, after a three-year sabbatical, returned to where his career began — as an assistant at Youngstown State, his alma mater. He is 100 pounds lighter and said he “made mistakes” at KU but dismissed the notion that his emotions consumed him.

Somewhere in the aftershock of being banished as Kansas’ football coach in 2009 amid allegations of mistreating his players, Mark Mangino encountered a quote from Socrates:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

It took.

“Makes some sense, doesn’t it?” he said.

And it helps make sense of how and why Mangino took some serious inventory and, in fact, intervened in his own life during what became a three-year coaching sabbatical before returning in March to where his career began: as an assistant head coach at Youngstown State, his alma mater.

“Now, I’m not going through some kind of rebirth of me, or something like that. No,” he said Monday after practice inside Youngstown State’s indoor facility.

But it’s hard to think otherwise from a visit with Mangino, 57, who radiated an affable, self-deprecating and thoughtful temperament. Certainly that wasn’t the way he came off as his job crumbled in 2009 and he was being accused of being a boor and a bully.

As he reflected Monday, Mangino acknowledged that he “made mistakes” at KU but dismissed the notion that his emotions consumed him, and he sought to clarify that one of his well-chronicled blowups (after the 2004 Texas game) was a motivational ploy.

If all that suggests Mangino thinks he was fine as he was, how he’s spent the last few years indicates otherwise.

He reconnected with old friends he’d neglected, even called “some people I thought might not like me; I thought that was the right thing to do.” He started to listen more, he said, and talk less.

He drove himself to the brink of a nervous breakdown, he said with a laugh, by going to a five-hour dance recital of one of his grandchildren. But he was happy to do it as a way to give back time he never quite had enough of for his own two children.

And in making time for family in new ways, Mangino shut down his inclination to get back into coaching two years ago when his wife, Mary Jane, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It’s the most important move I’ve made in my career,” he said.

Even if not every part of the move was smooth.

On a day Mary Jane insisted she wanted to go to treatment on her own, she later called him in distress after losing hair in clumps. Pacing the house, Mark decided to take a razor to his head in a show of support to surprise her.

It worked, though maybe not the way he intended.

“I expected her to be crying and everything, and she said, ‘You look terrible,’” Mangino recalled, laughing. “‘Why’d you do that?’”

Most noticeably — and perhaps most notably — Mangino also determined it was time to lose weight and shed what appears to be 100 pounds or more. He’s still got work to do, he’s quick to say.

“I needed to take control of that. Not because I was unhappy. But other people put labels on you,” said Mangino, who did not elaborate on how he lost so much weight other than to say he’s exercising more and made “dramatic changes” in his lifestyle. “And I needed to do it for my health, let’s face it. I did it because I want to see those grandkids grow up.”

“You can’t take care of the players,” he added, “if you can’t take care of yourself.”

Never mind that Mangino still asserts that the weight was not an emotional albatross for him, that it was more of an issue for others.

In fact, he may have avoided doing something sooner as a stubborn response to those who ridiculed him.

“I just kept saying, ‘They’re haters, they‘ll find fault with a coach who’s got a 34-inch waist, so that’s their target (with him) They’re going to find something,’” he said.

Even as he awakens to this, though, he harbors some of the old feeling about the murmurs that his weight might make him less appealing as a head coach.

“Nobody’s ever told me that to my face, but I’ve heard that in recent years,” he said. “I understand. There’s a lot of perception in college coaching.”

He paused and added, “Try to look at their soul, not their body, sometime.”

But was it something in Mangino’s soul, or at least his actions, a sudden plunge in the program, a personality clash or a combination of all that led to his forced resignation in 2009 by then-KU athletic director Lew Perkins?

The answer in some ways remains hazy. As part of Mangino’s $3 million settlement with KU, the results of a three-week internal investigation of his allegedly harsh behavior were sealed, and Mangino said he was not at liberty to discuss certain specifics of his demise.

“I’m very proud of the success of the players and the way we did things at Kansas; I’ll stand behind that forever,” he said.

Pointing to his heart, he added, “I’m proud that every day I did my best. Every single day. Whether it was the right way or the wrong way, it was well-intentioned and it was my best.

“But I wasn’t perfect as a person and even sometimes as a coach. So I had time to learn from others, to study others, to study myself.”

Yet Mangino scoffed when asked if his self-study had meant analyzing whether he had determined he had any anger issues to eradicate, as insinuated by the probe and suggested most publicly in being kicked out of one of his son’s football games for chewing out an official and his 2007 berating of Raimond Pendleton for incurring an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for hot-dogging at the end of a 77-yard punt return.

Accusations against him included poking a player in the chest and using insensitive language on others.

“Do I have a temper problem? I don’t think it’s a temper problem,” he said. “Let me explain it to you like this in cultural terms: In Youngstown, Ohio, in the state of Ohio and Pennsylvania, it’s called ‘passion,’ ‘fierce competitor,’ OK?

“It was good for me at a lot of stops.”

He smiled and added, “Just not one.”

So for all the changes he’s put himself through, then, it’s actually unclear whether Mangino believes he was out of line at Kansas.

To the contrary, in his travels around the country to visit other coaches during his time off, he saw evidence that he was “on the meek side, compared to some folks. And I mean that sincerely. But I’ve had my moments.”

Don’t put on the “Mangino-out-of-control” ledger, he said, his “dollar signs” line, suggesting Texas was given some officiating help in KU’s 27-23 loss to the Longhorns in 2004.

“Maybe you can set the record straight,” he said, laughing.

Instead, he said, he had made a calculated decision to make a statement and absorb a fine as a sign to his players, who were “inconsolable” in the locker room.

“I went in there and did that media thing, and it was a show,” he said. “And the kids said, ‘That’s our guy. He fought for us. He stood up.’ They said, ‘Thanks, Coach, we’re going to get it done.’ And the program started to get the respectability that we were so painfully trying to obtain.”

His Jayhawks went 7-5 the next season and peaked in 2007, when he won multiple national coach-of-the-year awards after KU went 12-1 and beat Virginia Tech 24-21 in the Orange Bowl.

Two years later, he was cast into limbo after a 5-7 season that left him 50-48 overall at KU and 23-41 in Big 12 play. Still, Mangino won more games in his eight years than any KU coach since A.R. Kennedy won 52 during 1904-10.

In three-plus seasons since Mangino left, the Jayhawks are 8-37 overall and 1-31 in the Big 12.

“I feel badly what’s taken place there,” he said, noting all the players and coaches who had sacrificed so much time and effort to make the program respectable. “So there’s no joy for me in them losing. I’ve got a lot invested there.”

Adding that his daughter, son and son-in-law got degrees there, he said, “We’re tied to that place, no matter what anybody thinks. I’m not mad at everybody; I’m not mad at anybody.”

After KU’s Orange Bowl victory, Mangino stood in the tunnel by himself, taking it all in, amazed by where his coaching journey had taken him.

Before long, he hopes that winding road will take him to another head coaching job.

“Let me put it to you in these terms: I’m ready, I’m a better coach standing here today than I was three, four years ago,” he said. “I say this in a confident tone: I can help somebody win and do it with integrity. And do it the right way.”

But for the moment, anyway, the journey means “it’s the right place at the right time” for him to literally be back where he started. He has a loftier title and is serving as recruiting coordinator but is coaching tight ends for Eric Wolford, whom Mangino coached as an assistant at Kansas State.

“Of all of us that have come out of the Kansas State coaching tree, he probably has done the most with the least,” Wolford said in his office.

To Wolford, Mangino has been stigmatized by unfair perceptions created by Kansas and perpetuated by media.

“All those things you hear about him aren’t even close,” Wolford said. “I think here and now, people see this guy’s fun, articulate, great family man, great person, integrity, character — you kidding me?”

On this light Monday, with the 8-1 Penguins practicing indoors in helmets and shorts, Mangino is hands-on with encouragement in drills, giving attaboy pats on the shoulder pads and taps on helmets as he makes fine coaching points about arm placement in blocking.

“You’re not pushing a broken car,” he tells one player. “We’re moving a human being.”

“Kind of grass roots,” he said afterward with a smile that marked much of the interview. “It’s gotten me back to the roots of the game. I’m a trench soldier.”

Being so is in essence another element of this reflective phase of Mangino’s life.

His coaching career almost took a severe blow before it really started. After his first year as an assistant, Youngstown State coach Bill Narduzzi was fired.

Mangino went as far as to start cleaning out his office, but he was retained by Narduzzi’s successor, Jim Tressel.

Some 20 years later, Mangino discovered that Youngstown native Bob Dove, a two-time All-American at Notre Dame, had spoken on his behalf.

“There’s no self-made people,” Mangino said. “You need some people to help you in life.”

That was Mangino’s topic as he spoke Monday to the “Curbstone Coaches” at Lucianno’s Banquet Center. As he gazed around the room, he saw numerous people he’d known from his first go-round in Youngstown.

“They remember me when I was young and dumb, and now they know me when I’m old and dumb,” he said to laughter.

Glancing back at his coaching influences, Mangino created a sort of mosaic of who he became and seemingly stitched it together with who he now is trying to be.

First, there was his high school coach, Lindy Lauro: “Ol’ Blood and Guts. He taught me toughness. I remember one day, he told me, and I’ve told my players this for years, `If you’re waiting for your ship to come in, forget it. You’ve got to go swim out to it.’ ”

Then there was Gene Sullivan, to whom Mangino served as an assistant at Geneva College. “The most spiritual human being I’ve ever met. I’d be sitting in a locker room before a game there, looking at the game plan, wondering if they do this, would I do this, how would I react? He’d be in the corner praying. And I was a young guy, I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of foolish. Is that going to help us pick up this blitz?’”

Mangino spoke of Narduzzi and Tressel, and, of course, Bill Snyder at Kansas State: “He never thought there was any problem you couldn’t find a solution for. Some take longer than others. He’d sit around for hours thinking about ways to solve a problem.”

And, finally, the “hometown guy,” Bob Stoops, with whom Mangino worked at K-State before going to Oklahoma with him: “His glass was always half full. I learned that from him. That’s a good way to go through life.”

Then he added, “You know all these people that I worked for in my life? There’s one other coach that I learned a lot from in life, and it’s kind of funny. You know who that is? It’s me.”

The line evoked a few chuckles from those thinking Mangino was joking.

But he wasn’t.

“That’s what you have to do. You have to learn from yourself. You have to learn your own weaknesses and strengths,” he said, adding, “If you want to improve as a coach, if you want to improve in your career, you also have to improve as a person.

“I don’t care how old you are or how young you are; I don’t care if you’re a ditch-digger or a millionaire, there’s room for improvement and you can get better. No matter what your lot in life is, you can improve. Even a guy like me.”

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