If he had his way, no doubt Mark Mangino still would be coaching the University of Kansas football team.
Certainly, he wouldn’t have experienced the misery of being forced out of the job in 2009 after an investigation into his treatment of players.
Then again, it’s strange how things work out sometimes, too.
When his wife, Mary Jane, was diagnosed with cancer a year later, Mangino felt fortunate to be out of that infinitely consuming line of work and have the chance to fully lend his love and support. (That included shaving his head in sympathy for her lost hair, and having her laugh at how bad he looked.)
Now, he’s grateful for all the time with her amid her return to health. She has a 4 percent chance of breast cancer returning, he said, but “we have to be vigilant.”
Meanwhile, in the fall of 2015 back home in Pennsylvania, his mother, Connie, fell ill.
Again out of coaching after stints as an assistant at Youngstown State and Iowa State, Mangino commuted from his home in Naples, Fla., for weeks at a time to be with her.
Before Connie died in December, he was among family gathered around her bedside for her final weeks.
They laughed a lot and talked about so many things and sang songs from her favorite Broadway musicals, like “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific.”
He will forever cherish that he could spend all that intimate time with her.
And he knows he wouldn’t have been able to do it if he were still a head coach.
“In a lot of ways,” he said this week, “I’m lucky.”
Mangino has spent no time seeking or wishing for reconciliation with KU, where he went 50-48 in eight seasons that included a remarkable 12-1 Orange Bowl run in 2007.
And even if he acknowledges he wasn’t perfect, he needed no sense of redemption from a program that has spiraled into a 14-70 record since.
Don’t “let ’em get you twice,” friend and colleague Bob Stoops liked to say. “Let it go.”
Those sentiments supplemented what Mangino learned growing up.
“My feeling has been that when I left, I was disappointed, I didn’t like the way it happened,” he said. “But my parents raised us that there’s no use in life carrying grudges or being bitter. That will wear you out.
“I’m not saying it didn’t hurt. I put my heart and soul into it. But I put it behind me.”
It caught him off-guard, then, when KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger and coach David Beaty recently called to ask him to return to Lawrence and be honored as the school inducts the 2007 team into its Ring of Honor on Sept. 2.
Despite the high-energy “recruiting schtick” of Beaty, as Mangino called it with appreciation for his former assistant, Mangino needed to take a timeout to consider the idea and talk it over with family.
Close relatives, of course, often feel more emotion over a firing than the one most directly affected, especially considering how much they knew he had invested in the job, and because of their own history in the area.
“We live in a world of the transaction box,” Mangino said, noting the casual way a trade or demotion or firing is reduced to a line of tiny type in the local paper. “People read it and move on. But those are families (affected). They take it the hardest.”
His family was for this, though, and so was he when he thought about some fundamental aspects of his life as a coach.
He didn’t need the recognition … but he needed to seize the opportunity to spend time with his former players.
“How many times in life is that going to happen again?” he said.
He wanted to thank fans, too, for their loyalty to him, not just when he was at KU but even after — which showed up in his return as offensive coordinator at Iowa State in 2014.
Hearing fans yell, “We miss you” and “We love you,” he said, laughing, made him feel “confused.”
“‘This isn’t right,’” he remembered thinking. “‘Call me the names they call me every other place.’”
Most of all, though, he thought about this:
For eight years he stood up before his teams, trying to preach life lessons about things like moving forward after encountering adversity.
Here was a real-life example, he figured, so much so that it would be hypocritical for him not to live up to it his own word.
It’s not what happens to you, he liked to convey, that matters most.
“It’s how you react to it that really defines you,” he said.
In his case, that also means that Mangino in the moment of his greatest career loss says he “moved on and said, ‘What’s next?’”
Naturally, that may or may not have come to him immediately, and it bears mention that he’s limited in what he can say about his downfall at Kansas.
As part of his $3 million settlement with KU, the results of the three-week investigation into his allegedly harsh behavior were sealed, and Mangino in the past has said he’s not at liberty to discuss specifics.
But here he is now, at 60 in a seemingly serene place.
Until the first snowflakes fall, he is back home in Pennsylvania this time of year, watching a former high school player of his coach, and watching a nephew play, and only a six-hour drive from the University of Kentucky where his son, Tommy, is coaching.
“I just watch; I don’t have to make decisions,” he said, laughing. “It’s a good way to enjoy football.”
Most likely, he says, he won’t coach again.
Then he catches himself.
“I don’t trust myself: The word ‘never’ should not be in your vocabulary,” he said. “Never, that’s a long time.”
Just like it’s been a long time coming for Kansas to honor him, something he didn’t need but can welcome for many reasons as he appreciates so much about his life.
“I’m going back with a smile on my face,” he said. “Life’s too short to be bitter.”