Youngstown, Ohio The horn has blown on the first of two football practices in one recent mid-week day at Youngstown State. The head coach has spoken and the players head for water bottles and a path home for rest. After a few minutes, just two men remain on the field, one a chatty linebacker, another the assistant head coach/tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator. The coach knows the role he needs to fill at the moment is to listen. So he listens.
The assistant head coach is known in this part of the country as “Bear,” his childhood nickname. Six seasons ago, he was known as the consensus national college football coach of the year, Mark Mangino, native of nearby New Castle, Pa.
Mangino, the last football coach to leave Kansas University with a winning record (50-48 in eight seasons) since Jack Mitchell in 1966, and the school’s only coach to appear in back-to-back bowl games, the only one to win three consecutive bowl appearances and the proud leader of a 2007 squad ranked seventh in the nation with a 12-1 record and Orange Bowl championship, heads to the bleachers to accommodate a reporter from Kansas.
From his seat, Mangino can see signs of the slow progress of a once-booming steel town’s recovery from the depths of its crash. Dormitories near the football stadium stand where crack houses and houses of ill repute sullied the landscape a few decades ago. The well-read Mangino cites a story he has read from an economist in a Washington, D.C., think tank, one that predicts Youngstown will be among the northeast Ohio cities that 10 years out will have much better economies than today. Foreign companies, aware of an eager and skilled labor force, are relocating in the area.
“It’s never going to be like it was, but there are definitely positive signs,” said Mangino, a 1987 graduate of Youngstown State who spent one season as a student assistant to Bill Narduzzi and one in a similar role on Jim Tressel’s staff.
Sensing positive vibes as to a rough town’s recovery in large part requires relying on intangibles. The only tools needed to recognize the football coach is in the midst of a comeback are a pair of eyes. Mangino is a shell of his former self in an all-good way. Eyes that haven’t seen him since his Kansas days required a second look to make sure it was in fact Mangino standing in the end zone fist-bumping a player. The ease with which he talked about his weight loss was nearly as shocking.
Mangino was forced to resign after the 2009 season with a negotiated $3 million parachute after athletic director Lew Perkins launched a late-season investigation into his alleged mistreatment of players. Mangino’s wife, Mary Jane, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. She since has been declared cancer-free and goes in for six-month checkups.
Concerns over his wife’s health and lack of a job offer he felt was right for his career and family delayed Mangino’s return to coaching until, in advance of spring football, he accepted Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford’s offer to join his staff, a homecoming for Mangino.
Triple-digit weight loss
Mangino discussed his inspiration for losing weight.
“During the time I was off I got a chance to spend time with the grandkids,” Mangino said. “It was so much fun being around them, and I got to thinking about a year or so ago, ‘If I don’t do something, am I going to see them get their first Holy Communion, am I going to see them graduate high school, go to college? Am I going to be able to hang in there and see them get married?’ I thought about it and I said, ‘The chances are that I might not.’”
He doesn’t sport the drooping-skin look of some who have lost a great deal of weight in a short period of time. He just looks like a mini-Mangino compared to his days as the Kansas coach.
“It’s hard for a guy like me, but I decided I was going to change my lifestyle, get more exercise, just change everything, make a drastic, drastic change in the way I looked at things,” he said. “And so far it’s been good. I’m getting my exercise. During two-a-days, it’s tough to exercise, but I get a little walk and I get my exercise out here (during practice).”
Mangino’s first major weight gain came when he left Bill Snyder’s staff at Kansas State for Bob Stoops’ staff at Oklahoma. He moved ahead of the family and missed home cooking, so it came as no surprise when he cited the person most responsible for supporting his conditioning efforts of the past year.
“Mary Jane’s been very good about preparing what I should eat and how much to eat,” Mangino said. “And I just decided I had to do something. I saw my wife sick, and I said, ‘Geez, if something happened to my wife and something happened to me, the grandkids wouldn’t have any grandparents.’ I decided I better get busy here. It’s time to stop putting my football team and my players ahead of myself. If I take better care of myself, then I’ll be able to take care of them better.”
Even without much hope of an answer, the question had to be asked: How much have you lost from your peak weight to now?
“I don’t know my peak weight, maybe it was because I didn’t want to face it,” Mangino said. “I started working out, watching what I was eating and doing different things probably six, eight weeks before I ever checked my weight. I can tell you that having weighed in the 28th or 29th of August, I was down 127 pounds (from about a year ago).”
Grudge? What grudge?
To listen to Mangino talk about his feelings about Kansas is to realize that he probably feels even lighter because he’s not carrying the weight of bitter feelings. Severance packages typically include clauses that prohibit the departing employee from trashing his previous employer, but Mangino seems motivated as much by maintaining a healthy state of mind as by fear of losing a healthy bank account.
“I hold the University of Kansas in high esteem,” Mangino said. “I mean, I had a great time there. I had eight great years there. I had a chance to coach great kids; my wife and I still have great friends all over the state of Kansas that we keep in touch with and come out and visit. I don’t have any reason to hold a grudge or anything.”
He knows what it’s like to carry around extra baggage. He didn’t like how it felt.
“Hey, grudges take work, they take energy,” he said. “They take up your thinking and who has time for that? I had eight great years there. One thing I’ll say, eight years, every single day, I gave the people at the University of Kansas my 100 percent. I gave everything I had to try to make that football program better and I’m proud of that.”
His thoughts remain trained on where he is, not where he has been, he said.
“Most people in Youngstown don’t even know my first name,” Mangino said. “It’s good to be here. I”m having fun. I’m about as thrilled as I could be. Youngstown State is the right place at the right time in my life. It is.”
It wouldn’t take more than a pop psychology degree from a fortune cookie or bubble-gum dispenser to draw the conclusion that feeling so supported from every angle has made Mangino feel good about himself and in turn aided his weight-loss efforts.
“My wife’s a big believer in everything happens for a reason, and she’s got me convinced that’s the truth,” Mangino said. “Everything happens for a reason. I’m having more fun right now than I’ve had in a long, long time in coaching. I’m with good coaches, good guys. I’ve got wonderful kids I’m coaching. They’ll run through a brick wall for you. They’re tough as nails. Everywhere I go, I run into friends or someone who has something positive to say, whether it’s about our football team, the season. Everybody’s upbeat. The city of Youngstown’s ready for football season. They’re dug in, ready for the first game. But I’m around good people, a lot of people that I know. They’ve always appreciated my effort and I’m thankful for that.”
That doesn’t mean Mangino, 56, has pitched a permanent tent at his alma mater. He said, “I don’t know how long I’ll be here,” and did not hesitate when asked if he felt up to the challenge of taking on another head-coaching job.
“There’s no question,” he said. “I’m prepared and I’m ready for it. I’ve got the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion for it. If the right situation came about that I thought it was a good decision to make for myself, my family, my future and it’s a place I want to be with good people who care about football, I’d do it again. But right now, I’m day to day. I’m enjoying the moment. I’m enjoying being here at Youngstown. It’s fun. It’s like being home. Everybody’s been so welcoming and everybody’s just so happy to have you. And here they don’t care who I am or what I am or whatever the heck labels are on me, have handed to me, other people have given me. I’m known around here by a name that’s not even my birth name.”
The “too-tough-on-the-players” label might shrink the pool of schools interested in pursuing a coach with a winning record at a place with a long tradition of losing football.
“I’m not worried about the things I can’t control and I can’t control what other people say about me,” Mangino said. “I think it’s best if you’ve watched me coach, if you’ve seen me prepare, if you’ve seen my relationship with players, you’ll understand me and you’ll know what I do is in the best interest of the program I’m in, and I enjoy teaching and coaching.
“I’m like every other human being. There are people who like me and people who don’t. And there a lot of people who don’t know me and have drawn a conclusion that I’m this or that and I can’t control that. I certainly can’t send 300 million mailings out. What am I going to do?”
He is going to keep sawing wood and occasionally tweet at “KeepSawinWood.”
‘A players’ coach’
Penguins junior tight end Nate Adams remembered learning the news about his new position coach.
“When we first hired him just hearing the name was pretty cool,” Adams said. “He’s been national coach of the year and now he’s a position coach here. He obviously knows a lot about the game and about offense. He’s really helped me a learn a lot about offense as a whole, not just from the tight end position.”
Adams laughed when asked if he found Mangino’s coaching style abusive.
“I think he’s definitely a players’ coach,” Adams said. “When we first met him in the spring, we had individual meetings with him and didn’t even talk about football. We talked about family and then he got our parents’ phone numbers and contacted our families. I think he got a bad rep up there at Kansas and I don’t see any of that side of him here at Youngstown. It’s definitely great to have him on staff.”
His tough reputation wasn’t a concern for his current employers.
From pupil to boss
Youngstown State head coach Eric Wolford, 42, played for Bill Snyder at Kansas State as an offensive lineman when Mangino was his position coach. They also were members of Snyder’s staff at the same time. Before becoming head coach at Youngstown State, Wolford also worked on the staffs of head coaches Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Mike Stoops, Darrell Dickey, Dana Dimel, Jim Leavitt and Snyder. He was recruited to K-State by Bob Stoops.
Wolford said that after he took the head-coaching position at YSU in 2010, Mangino was among the first he called for advice and he called him often.
“There are a lot of us out of that (Snyder) Kansas State coaching tree,” Wolford said. “Out of all of us, he got the most out of the least. It was a slam dunk for Youngstown State to hire him. He’s been great for staff chemistry. The players have really taken a liking to him. So it’s exciting to have him here.”
Without mentioning Lew Perkins by name or the specifics of the conditions under which he left KU — a ticket scandal not tied to Perkins but happening during his watch in which four people pocketed money for tickets and were sent to prison — Wolford expressed the opinion that Mangino’s relationship with his athletic director was the reason for his ouster.
“The thing is is this: The media perception of Mark Mangino is not Mark Mangino,” Wolford said. “Here’s a guy who was under tremendous pressure basically because the athletic director wanted him out of there. Quite frankly, there’s proof now they got rid of the wrong guy. Know what I mean? My opinion is they got rid of the wrong guy first. That guy was definitely out to get him and as a head coach you probably feel that or sense that. It was obviously putting a negative spin on Mark Mangino that was way off base. It’s not him.”
Youngstown State’s colors are red and white, but Wolford’s purple roots show often.
“There is no one gladder that Mark Mangino is gone from Kansas than us K-State fans,” he said. “We’re the happiest people in the world. Youngstown State fans are happy he’s here and Kansas State fans are happy that Mark Mangino’s not coaching at Kansas.”
Happy. The word hasn’t always been the first to roll off the lips of those describing Mangino, but now it seems to fit Mangino as well as those pants that have been taken out of the recesses of his closet after a long, sometimes stormy stay.