Joe Posnanski
Sunday November 29th, 2009

I don't know if you have ever done it, but for a long time it seemed like everyone had at least once or twice said "Jack Nicholson" when they meant "Jack Nicklaus" and vice versa. It seems weird if you think about it... yes, the names are similar, but it's hard to imagine that Nicklaus and Nicholson often share a similar context. Nicholson isn't winning Masters. Nicklaus isn't winning Oscars. But the strangeness of having two people that famous with similar names seemed more than many of us could handle. Eddie Murray and Eddie Murphy shared a similar connection.

Now, though, you have two football coaches -- both seemingly on the brink of being fired, both rather large, both abrasive in their own ways -- and what chance do we have not confusing Eric Mangini and Mark Mangino? Just in the last two weeks I've probably called Mangino-Mangini and Mangini-Mangino two dozen times. What a weird deal to have two men with almost identical names in the news at the same time for virtually the same reason. It's a lot like that Hollywood thing where two movies about destroying an oncoming meteor or two books about Pistol Pete (or for that matter two books in large part about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds) coming out at the same time. I guess the only thing you can take out of it is that it really is a big world, with billions of possibilities. And with billions of possibilities, coincidences happen.*

*When playing Strat-o-Matic baseball, we used to have a saying: "Twenties happen." In Strat-o, you would sometimes find yourself in a situation where a guy would score on 1-19 -- meaning that on a 20-sided die, if you rolled anything from 1-19, the runner would score. Usually, your opponent would not even throw home in such situations, but sometimes he would. And sometimes, every so often (I'd estimate, oh, about 5 percent of the time) you would roll the 20, meaning the runner was out at the plate. And you would feel cheated by life. You'd shout "That's not realistic!" But in baseball, like in life, twenties do indeed happen.

I don't have much to add to the Eric Mangini chorus. A few weeks ago, I expanded on my fanbole that Mangini was the worst coaching hire in 25 years. And even though people angrily wrote in to defend the reputations of other dreadful coaching hires like Ray Handley, Jim Zorn, Art Shell, Tom Cable, Marty Mornhinweg and many others, I think that at the end of the day I probably will be right. I take no joy in that, really. It is remarkable, if you think about it, that in only 10 games as coach of the Cleveland Browns, Mangini has managed to:

1. Lose nine times -- his team's only victory coming in what I suppose is the worst game of the year, a 6-3 victory over Buffalo. In five of the nine losses, the Browns scored six or fewer points. In five of the nine losses, the Browns gave up 30 or more points. The Browns have gained the fewest yards, given up the third most, allowed 21 first downs by penalty (second most), and their quarterbacks have seven touchdown passes and 15 interceptions -- which, improbably, is even worse than Carolina's Jake Delhomme.

2. Play some sort of weird role in both the hiring and quick firing of former Browns GM George Kokinis. We are told that Kokinis is/was one of Mangini's best friends.

3. Turn the Browns' quarterback mess into a full-fledged circus complete with a whole new kind of "Guess who is going to be quarterback" intrigue (Who will start this week? Check in next time, same Browns time, same Brown channel!).

4. Do all sorts of comical things like fine a player $1,701 for failing to pay for a $3 water bottle in a hotel room -- while getting fined $25,000 himself for leaving Brett Favre off the injury report last year. He also just charged Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz of having his players fake injuries so they could deal with the Browns vaunted no-huddle attack, which would be hysterically funny if it wasn't just so sad. After all this is the guy who turned in Bill Belichick.

And we don't even want to get back into the whole painting-over-the-mural controversy.*

*Still waiting for the Browns to put that mural back up on a new wall in their training facility. Yep. Still waiting. Maybe they're just planning to unveil it around a big celebration.

Mangini has gone on a national tour trying to revive his image, and I respect that. The stories emerging are of a good family man who is just trying to do the best he can. I do not doubt these stories at all. But I don't think anyone said he was a bad family man who is lying in the back room and having people drop grapes into his mouth. No, the point seems to be that he's a complete disaster as a head football coach, and I think that with only moderate research this would have been obvious BEFORE the Browns hired him. Of course, now there are rumors leaking out that the Browns might be interested in giving Charlie Weis some role, so apparently the geniuses are still meeting behind closed doors in Cleveland.

Mark Mangino's story sounds similar -- but I think it's actually quite different. Mangino is the football coach at Kansas and this year the Jayhawks are playing lousy football. They had lost six in a row coming into Saturday's game against Missouri. And during those six losses the school has started an internal investigation into allegations that Mangino has bullied his players. I guess it began with the report that Mangino poked one of his players in the chest and it sort of mushroomed from there. Numerous people have jumped up to throw new charges at Mangino or to defend him. I know, football coaches bullying players barely seems worth mentioning, but the theme seems to be that there was a pattern of serious abuse here. Some of the examples that have emerged -- that Mangino allegedly told one player that he would become an alcoholic like his father and another that if he didn't shape up he would get sent back to the neighborhood where his brother got shot -- are disturbing.

This is not completely out of the blue, of course. Several stories have emerged in recent years that suggest Mangino is not a teddy bear. There was the YouTube of Mangino going nutso on Raimond Pendleton after a penalty. You watch that... and you get a pretty good sense of what style of coaching we're talking about here.

Still, beyond the few glimpses, he's a hard man to know. He doesn't give away much. I suppose you can't write anything honest about Mangino without at least mentioning the weight issue... I suspect that few men in America had been made fun of for his weight more than Mark Mangino. Think of it: Every stadium, every sports talk radio station, every Internet site constantly mocking you for a personal battle that you obviously cannot win. I remember the hurt in my brother's eyes when he weighed more than 400 pounds. But maybe there was a lot more going on behind the scenes. I don't really know.

A few years ago, I had the oddest experience writing about Mangino. I had not spent much time with him at all, but Mangino had often made a point of inviting me to come to Lawrence, Kan., for coffee or lunch some time so we could talk about the Cleveland Indians. Mangino grew up in New Castle, Pa., and he's a true old-time Indians fan, the sort who can give you the entire lineup of the 1970 Indians. I always meant to go have a little Teepee Talk with Mangino, but never did.

Then, in 2007, the Jayhawks were suddenly undefeated and way up in the polls. It was really pretty remarkable. Mangino's first year, his team went 0-8 in the Big 12. They squeezed into the Tangerine Bowl his second year, which seemed something like a pinnacle for Kansas football, and they were lousy again his third year and there was this sense that Mangino would not survive much longer. Kansas football is a tough job. There's no real recruiting base. There are fewer than 3 million people in the entire state of Kansas; and the population is so spread out that much of the state plays eight-man football. Kansas basketball works because it has become a nationwide program, but for football at Kansas (and Kansas State, for that matter) coaches have to work the corners and sweep the alleys that recruiters at Texas and Oklahoma and Nebraska and Missouri miss.

For the next two years, people who knew seemed to expect Kansas football to collapse. Only, it didn't really happen. The Jayhawks went to the Fort Worth Bowl and won it in 2005. They finished 6-6 in 2006. No, it wasn't Alabama, but who could expect it to be? The truth was that Mangino, whatever his methods (and nobody really knew his methods beyond the occasional explosion and wild rumor) seemed to coach the hell out of his players. The Jayhawks never seemed to have quite as much size or speed as their opponents, but they won their share, anyway. Then, in 2007, they started 11-0 and were very much in the national championship picture. Remarkable stuff. So I decided that year to write a big story on Mangino. Who is this guy, anyway?

And... man... that was a lot harder than I expected. Not that I ever expect a story subject to just open up, but suddenly this man who had invited me for coffee was saying (through Kansas sports information officials) that he did not want to do the story. After much negotiation, he offered 10 minutes on the phone. I asked for the 10 minutes in person. I was told no.

So I decided to forget about it. I had plenty of other things to write about. But the Jayhawks kept winning and I decided to take another run at him. This time I was offered 15 minutes on the phone. I asked for the 15 minutes in person. I was told no.

And I decided again to move on. Mark Mangino is not the only guy with Ohio/Pennsylvania stubbornness. No editor was pushing me to write the Mark Mangino story -- it was just something that interested me. And if Mangino didn't want to talk, well, hey, I didn't need to waste my time.

BUT... the Jayhawks KEPT winning. And I started doing a little reading about Mangino... and I was stunned how little reading there was to be done about the guy. Mark Mangino is an amazing story. Absolutely amazing. He never played college football. Truth is, he dropped out of college after only a year. He worked as a first responder -- meaning he drove ambulances to bloody scenes. He got married, had a child, was locked into a certain kind of life only he felt something missing. He asked the local high school football coach, Lindy Lauro -- a legendary figure in New Castle -- if he could help out with the team. Lauro was not impressed.

As I wrote in the story:

"What makes you qualified?" Mangino would remember Lauro saying.

"I'll work morning, noon and night," Mangino would remember saying back.

And so on. Mangino did help out with the team, and he liked it, and he felt what Bruce Springsteen calls that one last chance to make it real. He wanted to coach football. He went back to Youngstown State -- he was 31 years old -- and he ended up coaching under Jim Tressel (while still going to school, driving an ambulance, raising his kids and so on). After he graduated, he found a couple of coaching jobs and had mixed success. He coached only one year at Ellwood City, Pa., a lousy year, and recently a few people in Ellwood City told Brady McCollough of the Kansas City Star that Mangino was abrasive and profane and overbearing and all those things that people say about him now. He also was 1-9 that year.

It was after Ellwood City that he drove across the country and took a graduate assistant's job at Kansas State for $220 a week. The family slept in a friend's basement. He became a full-time coach there, then he was offensive coordinator at Oklahoma when the Sooners won the national championship, then he got the job at Kansas.

I really wanted to write the story -- even if it only meant some time on the phone. What drives a man like this? What makes a fire burn that hot in someone? I made one more run at Mangino and was told this time that he would give me some good time, but only on the phone -- that was his non-negotiable condition. So we talked on the phone for probably an hour, and during that time he twice invited me to come have coffee or lunch with him so we could talk about the Cleveland Indians. What a strange guy.

But... what a good football coach. That year the Jayhawks went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. I think that was as good a coaching job as anyone did this decade. Last year the Jayhawks won eight games and won the Insight Bowl. They were doing it with some good football players and what seemed to be outstanding preparation, game-planning and intensity. You heard vague stories now and again about how tough and cruel Mangino could be. But you didn't hear too many complaints. The Jayhawks were winning. And college football coaches who win, well, there isn't much that stands in their path.

And this year, after a good start, they started losing. And these stories emerged. Funny timing. I think the stuff that has come out about Mangino in the last couple of weeks has set off what I think is a series of fairly interesting sports arguments. This is an argument about how far a football coach should be allowed to go -- where are the boundaries between tough and tyrant drawn in American sports in 2009? This leads to an argument about whether we have become too fragile in America. This leads to an argument about winning and losing -- and the question: Would Kansas be investigating Mark Mangino if Kansas was having a great season? And what does your answer -- yes, they would still investigate him, or no way they investigate him -- say about your own views of college sports?

I find myself going back and forth on all these arguments, just as I go back and forth on Mark Mangino. On the one hand, I admire him a great deal. He came from nothing, worked his way up the hard way, reached the top of his profession against the craziest odds. And along the way he coached up a lot of players -- players who still swear by him.

On the other hand, I don't really know what happened behind closed doors. And there are a lot of people -- not necessarily soft people, either -- who say that Mangino bullied them. And I don't like bullies.

On the other hand, if you took just about any big-time football coach and listed off the 10 worst things they yelled at kids -- well, wouldn't most of them look like bullies? Wouldn't they all?

On the other hand, college is still college, right? How can we stand for coaches -- teachers -- who scream at their players, threaten them, intimidate them in entirely unfair ways? Is it naive to believe that fair play is a part of college football?

On the other hand, is a coach yelling obscenities at a player really so bad? I mean, we're asking these players to put their bodies at risk for a scholarship and our entertainment. We know they might break bones and tear muscles -- is a coach yelling really going to scar them? I was talking recently to an old college football offensive lineman who said that his intense coach screamed the most vile things at him... and also taught him more about life than just about anyone.

On the other hand, as a college football coach you cannot yell at a kid that he's in danger of becoming an alcoholic like his father.

Back and forth, round and round -- feelings are raw on these subjects. And opinions are easy. What I know for sure is that Mark Mangino coached the Jayhawks Saturday against rival Missouri, and it was a wild game, back and forth, and Missouri won on a last-second field goal. It was probably Mangino's last game as a coach... stuff like this rarely ends without a firing. For his part, Mangino was defiant to the end. "I run the program the right way, I'm proud of it and we're not going to change," he said after the game. Well, that's Mangino. He's not going to apologize for doing what he believed that he had to do. It's what I admire and dislike in him. I guess in the end, I'm left with this quote -- I asked Mark Mangino two years ago what he thought his players felt about him.

This is what he said:

"I can honestly say that I don't know. Some days, they probably love me. Some days, they hate me. I think they all respect the effort I've put in. They know I will tell the truth, even if it's painful. There's trust. That's what matters.... I'll tell you what I'm proud of: I have never told a player one thing that wasn't true. Ever."

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