The top 20 unheralded players in the Kansas football program under Mark Mangino.
The top 20 unheralded players in the Kansas football program under Mark Mangino.
The top 20 unheralded players in the Kansas football program under Mark Mangino.
LAWRENCE, Kan. – The coach of the Big 12's top football team is making his way toward the foyer – and this time he's not pushing a Hoover.
Six years ago it would've been normal to show up in Kansas' football office and find Mark Mangino vacuuming the floors, tidying the kitchen or washing windows. Somehow, though, that wasn't what Mangino had in mind when he promised to "clean up" the school's football program.
"See that wall?" Mangino said this week. "Sometimes, before a big recruiting weekend, a few of my assistants and I would get wet rags and try to scrub away the fingerprints that had collected there over the years."
Mangino scooted toward the edge of the lobby sofa and lowered his voice.
"We used to do a lot of things like that on our own," he said. "It was tough to get any help. People around here didn't care about Kansas football – and I mean they didn't care at all."
They certainly do now. Six years after his hiring, Mangino has the Jayhawks off to a 9-0 start for the first time since 1908. Fifth-ranked Kansas is one of just three undefeated teams in college football. One season after failing to earn a bowl berth, Kansas, a "basketball school," now has a chance at a national title.
"This," offensive lineman Ryan Cantrell said, "is probably beyond anyone's dream."
The situation does seem farfetched. Kansas, after all, has always been considered one of the have-nots in the Big 12 football arms race.
Although certainly not horrendous, the Jayhawks' facilities don't come close to matching those at Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, and when it comes to recruiting, Kansas' location and lack of tradition have deterred the country's top prospects.
Even with a cast of unheralded players, Kansas is winning under Mangino, who was groomed by Kansas State's Bill Snyder and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops before KU hired him to replace Terry Allen in December of 2001.
"I like reading the quotes after our games," athletic director Lew Perkins said. "Every week, the opposing coach has said we're the best team they've faced all season."
Despite Kansas' recent success, there are plenty of folks in Lawrence who have yet to warm up to Mangino. Some people – many of them co-workers – will curse him behind his back and tell you that he's flat-out mean. They complain about his short temper and say he's too demanding. One KU administrator this week referred to Mangino as "a bully."
Mangino doesn't agree with the label – but it doesn't bother him, either. Heck, in many ways, he's had to be one.
Kansas experienced six straight losing seasons before Mangino was hired, but the Jayhawks' shortcomings extended far beyond the playing field.
To mold Kansas into a national power, Mangino had to convince an administration – and a community – that football in Lawrence should be treated with as much importance as the school's tradition-rich basketball program.
It wasn't always easy. Early on it seemed as if Mangino was walking through the Parrott Athletic Complex with a Taser gun, occasionally using it to jolt some energy into a less-than-motivated fundraiser, secretary or assistant coach.
Not everyone appreciated his approach, but these days it's hard to question.
"There were people here that were comfortable and complacent," Mangino said. "I suppose I interrupted their comfortable lifestyle."
"Hey," he said, "nobody's perfect."
Some people didn't like his management style and others felt he was "in over his head."
But former Kansas athletic director Al Bohl could certainly spot talent.
Bohl gave Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel their first head coaching jobs when he was at Toledo and did the same for Pat Hill at Fresno State. Even during the search that led to Mangino's hiring, Bohl was identifying future gems in college football.
Former KU standout Ray Evans served on the search committee that brought Mangino to Kansas. He said Bohl loved Urban Meyer, who was then coaching at Bowling Green.
"Al said, 'Trust me, that guy is going to be a star,'" Evans said. "But we never interviewed him because Al thought fans would want a bigger name."
Meyer won a national championship at Florida last season.
Mangino might have only been an assistant, but he certainly had name recognition after serving as offensive coordinator for an Oklahoma squad that won the national title in 2000.
The committee interviewed successful head coaches such as Fresno State's Hill and John L. Smith at Louisville. Mangino, though, blew everyone away when talking with the committee via conference call.
"You could just tell he was so organized," Evans said. "After it was over a lot of guys said he could run a factory. You could've brought him on board at Acme Widgets and he would've been successful."
Former Kansas All-American Gale Sayers was on the conference call during Mangino's interview.
"Is he still on the line," Sayers said after the interrogation concluded.
"No," was the response.
"Let's hire him right now," Sayers said.
As impressive as Mangino was, the committee knew that Bohl entered the search intent on hiring Alabama's Dennis Franchione, who was in the midst of his first season with the Crimson Tide.
Franchione knew that fans in Tuscaloosa would be irate if they found out he was interested in leaving – especially for a downtrodden program such as Kansas. So Bohl did his best to keep the situation hush-hush, traveling alone to meet with Franchione and only updating a few of the search committee members about the proceedings.
One minute Franchione seemed ready to accept the job, the next he'd changed his mind. The end came when Franchione told Bohl he needed a little more time because he wanted to see if he was going to be a candidate for the Notre Dame job, which came open when Bob Davie was fired on Dec. 2. That same day, Bohl rescinded his offer to Franchione and hired Mangino.
"No one wants to give Al Bohl any credit," Evans said. "But at the very end, we were dancing with a very successful guy who kept stringing us along, and finally Al just said, 'Forget it. We're offering this job to Mark Mangino.' It took a lot of courage to do that. Six years later it looks like we may have dodged a bullet."
Indeed, Franchione left Alabama the following the season for Texas A&M, where he's expected to be fired after the conclusion of this season.
"Ironic, isn't it?" said John Ferraro, a KU professor and search committee member. "I thought we had Franchione, but I still remember Al saying to me, 'John, this is the best coach I've ever hired.'"
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Ask him if he had any regrets about taking the Kansas job, and Mark Mangino won't answer. Instead he just smiles and laughs.
"After I was here about three or four months, I realized this was going to be a Herculean task, " Mangino said. "I got worried. I didn't want these kids to think I was a magician."
With almost no talent remaining from the Terry Allen era, Mangino's first KU team finished 2-10. Some players were forced to play on both offense and defense and a handful of starters were also on three or four special teams units. By the end of each game the Jayhawks couldn't help but wear down.
Mangino tried for a quick fix by signing 12 junior college players during the offseason, but that led to more trouble when some of the signees accused a graduate assistant of providing test answers for summer course work. The situation eventually led to Kansas being placed on probation by the NCAA. Mangino said he had no knowledge of the alleged infractions, a claim the graduate assistant backed.
Even though the Jayhawks struggled on the field, Mangino faced even bigger problems off of it.
His biggest challenge was creating a mindset within the department that football was important. Mangino wanted to build a new complex at Memorial Stadium, but he said it was tough to get adequate fundraising assistance from the athletic department.
There were little things, too. Maybe he wasn't pleased with condition of the practice fields, or perhaps he was peeved that there was a leaky ceiling in a meeting room used to host recruits. Whatever the case, if there was a problem, people heard about it from the proverbial bull in the china shop.
"I wouldn't say I was a hard ass," Mangino said calmly. "Apparently people think screaming is anything above the decibel level we're talking in right now.
"More than anything I think I was just persistent. I'd ask about an issue on Monday and not hear back, so I'd call again on Tuesday. When I didn't hear anything on Tuesday I'd call back on Wednesday, and so on. Then someone tells you they can't do something. Well, why not? 'Because we've never done it that way.' It was very frustrating."
Mangino also felt the pull that Kansas' successful basketball program had in the department. Mangino infuriated former hoops coach Roy Williams when a member of Mangino's strength staff kicked All-American forward Drew Gooden out of the weight room when Gooden arrived unannounced.
Through it all, Mangino never backed down. If football was going to have a place at Kansas again, Mangino had to do things one way – his way.
Bohl, whose strained relationship with Williams led to his firing in 2003, said he understood Mangino's approach.
"In a situation like he was in, he had to be a bulldog," said Bohl, who now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. "He was intent on putting his plan into motion, and that created some difficulties with some of the people he had to work with. He was demanding, just like a successful basketball coach was demanding.
"Mark bit off as much as he could chew and then kept chewing. His plan obviously worked. He's proving that he can compete with anyone in the nation."
Earlier this week Kansas received a verbal commitment from Trevor Marrongelli, a high school offensive lineman from Texas. Upon announcing his decision, Marrongelli said: "They told me they liked my nastiness. In our last game I knocked a kid out and it took his helmet off."
More than anything, the Jayhawks' coaching staff prides itself on identifying the intangibles that can make a good player great. Having the ability to find and develop unknowns is imperative at Kansas, which rarely wins recruiting wars against the Big 12's traditional powers.
While those programs vie for the country's top players, Kansas must pick from their leftovers – which is something the Jayhawks have turned into an art.
"Our recruiting classes are never ranked very high," Mangino said. "We just chuckle about it. Our fans get worried about that kind of stuff but we don't. We don't care who's rating them or writing about them on the internet. We trust our own ability to evaluate."
Although not quite as extreme, the situation Mangino inherited at Kansas was similar to the one he faced as a member of Snyder's staff at Kansas State. With the Wildcats program struggling, Mangino was forced to go after players who were considered second- and third-tier recruits.
The experience is paying off in Lawrence.
Aqib Talib, for example, is one of the nation's top cornerbacks, a future NFL Draft pick and the best all-around player Mangino has coached at Kansas. When he committed his only other scholarship offer was from Wyoming.
Quarterback Todd Reesing is garnering Heisman mention after throwing 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions in his first year as a starter. The 5-foot-9 Reesing was passed over by schools in his native Texas and was instead receiving interest from Duke.
Leading receiver Marcus Henry was headed to junior college before KU discovered him during an all-star game in July following his senior year. Future NFL lineman Anthony Collins picked Kansas over McNeese State and Southern.
"I remember when they came to recruit me," Cantrell said. "I was like, 'I'm just a two-star recruit from Sugar Land, Texas. Why would you want me?'"
It's not just this year's team that's stocked with recruits who were passed over by bigger programs. Kansas touted one of the country's top defenses in 2005 and ranked third in the nation against the run. The top three players from that unit – Charlton Keith, Nick Reid and Charles Gordon – were all draft eligible following the season, yet none were selected.
"We're a blue-collar football team," defensive coordinator Bill Young said. "That's our strength. We may not always get the top-ranked players, but we get the toughest. I guarantee you there's not a college team out there that works harder than we do."
Uncovering hidden jewels during the recruiting process takes loads of time and research. Along with watching hours of film, Mangino wants his assistants to see prospects work out in person.
"Recruiting is like shaving – either you do it every day or you look like a bum," said Pat Henderson, a former Mangino assistant who now works KU's athletic fundraising department.
"Some schools determine a recruit's value by saying, 'Who else is recruiting them?' But Mark doesn't go by the, 'If they like him, we like him' rule. He lets the film and the evaluations speak from themselves."
Kansas has four assistant coaches assigned to recruit Texas and Texas only. Young works the trails in Oklahoma.
"You can't just recruit off of Top 100 lists," said former KU recruiting coordinator Dave Doeren, who’s now at Wisconsin. "Some guys are unknown until their senior years. All of a sudden a guy who had a severe ankle sprain as a junior comes back healthy as a senior and he's better than the other guy.
"That's why you've got to get out and see kids. You've got to see them in games and see how they handle success and failure. You've got to see how they handle coaching and criticism."
Goodness knows, they'll get plenty of both when they arrive at Kansas. Doeren said players "went through hell" during the early stages of Mangino's tenure. Mangino wanted to weed out anyone who should signs of mental weakness.
Even now, Kansas' players said their reputation for toughness is shaped during practices that are often tougher than the actual games. One popular drill calls for the offense to run the ball three times up the middle from the 5-yard line. If the offense scores, the entire defense has to endure grueling conditioning drills at the end of the workout. But if the defense keeps the running back out of the end zone, it's the offense that has to run.
The strategy seems to be paying off with this year's team. In 2006, the Jayhawks lost two games in overtime, two more in the final minute of regular and another in the fourth quarter. This year they're getting better as the game wears on.
"We feel like we're right on par with everybody," Talib said. "We're not afraid to play anyone, just like I'm sure no one is afraid to play us."
THEN AND NOW
Every now and then, as Kansas' team bus pulls into Memorial Stadium on game day, Mark Mangino gets a little sentimental.
He looks into the end zone and sees the cranes and construction equipment being used to build KU's new $35 million football facility. He peers toward the stadium and sees the thousands of fans tailgating in crimson and blue Jayhawk jerseys. For the second straight year, Kansas has set a school record for average home attendance.
"I remember my first bus ride," Mangino said. "There was hardly anyone tailgating. Mostly all I saw were joggers who didn't even know the game was going on."
Exciting as things are now, Kansas' future appears just as bright. The Jayhawks are three wins away from capping an undefeated regular season, and their Nov. 24 showdown against rival Missouri will be played before more than 80,000 fans inside a sold-out Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
After that the Jayhawks are hoping to play in the Big 12 title game – and maybe a BCS bowl.
"If you're going to dream, dream big," tight end Derek Fine said.
And, oh yeah, that belief that Kansas will always be a basketball school? Mangino has proven there's room for both.
"I went to the basketball game last night, and it was kind of dead," Evans said. "That's not a knock on basketball. I just think football is so darn fun for everyone right now that no one can think about anything else."
Other than running back Brandon McAnderson, Fine and defensive tackles James McClinton, nearly all of KU's key players are scheduled to return in 2008. And last fall Mangino received a new, five-year contract from Perkins that nearly tripled his salary.
"People used to say, 'If we could ever get to 6-6, that'd be great,'" Perkins said. "I said, 'Six-and-six is nice, but that's not where we want to stop. We want to be in that next level, that next tier.' We’re there now.
"Still, there's so much more we want to accomplish, so much more we want to do. We want this to be the norm and not the exception."
Mangino believes it will. Back in the foyer outside of his office, he utters the phrase that he's turned into a cliché during his time in Lawrence.
"We're just going to keep sawing wood," he said. "We've got to keep at it. Don't ever believe anyone that says you can't do something. Just use that to make you fight harder."
With that, Mangino rises from the couch, excuses himself and begins walking back toward his office. He says he's got work to do.