'Under' the radar

Jason Cole

Eric Mangini, at the time a 21-year-old college student on a foreign study program, stood in front of the taxi drivers, butchers and other assorted men in their late 20s and early 30s who comprised the Kew Colts and told them that he was going to make it to the NFL one day as a head coach.

As Chris Adams, a post-grad student playing for the Colts, remembered, the men would nod in agreement. Then they'd look at each other and say, "How's he going to do that from here?" The team was half a world away in Melbourne, Australia and, for all purposes, the level was even further. Mangini was coaching a semi-pro football team in a country that loved rugby.

"It was different, but no one ever had a problem listening to him," said Adams, an Aussie who now works for the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C. "He was younger than everyone and he was actually quite a bit smaller than most of the guys on the team. But I don't think anyone ever questioned that he knew what he was saying … There was a strong sense that if we listened to him and did what he said, we were going to win a championship."

Something the Colts did achieve.

Now, more than a dozen years later, Mangini, 35, has a tougher crowd believing the same thing. The first-year head coach of the New York Jets has his team in the thick of the AFC playoff race, tied with Jacksonville and Cincinnati at 6-5. All three teams are a game behind current wild-card leaders Kansas City and Denver at 7-4.

However, the Jets have a significant advantage over the rest of the group. Each of New York's remaining five games is against a team with a losing record, by far the easiest run of games for any of the playoff contenders.

It's an extraordinary achievement for a team that appeared to have a bleak outlook before the season. The Jets were coming off a 4-12 campaign and had a roster that included several question marks.

"Nobody was picking us to do anything before this season and, to be honest, I couldn't really argue with them," said a member of the Jets staff. "We didn't have a running game to speak of and we all knew that Curtis [Martin] wasn't going to play a lot, even if he had come back. [Quarterback Chad] Pennington was coming back from a second surgery [on his shoulder]. We had two new starters on the offensive line and I haven't even gotten started on the defense."

On top of all that, there was the question about whether Mangini could command the respect of the roster. Not only is Mangini young, but he hardly is cut from the typical coaching cloth. His career ended on the small college level, where the 5-foot-11, 235-pound Mangini played nose tackle and still holds the all-time sack record of 36½ at Wesleyan University (Conn.). In other words, Mangini was young and inexperienced in a league full of guys who often say, "If you didn't play [professionally], you don't understand."

Don Shula, the winningest head coach in NFL history, broke the age barrier significantly in coaching when he took over the Baltimore Colts at age 33 in 1963. But Shula was a former player, having spent seven years in the NFL as a defensive back, and then built his résumé as a college and NFL assistant. Shula might have moved quickly, but his steps up the ladder were in the right order.

By contrast, Mangini's first coaching experience was holding practices in city parks around Melbourne. While Adams remembers "getting yelled at a lot," there was always a point.

"Eric wasn't just screaming at us all the time," Adams said. "He got loud if what you did wasn't thought out … I remember him yelling at me one day when I was practicing as a defensive lineman. The offensive line pushed me back and Eric came running up and yelled, 'Do something, fall down, create a pile, but don't just get pushed around.' He was right."

Said Baltimore president Ozzie Newsome, who was in Cleveland when Mangini started with the Browns: "Eric has a very unique presence. There can be a bunch of people sitting in the room talking about something, but Eric still stands out."

These days, the approach isn't much different.

"The way he explains it is pretty straightforward," Jets wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said earlier this season. "He says what he wants and he explains why. If it doesn't make sense to you, he doesn't make you afraid to ask … The message gets across pretty clear. So if you don't do what he asks, it's on you."

The other part is that Mangini, who declined requests to be interviewed for this article, learned effectively from mentor Bill Belichick about how to conduct business. Like Belichick, Mangini is extremely reserved on the sideline during a game, rarely getting rattled by a situation. During the week, Mangini both listens and explains everything in great detail.

"Eric soaked up everything that Bill had to offer to him," former Cleveland and Baltimore defensive end Rob Burnett said. "He was like a sponge, figuring out the whole thing. What Bill was great at was listening to players so that he could figure out what they did best."

These days, Belichick and Mangini are in the midst of a quiet-but-public disagreement over how Mangini left the Patriots after last season. Mangini, who was the defensive coordinator with New England, started talking to other members of the Patriots' coaching staff about whether they would like to go with him before he was formally offered the Jets job. Belichick took that as an attempt to raid the roost and the two have talked about one another in very cold terms ever since.

Still, Belichick has been impressed with Mangini for a long time and it had little to do with the fact that they both are Wesleyan grads. Belichick was more impressed with Mangini's work on the Queen Mary. Not the boat. Rather, the giant copy machine that used to be in the Browns' offices before the team scampered to Baltimore in 1996. That's where Mangini would be up all hours of the day and night, copying material for the public relations office where he worked as an intern after being a ball boy for the team in training camp.

Then-Browns coach Bill Belichick noticed Mangini's work ethic, if not his name. One day toward the end of the season, as Mangini's internship was about to run out, Belichick walked into PR man Kevin Byrne's office.

"What are you going to do with the blonde kid?" Belichick asked Byrne. Shortly after, Mangini was working as a staff assistant with the coaches.

From there, Mangini's work ethic has been impressive enough to overcome what he lacked on his résumé. Or at least things that looked a little out of place, like trips down under.