Whistles and hollered instructions could be heard in the background when I connected by phone this morning with former Kansas football coach Mark Mangino.
Mangino was in western Pennsylvania, watching the Neshannock High football practice led by head coach Fred Mozoccio, one of his former high school players.
“He was a tough, hard-nosed son of a gun,” Mangino said of Mozoccio. “Took what traditionally was one of the worst programs around and has them playing for championships.”
Ten seasons after Kansas finished 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl, the Jayhawks will open the season by honoring head coach Mark Mangino and his players during the Sept. 2 season-opener against Southeast Missouri State.
Mangino said that when KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger and head football coach David Beaty, one of his former assistants, contacted him about coming back to be honored, he asked for some time to “mull it over" before giving them a response.
“It was not anything that I ever expected,” Mangino said. “It just came out of the blue and when they called, it caught me off guard. It was hard for me to say no when your players are going to be honored. I wanted to be there for them. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
During the weekend, cornerback Aqib Talib and left tackle Anthony Collins, first-team All-Americans in 2007, will go up on the KU Ring of Honor, their names permanently painted in big, white letters on the top ring of Memorial Stadium. The 2007 Jayhawks will go into the Kansas Athletics Hall of Fame as a team and Mangino, Collins and Talib will go in as individuals.
Credit Beaty, Mangino and Zenger with deftly handling a delicate situation to the satisfaction of all parties and to the benefit of a KU football fan base that has had so little to celebrate in the eight season’s since then athletic director Lew Perkins launched an in-season investigation into Mangino’s treatment of players and after the 2009 season negotiated a forced resignation with a $3 million buyout.
“Certainly, I didn’t like the way it ended,” Mangino said. “I’m not going to lie to you. But the way I was raised and the way I was taught by the coaches I worked for, you don’t dwell on the negative, you don’t carry grudges. Carrying grudges is hard work. It’s tough.”
Mangino said that “in a matter of days, I was moving on to a new chapter in my life. It was a lot tougher on my family than on me. I spent weeks counseling my family.”
The afflicted became the comforter. And he again slipped into comforting mode when a far more serious matter surfaced. Mangino delayed his return to coaching until after his wife, Mary Jane Mangino, recovered from breast cancer.
He spent one season as tight ends coach at Youngstown State, and one-and-a-half seasons as offensive coordinator at Iowa State, fired by head coach Paul Rhoads in midseason of 2015.
Mangino’s only appearance at Memorial Stadium since his forced resignation came Nov. 8, 2014, when the Iowa State team for which he worked lost to a Kansas team headed by interim head coach Clint Bowen, 34-14.
This will be different. He will be a guest of honor this time.
“Sometimes, when bad things happen, it’s how you react that matters,” Mangino said. “I was asked to come back, and I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t support my players and be with them. I lectured them for eight years about how you handle adversity. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t come back to support them. It would mean I didn’t believe what I was saying. I believed everything I told my kids.”
Kansas went 50-48 in eight seasons under Mangino and is 14-70 in the eight seasons since. In his final two seasons, the average attendance at Memorial Stadium was 50,907 (2008) and 50,581 (2007). Attendance has dropped every season since and was 25,828 last season.
“Another reason I decided to come back is we had such a loyal fan base at Kansas,” Mangino said. “People were filling the stadium, tailgating. They supported the team really well. The core fan base for KU football was awesome. This is just a way of showing my gratitude for their support.”