The Kansas football program has often times been shrouded in mystery. So much in fact that many fans forget it even exists. After all Kansas is a school where basketball is king and football is nothing more than a pickup game at afternoon recess.
But this wasn’t always the case. There once was a time where Kansas football joined the basketball program in the depths of respectability and glory. And though it didn’t last long, the impeccable leader they call Mangino broke the code.
So how did he do it?
It started with his love for the game.
Mangino grew up in a small Western Pennsylvania town surrounded by steel mills and football. It was at an early age when he began attending the local high school football games with his father, where his love for the game began to take shape. This love blossomed throughout his life as he decided to play high school football, and then by the time he graduated he knew where he wanted to end up—a football coach.
But it wasn’t as simple as just loving the game and wanting to become a football coach that made him successful. As his hard work paid off and one promotion lead to another, he stumbled upon a head coaching position. That position happened to be at Kansas.
When asked what advice he’d give to young coaches new to the game Mangino said, “don’t spend so much time looking for the next job because if you do a great job where you’re at they’ll find you.” I can only imagine he took his own advice because well, Kansas found him. And it definitely paid off—for both sides.
After he accepted the job Mangino had a task in front of him many thought was just about impossible—rebuilding the program into relevance. So before he started on his journey he needed to find the root of the problem and discover why the program wasn’t successful. And in his experience, he found that talking with the graduating seniors could get him going in the right direction. “I wanted to find out the climate of the attitude that was there.” He said, “When you take over a program that’s been down you’re kind of like a doctor going in there, you’re trying to find out what the symptoms are so you can find a cure for it.”
It’s important to know Mangino wasn’t looking for complaints or things the players thought needed to be changed. He was simply looking to see what type of players they were and what motivated them. This would then give him an idea of what the culture of the program was. And as he said, “some of the kids really cared about winning and were dedicated to trying to win, and others were, you know, part of the problem.”
Obviously the task at hand didn’t end there, that was simply the beginning. Now that he knew what the culture was he had to find the right guys to change that culture and get the entire team and coaching staff on the same page. This involved consistency in recruiting and having the patience and ability to find those right guys. And the most important characteristic Mangino looked for in recruits was “toughness.” He said, “I looked for guys that played hard every snap and were always around the ball.” He added, “we needed to add toughness to Kansas because we weren’t very tough when I arrived.”
The lack of toughness was apparent to Kansas fans and it showed up on the field. But once Mangino took over and he started collecting those tough players, fans everywhere took notice. And not just the fans, but even the coaches on opposing teams. “We developed a reputation in the conference as a team that played hard, played tough.” He said, “and even teams that beat us, time and time again the coaches would say man, your boys really play hard.”
But even though Mangino was proud to hear his team was playing tough and the opposing coaches noticed, he understood that they still needed wins. Those wins would come though, and as early as his second year on the job. After going 2-10 in his first year, he came back in his second year and the team went 6-7, even making it to the Tangerine Bowl. At that time it was apparent the Mangino era had started and he was going to take the Big 12 head on.
And although going to the Tangerine Bowl was exciting for the program, it wouldn’t be Mangino’s only Bowl appearance. He would go to a total of four Bowl games, and he’d be 3-1 in those games. One of those appearances even happened to be a BCS Orange Bowl, perhaps the most exciting Kansas football game in recent memory.
Going into that game Kansas was the underdog, and Mangino knew it. It wasn’t that Kansas was necessarily over matched, it was that Virginia Tech had a reputation for being tough and they played with discipline. This didn’t stop Mangino and he knew his team was just as tough and just as disciplined.
His plan? Be even tougher. “As we were getting prepared for the Orange Bowl, after nearly every practice we had our players run cross-fields.” He said, “even when we got down to Florida, at the beginning of the week we ran cross-fields.” Later that week, as the players were mingling with the Virginia Tech players, they found out the Tech players didn’t do any conditioning for an entire month. Mangino then smiled and said, “that’s beautiful.” His plan was coming to fruition and it would pay off, big time.
As the quarters ran down and the game stayed close, it was clear the Virginia Tech players grew tired but the Kansas players stayed fresh. And even though Virginia Tech had that reputation of being tough, Mangino made his team tougher.
After that Kansas win, the nation took notice and he would even go on to win National Coach of the Year that year. But even though that was a great accomplishment for Mangino, that’s not all that he was about. He’s a family man and he cherishes his time with them. When asked about the accomplishment he’s proud of most he simply answered, “my family.”
This also reflected in his coaching and translated into the culture of the program. The players were family to him. He not only taught them the game of football and sculpted them into tough men, he made sure they stayed just as tough and disciplined in the classroom. When asked what his favorite moment was as a head coach he said, “I always enjoyed going to commencement and seeing our players get their diplomas.” He added, “I took a lot of pride in that, it gave me a lot of satisfaction.”
This is what made Mangino such a balanced coach. He understood the importance of winning on the field and winning off the field. He equally enjoyed both and it showed for the players on the field and in the classroom.
But what does Mangino do now that he’s not coaching?
Well, he’s a regular family man. He spends time with his wife, his children and his grand children. He attends their sporting events and does his best at being a husband, father and a grand parent. He’s even taken up fishing and occasionally golf, even though in his words he’s “not much of a golfer.”
He hasn’t completely cut football from his life though. On the side he still does some consulting work for various friends and organizations, mainly on a pro bono basis. He’ll check in on players to do a quick evaluation on them or he’ll even draw up a few plays for the local high school. Either way, he’s still very much involved with the sport and his love for the game still shines bright.
We even asked what advice he’d give to this year’s football team, and what stood out the most was, “no excuses.” He said, “if a player came to me with an excuse why he didn’t make a play I didn’t wanna hear it. Why did it happen, and how can we fix it and make it better?”
He’s not saying the current Kansas players have excuses, but what I think this does point to is accountability. If you make an error, own it and find a way to not make that same mistake again. If you spend too much time trying to convince yourself or your coach why it wasn’t done then you’re taking time away from actually fixing the problem.
Advice aside, it’s great to hear that Mangino still pays attention to Kansas football. When he was here his heart was fully in it. You could tell this wasn’t just a stepping stone for him, this was a career location and he put everything he had into making the program flourish. And it did.
But for me, from winning the Orange Bowl to winning National Coach of the Year, I’d say Mangino’s biggest accomplishment was igniting Kansas football into something it had never seen before. Fans flocked to Memorial Stadium filling it to the brim and their roar lit up Lawrence, KS like an evening star. I’ll never forget that feeling and I’ll never forget the energy that came with it. It was infectious and it was glorifying.
In all of this I do hope Kansas fans everywhere realize just how lucky they were. Mark Mangino was a winner, and he was a molder of men. But most importantly, he was a hero to Kansas football.
Talking with him about his successes brought up all the those wonderful memories, and they reminded me of why I love this program so much. Regardless of where it’s at there will always be hope, as it’s been done before.
But as our time came to an end, I had just one question left. It was the most important one. The one question many Kansas football fans have wanted to know for the better part of a decade.
As I cleared my throat and paused for just a second, I asked it, with a glimmer of hope in my voice, “Will you ever coach again?”
Much to my surprise he replied, “I won’t say never, because never is a long time.”
And with that my friends, the hope lives on.