For Kansas University football coach Mark Mangino, the hits just keep on coming.
On the heels of Tuesday’s launching of an internal investigation into the actions of the Jayhawks’ eighth-year coach, nearly a dozen former and current players spoke with the Journal-World on Wednesday about Mangino, some describing a well-intentioned disciplinarian but many others painting a picture of a man who was controlling, abusive and oftentimes kept players in an extended state of fear.
Among the allegations made by players interviewed by the Journal-World included:
Near-daily verbal attacks on players, in some instances involving personal matters that athletes felt went well beyond the boundaries of a player-coach relationship.
• Verbal abuse of assistant coaches, including a 2008 incident in which Mangino threatened the job of defensive coordinator Clint Bowen.
• Failing to disclose player injuries to the detriment of the team’s athletes.
• Players who left the program at least in part because of the negative environment they were subjected to.
• An incident during the 2006 season in which, according to former linebacker Joe Mortensen, Mangino put his hands on then-running backs coach Earle Mosley after one of the team’s running backs had failed to pick up a blitz during a game. Mosley later left the program and now coaches running backs for the New York Sentinels of the United Football League.
The investigation, prompted by the concerns of senior linebacker Arist Wright, who approached athletic director Lew Perkins after Mangino allegedly poked him in the chest several weeks ago, is being headed by associate athletic director for risk management Lori Williams, and will seek out the thoughts and experiences of current players and those with ties to the program.
What they’ll find, some former players say, are those who harbor a lingering distaste for the coach and his volatile temperament.
“If Lew Perkins called me up and asked me what I thought they should do,” said Mortensen, who served as a team captain under Mangino, “I’d be like ‘Let him go.’”
The ugly side
The recent allegations, players say, have been a long time coming.
Even as the program’s collective stock rose, improving steadily after Mangino arrived in 2002 and peaking in 2007 with a 12-1 season that included a victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, those close to the program say behind-the-scenes issues were a constant source of anguish.
In his first few weeks on campus, for instance, Mortensen — a native of Oakland, Calif. — received a minor-in-possession of alcohol citation while caught drinking outside “The Hawk”.
Figuring it was the right thing to do, the player went to Mangino to inform him of the situation.
During their meeting, Mangino allegedly swore and threatened to revoke Mortensen’s scholarship, calling him a “bum” and telling the player that “he’ll send me back to Oakland and I’ll be drinking out of a brown paper bag the rest of my life.”
Two former players, meanwhile, confirmed a Rivals.com report that during a practice confrontation with former receiver Raymond Brown, whose brother had recently been shot and hospitalized, Mangino told the player, “Don’t yes sir me, or I will send you back to St. Louis so you can get shot with your homies.”
“What I would say is sometimes his temper came off in a way that wasn’t constructive, which is where you run into trouble as a coach,” said former fullback Austine Nwabuisi. “He was just trying to be ugly as a coach, as opposed to being constructive or motivational.”
Things stretched far beyond a lack of tact, however.
Mortensen indicated he suffered a knee injury as a result of disciplinary measures taken after he chose to spend a week at home following the Orange Bowl instead of returning to Lawrence to undergo MCL surgery on his right knee.
When he returned to Lawrence, Mortensen says, he was subjected to three months of early-morning drills that involved putting significant pressure on his good leg. Eventually, he tore his left ACL, an injury he attributes to the amount of strain he was forced to put onto the leg as punishment.
In some instances, former receiver Dexton Fields said, assistant coaches would take it upon themselves to cuss players out in an effort to “keep the big man off of our backs,” and Mortensen described the rare occasions Mangino was forced to miss practice as some of the most enjoyable evenings of the season.
“Those practices were the smoothest, nicest, funnest practices,” Mortensen said. “No one’s getting cussed at, no one’s feeling the pressure, so we’re just out there having fun, playing football, learning and doing it.”
Fields also said that outgoing players left having developed no real relationship with the coach.
“Could we go talk to him (now)? Who knows?” said Fields. “Who knows who’s even tried. We go up to the facilities and we talk to the trainers and the strength coach, but I don’t know if too many people go into his office to talk.”
The motivational side
Not all of the former players interviewed remember things the same way.
Former tight end Lyonel Anderson calls Mangino “my guy”, describing how the coach brought him on as an intern last season while the player finished his degree. He says he never witnessed a line being crossed, that he felt there was always a motivational aspect in Mangino’s approach and that he cherished his time at Kansas.
“Listen, whether it’s at Kansas, whether it’s at Alabama, anywhere, the best teams are going to be run the same way,” Anderson said. “You got to have thick skin to play this game. I just think sometimes people are a little too soft.”
Former running back Brandon McAnderson reiterated that sentiment, saying that, while at times intense, the coach’s gruff demeanor usually served a purpose.
“As an 18-year old, I wasn’t ready to be challenged,” McAnderson said. “(Coaches) would say things to me and I’d be like ‘Wow, I think I want to go home.’ And then when I started to respond to those challenges, I started to see results. So every time they challenged me, I came back stronger. And that’s what his discipline is about.”
A handful of those interviewed, meanwhile, insisted that Mangino’s approach is no different than that of other Div.-I college coaches.
Some pointed to the coach’s aggressive nature, in fact, as the main reason the program — coming off six straight losing seasons before Mangino took over in 2002 — was able to transform into a perennial bowl contender, gaining bowl eligibility in five of the past seven seasons.
“Hey, Nick Saban ain’t down there baking cookies for guys in Alabama,” said Anderson. “I saw a game two weeks ago, he almost broke a headset and started barking in a guy’s face on national TV. That looked worse to me than (the poking incident) sounds, and that’s in front of a billion people.”
Others aren’t so sure.
Mortensen, now a linebacker with the UFL’s Sentinels, says he routinely trades war stories with current teammates about the various episodes they were subjected to during their college days.
He’s says he’s still waiting for someone to outdo him.
“We’re talking, and I’m telling them stories, and they’re telling me stories about their coaches,” Mortensen said. “And I’m winning. I win every single day.”
Still, others argue whether reports of harsh treatment are reason enough to dismiss the coach — who, with a career record of 50-46, is two victories shy of tying A.R. Kennedy’s school record — and on Wednesday, current receiver Kerry Meier went as far as to imply that firing Mangino would not be in the program’s best interest.
“What coach Mangino’s doing and what he’s done throughout his career here, I don’t think you can really fault the guy for being upset at (this) situation,” said Meier. “He’s taken this program to new and great heights that I don’t think anybody ever imagined. And if they’re looking to bring somebody in to try and turn this program around again, it’s going to be a tough, tough challenge to try and find somebody to do that.”
So now what?
With two games remaining in a 5-5 season that has been viewed largely as a disappointment, the team travels to Austin, Texas, on Saturday night for a matchup with the No. 3 Longhorns, and, at the moment, Mangino is expected to be on the sidelines.
The coach Wednesday declined to discuss the specific incident involving Wright, but reiterated that he has done nothing inappropriate and that he doesn’t believe his intensity to be unlike that of other Big 12 coaches.
“If people have given up on me in certain quarters, so be it,” he said. “I can’t control that. But what I can control is being with these kids and preparing them for Texas, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
For the moment, that’s the plan. As of Wednesday evening, a “Mangino Mafia” T-shirt still hung in the window of Joe College, a popular downtown clothing store. Players prepared for what figures to be a daunting test against an unbeaten Texas team, and a town awaited the resolution to a situation that appears to be growing murkier by the day.