The first PFT Season Preview magazine is on newstands now. The 128-page issue features an exclusive interview with Roger Goodell, contributions from NFL beat writers, the prospects for every team and a lengthy feature on Browns coach Eric Mangini. A Mangini excerpt follows.
More than a few NFL coaches create the impression that their overall success in life has caused them to lose touch, that they’re no longer “regular guys.” Though plenty of people lump former Jets and current Browns coach Eric Mangini into that category, I picked up on at least one trait when visiting him in Cleveland that connects him to plenty of the men (and maybe a woman or two) who closely follow football.
Mangini had a spitter.
At first, I thought it might be a cup of water. But the sunlight coming through the large windows overlooking the team’s practice fields penetrated enough of the Styrofoam to reveal that paper was stuffed into the cup. Later, the discreetly adroit placement of a pinch of Kodiak between cheek and gum, Walt Garrison-style, confirmed it.
Yes, Mangini had a spitter.
It was the kind of glimpse we never see during which the team and/or the coach exclusively controls the message. For Mangini, the problem has been that his accomplishments at a young age, his close ties to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Mangini’s occasionally demanding methods, and his lack of postseason victories and/or appearances in four years as a head coach have caused many to assume the worst.
As a result, Mangini has been the target of repeated scrutiny in various formats, including ProFootballTalk.com. I decided that it was time to meet Mangini, to talk to Mangini, and to paint a picture of him that perhaps will be different than the portrait that had been crafted by his actions, his track record, and the media’s interpretation of both.
Plenty of league insiders regard Mangini as a scoundrel. As the thinking goes, Mangini parlayed the exploits of the Patriots into a head-coaching job after only one year as a defensive coordinator, and he then blew the whistle on one of the illegal tactics that presumably helped the franchise win three Super Bowls in four years -- the videotaping of opponents’ defensive coaching signals.
Apart from the fiasco that would come to be known as Spygate, Mangini also found himself routinely criticized for adopting the demeanor and tactics of Belichick, without his mentor’s credentials. Fired by the Jets after three seasons and possibly hanging by a thin thread in Cleveland after losing 11 of 12 to start his career in 2009, Mangini currently is regarded as further proof of the belief that the Belichick coaching lineage resembles Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, with the patriarch being the one gleaming ornament that bends the trunk all the way to the ground.
Mangini keeps in his office a Darth Vader mask. Though he uses the device for Skype sessions with two of his young sons, Luke and Jake, the familiar black helmet serves as a subtle reminder of the Skywalker family vibe that has arisen in the relationship between Mangini and Belichick.
Lately, there hasn’t been much of a relationship.
“He and I haven’t really talked,” Mangini said of Belichick. “When I talk about him, he was my mentor. He taught me everything, and I respect him tremendously. That’s not --------. That’s how I feel. I hope at some point, we’ll be able to sit down and talk about things and get back to a better relationship. It’s not there right now, but at some point things have a tendency to roll back.”
Winslow Townson / AP
Mangini led the Jets to a 17-14 win against New England and his former boss, Bill Belichick, in 2006.
Actually, Mangini’s career didn’t start in Cleveland. It began in Australia, where serendipity fused with hormones led him into a career he had not previously considered.
“My brother was over there as an investment banker,” Mangini said. At the time, Mangini was a student at Wesleyan, and he was planning to study abroad in London. “He talked me into coming to Australia. So I got there about Christmas time. School didn’t start for a month and a half. My brother was working all the time. I didn’t know anybody.
“A girl he worked with was in a sporting goods store, and this guy named Stan Long was hitting on her, telling her, ‘I coach football, American football.’ And she went back to the office and said, ‘Hey, this guy’s coaching American football.’ So I went to this sporting goods store and met Stan Long and said, ‘Look, can I volunteer? I’d like to just do something in the interim.’
Mangini ended up with a position helping Long. “It took me about five minutes to figure out Stan Long didn’t know ---- about football, and he just lied to all these guys … and so they ended up letting Stan Long go and making me the coach of this team, which was ridiculous.” Especially since Mangini was only 22 at the time.
“That team ends up folding, so I think I’m done with football in Australia. But some of the guys I was with went to this new team called the Kewe Colts and said, ‘Just come down and take a look.’ So I went down, and I liked it. I liked coaching. It was fun. I liked the guys. And they made me the defensive coordinator of this team, and I started college and we practiced on Mondays and Wednesdays and we’d play on Sundays.
“So I’d get my college coach to fax information to me during the day. I’d study it, I’d put in the defense, and we end up winning the championship that year as an expansion team, and I fell in love with it. The next year they brought me back as the head coach/defensive coordinator, and I got to bring a buddy from college as the offensive coordinator. We won it again, and now I was hooked. And so I came back to the states and wanted to try it as a career.”
Before his experiences in Australia, a career in football wasn’t on Mangini’s radar screen. “Never in a million, zillion years did I expect to be a coach,” Mangini said. “I loved football. I went to Wesleyan because I wanted to get a really good education, play college football. I realized I was never going pro, I wasn’t going anywhere, so at the end of the day to be able to do what I love, play all four years, and then move on with the rest of my life.”
He started as a ball boy at the Browns’ rookie camp, making $200 per week while servicing upwards of $30,000 in debt from student loans. Mangini stayed on as a volunteer in the team’s public relations department. He eventually was offered a position as an intern, and that exposed him to Belichick. From there, the relationship grew.
“Bill, to me, he’s the best,” Mangini said. “He called it in Cleveland ‘20-20s.’ Twenty years old, $20,000 dollars. The other term was Ph.D. Poor, hungry, and driven. So he gets young guys, he puts you in operation or he puts you wherever and then you show that you have value, and then he may bump you up to another department; you show you have value, he bumps you up, and then, you know, you either survive and rise or you get cut out.”
“Bill calls me in one morning -- I think it was like Friday -- and he says, ‘You want to call the game Sunday?’ And I said, ‘This Sunday?’
“I actually called six games in 2000,” Mangini added.
“So you’re the reason they were 5-11 that year?” I said, before the thought could be trapped by that internal “be careful what you say to someone you don’t know very well” filter.
Fortunately, Mangini laughed, a little. “We went 3-3 in those games,” he said.
The next year, good things started to happen for the Patriots when the team was teetering on the brink of a possible 1-4 start.
“We didn’t deviate,” Mangini said. “We worked the same way every day. We go into the next season, and we’re 1-3 when we played San Diego.” (They had lost to the Bengals and the Jets, trounced the Colts, and lost to the Dolphins.)
“We were consistent with what we were trying to do,” Mangini said. “San Diego has the ball late in the fourth quarter. It’s third down and one. We knew they were probably going to run to our left, their right. We move [defensive end Richard] Seymour over, which we’d practiced. Stopped them, which was huge. They punt, we come down, we tie up the game, go into overtime, and then win it.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“I used the analogy in New York of an avalanche. You put all that snow on the mountain, and at some point you get that critical mass, now you’re rolling.”
The avalanche happened in New England. When Mangini finally became defensive coordinator in 2005, it would be only one more season before the avalanche swept him to New York.
And that’s where the rift began with Belichick.
That’s not the end. Read about how Mangini's relationship with Belichick changed and how he's working with his new boss, Mike Holmgren, in Cleveland. To do that, buy the PFT Season Preview magazine at your local newstand or order it by clicking here.
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