Commentary: In Mangino, A Cautionary Tale

By at November 20, 2009 | 12:48 PM | Print

The swift, sad decline of Kansas head coach Mark Mangino is more than just another tawdry tale of a coach who prodded, poked and pushed the wrong football players in his seven-year tenure at KU. And it's about much more than merely his weight.

The investigation into Mangino's behavior – and his presumed firing, the way he's hacking away at former players and their parents (and the way they're hacking away at him) – is a cautionary tale that deserves a little perspective. A little tough talk, as I'm sure Mangino would term it.

The recap is this: Mangino is like hundreds of college coaches in every division, in every sport, of both genders, and all ages: He uses words – apparently cruel ones – to get the attention of his players. The physical stuff – what little of it there is in this case – is merely a logical extension of his verbal abuse. You don't arrive in someone's face, after all, by silence service.

Mangino threatens. He cajoles. He curses. He brays. He molds like a punk-rock potter would handle bricks of mud and hay. Maybe you've played for a man or woman like this. Maybe you know someone. Maybe you are that person.

Like most angry people, Mangino blames the whistle-blowers – the outspoken players, some of whom were quite good at KU – for bitterness. He blames their parents for failing their children before they arrived on Mangino's doorstep. Never mind that Mangino readily admitted, at the Big 12 Media Days, to recruiting “tough” kids with an “edge,” which means he's fully aware – and always has been – of the risks his style involved. You can't offer Pandora a full-ride scholarship and expect her box to come with a chastity belt.

But, in the face of allegations, Mangino's sheer refusal to admit any wrong – legal tactic? – and unequivocally blameshift deserves a strong rebuttal that, again, goes for any Big 12 coach – Nebraska's included – who may indulge such notions.

Sure, kids have changed. Parents have changed. The money has changed. The scrutiny has changed. Most importantly, athletic directors have changed. They're businessmen. They raise money, press hands and kiss the feet of rich boosters. When you move and sit in the worlds of men and women who barely lift an eyebrow to summon a phalanx of aides to their side, you learn to loathe the cajoler. The world is a colder place for the domineer. Fewer willing souls to dominate.

But, you know, some things haven't changed. Namely: People rarely forget a personal slight or insult. And parents never forget the insults levied at their children. What – you think one imperfect man's notion of “character-building” can ultimately get in the way of blood? Child, please. Since when? On which day? In which sliver of a minute in an hour?

That time, to a rational person, does not exist. But a coach – or any leader with great responsibility – is not always rational. Primordial forces and all that. Delusions – of grandeur, of whatever – are reasonably necessary in college sports. You have to be a little mad – figuratively (and doubly so!) – to drive a bunch of kids toward a championship. Madness lends itself to audacity, audacity to conscience-crossing cruelty. Ever stepped outside yourself in your worst, most rage-filled moment? Did you ever just know it was gonna hurt the intended target in a personal way? The id running amok.

You think of military/political leaders, best to worst. Admired to reviled. But the line between Hannibal and, oh, Nero is thin, practically indistinct, even as their legacies are magnified in opposite directions amidst historians. In their own days, both struck their chords in Rome. The first was exiled, the latter, a suicide case. History's master strategist and decadent fool both arrived at the same port of life.

Their other bond was, according to most historical records, a shared taste for cruelty.

I think some coaches walk around presuming their victories and rare compliments make up for the hours and hours in which they've run down some kid for running out of bounds, or making a bust on a play.

In the short term, sure, OK, maybe. The burning current underneath? That's not how human nature works. There's a reason Solomon writes so many Biblical verses about the proper use of your yap.

Here's a lovely lesson from Proverbs 25:28: “A man without self control is like a city broken into and left without walls.”

In the long run: Negative Reinforcement. Does. Not. Work. Anger. Does. Not. Work. It doesn't. Write it on a chalkboard 1,000 times. If, as a coach, you don't negate that prospect of fear with heavier doses of love and encouragement, the chain of success will always – always! – break down.

Maybe not in the first generation of players. Maybe not in a coach's entire career. But it will somewhere. In families. In the workplace. Rage, contempt and plain old-fashioned pissiness is the root of so many basic-now-endemic American problems. It threatens to ruin our political system, for one thing. The next smile I see from a politician on TV that isn't rueful, gloating, sarcastic or masking ideologue rage will be the first in some time.

Some coaches think their stentorian bellow is, I dunno, something to behold. They think their constant display of anger is almost virtuous, and reflective of their desire, their passion, their competitiveness. Mangino seems like a smart enough man to have considered all of that, and a driven enough man to thought through none of it. Like a lot of blue collar folks, Mangino seemed only to glance at his methods for fear of losing the ferocity of vision it takes to win. That he rationalizes it with the Brooklyn Bridge analogy – the rest of the Big 12 does it, why not me? – strikes me as a clumsy ex-post facto gambit that isn't true anyhow.

It is not unlike, you see, the “bitter” player, blaming his parents, or his peers, for his own disobedience.

The larger lesson is that we're not merely wise to those indiscretions and departures from consistency – we're willing to tap into our personal offense at them. Woody Hayes was once literally allowed to punch his way out of his profession. And he was, in many ways, a brave and innovative man. Patton was used as a decoy in the latter stages of World War II for indulging in a pointless slap. Mangino, a gifted mind who truly gave the Brothers Pelini fits last Saturday – the only coach to slow the tide of NU's pass rush all year – is bound to a lesser legacy than his talent deserves far before it reached a critical mass.

All for what? Some sharp words that Mangino's long forgotten – but his targets have not?

You look at a man like Tom Osborne. How he did it. How he managed above that fray of chaos and insult. Oh, he made his share of poor decisions – I'm sure, every so often, he'd like to take back the phrase “that girl” – but he had a courtliness about him. Still does. Greatness does not require a rough tongue. There is such a thing as righteous anger, if you're slow it. No such thing as righteous vulgarity.

Of course, it is natural to consider Bo Pelini. No shrinking violet there, right? And the cameras don't lie as to how he acts on the sideline. His berating of assistants and officials is already tiresome and due for an offseason overhaul.

But Pelini enjoys some crucial advantages, too. By all accounts, he relates quite well to his players. He knows how to joke with them – even in brief moments at press conferences – and earn their confidence. Based on every anecdote we've ever heard, he's good with their parents, too. Part of it is a relatively low-pressure recruiting process.

And Pelini is an athlete. Still. He's a runner. He played and knows basketball and baseball. His exultation after the Oklahoma win was a bonding moment in itself – even though he was connecting with the fans, and few players were around. Mangino, because of his size, must struggle to even hug his players after a big win.

Football is rough trade. No coach tiptoes his way the minefield every hour/day/week/year. The bigger question: Has the program invested in love? Not just workmanlike respect. But a bond greater than that.

As more allegations of Mangino's players emerge, this much is clear: They might have enjoyed the taste of winning, but they lacked a heart for the program. Loyalty is born in those positive emotions. And the coach has to plant the seeds. As lovely as it may have looked in 2007, Mangino's garden, sadly, was one of cultivated weeds waiting to poison their own soil.

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