From the beginning of his tenure as head coach at the University of Kansas, Mark Mangino has had many obstacles to overcome, most importantly turning the fortunes of a perennial loser.
For starters, he inherited practice and game facilities that did not measure up to premier programs in the Big XII. In Austin, well, everything is bigger. Stillwater has billionaire T. Boone Pickens, and Nebraska has Dr. Tom Osborne.
Next, Coach Mangino needed to assemble a staff capable of snatching up out-of-state talent and keeping said talent away from the other suitors in the conference.
The state of Kansas is not a hotbed for football talent, so Mangino and his staff had to convince potential players that the aging digs in Lawrence were worth accepting as part of a larger opportunity to build a respectable football program.
Then there was the foregone conclusion that KU, having modest success on the gridiron, evidenced by the occasional bowl appearance, was and is in fact a basketball school.
One could think that the job required of him was in some ways no greater than that of any other newly minted BCS school coach, and it very well may not have been. So these factors beg the question: What makeup of a man could handle such a daunting task?
For starters, the guy had better be tough. His mascot is a mythical bird (Jayhawk), and he would have to stand in living rooms and sell young men on leaving their nests for the nest in Lawrence, Kansas.
He should be driven, focused, battle-tested, and stubborn enough to weather trips to harrowing places like Lincoln, NE and Norman, OK.
There are often many ways to get to most places. To have a successful football program, there may be only one. Ask any coach on any level, and they will tell you that they want a tough, hard-nosed, mistake-free team.
So when we look at these kids—and they are kids—we expect these 19- to 23-year-old, fresh off the block guys to have all of the discipline and dedication to be a full-time student-athlete in the midst of some very formative years.
We also think that these kids can do this with little outside influence or with the tools they have in the bag when they show up. Fact is, they can't. They never have and probably never will be ready to fulfill those roles without a shepherd.
When a man like Mangino, whose motives and methods are being questioned, enters the fray, we should embrace what he is doing. Whether intentional or not, Mangino is shaping the way these kids will live their lives.
It's no secret that star athletes are identified and embraced at an early age. Everything comes easy for most of them, at least until Coach Mangino comes crashing through the door.
How many young people can you think of who could use a little challenge in their lives? How do we learn to overcome adversity if we never experience it? How do we leave bad habits behind if they are never pointed out?
If we examine the history of football, pay attention to the demeanor of the game's most successful coaches. With the exception of a Dick Vermeil or Pete Carroll, these guys aren't emulating the teachings of Dr. Phil.
Look at the top programs in college football today, and you will see characters not cast too far from the likes of Mangino, Bob Stoops, Nick Saban, Bo Pelini, and so on...
The truth is, any program that has the monumental task of being rebuilt ahead of it is almost forced to find a Mark Mangino to lead the charge. As a former college player, I only wanted one thing: to enjoy playing the game I loved.
I was given the chance to play a game in exchange for a free education, which meant for me that I would have endured anything short of criminal acts to keep playing.
Don't judge Mangino based on society's overly warm and fuzzy view of the world. Know that the grumblings of a few will not measure up to the gratitude of many.
I have to run...I am late meeting Coach Saban in Tuscaloosa. We're baking cookies and singing "Kumbaya" around the campfire.
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