LAWRENCE, Kan. — The most successful coaching era in modern Kansas football history ended quietly.
A neatly wrapped monetary settlement for departing coach Mark Mangino. A meeting with players, coaches and KU athletic director Lew Perkins. A news release stating that Mangino had resigned after eight years and that the results of the athletic department's investigation into his treatment of players would not be revealed.
While all of this happened on Thursday night, Mangino was nowhere to be found.
All quiet, and it likely will stay that way. Because it is a personnel and legal matter, Perkins said, he will not address the amount of the settlement or whether the 2½-week internal review collected enough information to fire Mangino for cause.
When asked why he made the decision to settle with Mangino, Perkins disputed the idea that he had anything to do with the upcoming change in leadership, even though he launched the investigation into Mangino’s alleged physical and verbal abuse of players.
“I didn’t make the change,” Perkins said. “Coach resigned.”
When Perkins made the investigation public on Nov. 17, three days after a KU loss to Nebraska moved the Jayhawks’ record to 5-5, it was the first step in the process of a termination for cause outlined in Mangino’s contract.
Mangino, still owed around $6 million with three years left on his deal, would get none of the remaining compensation if he were fired for cause — a determination that would come only if he had performed his duties in a discreditable way or hurt KU’s reputation. If he were fired without cause, Mangino would get around $6.6 million (the $6 million owed plus a $600,000 buyout).
There’s a lot of room between zero and that life-changing number, which meant that Mangino undoubtedly would fight being fired for cause. Mangino’s contract allowed for a drawn-out appeal process that could have begun within three weeks of his firing — an ugly way to finish off an already ugly period for KU.
“My whole focus is on the positive, cup half full,” Perkins said. “Sometimes change is necessary or unnecessary. But it’s time for us to move on.”
Mangino’s agent, Neil Cornrich, did not return a message left by The Star on Thursday night, and a knock on the door of Mangino’s Lawrence residence went unanswered.
That left Mangino’s players — who were far from shocked to hear the news of Mangino’s resignation after helplessly watching the drama unfold the last two weeks — to reflect on the end of an up-and-down eight-year journey that saw KU win 50 games and play in four bowl games, winning three of them. The Jayhawks had only been to eight bowl games in the 110 years of Kansas football before Mangino arrived.
Under those standards, these could be called the Glory Years.
During Mangino’s tenure, KU added a $31 million football facility and increased attendance at Memorial Stadium to the point where sellout crowds became the norm.
“There’s definitely a little sadness in it,” KU senior defensive back Justin Thornton said. “When I get old and I’m telling stories about my KU football career, I’m going to be telling stories about Mangino, and Mangino is going to be a big part of my KU experience. He was the guy who took the chance on me and recruited me.”
Much of the loyalty Mangino has enjoyed from players came from him giving them a shot to play major college football. When Mangino arrived at KU in 2002, the Jayhawks had endured five straight losing seasons under Terry Allen and they did not have much talent. Mangino and his staff had to take some risks and find diamonds in the rough. Then they had to coach those players into believing they could play with the big boys in the Big 12 Conference, which had already produced two national championship teams since its inception in 1996.
For a while, his tough-love coaching style worked. The Jayhawks were improving, and it was obvious with a trip to the Tangerine Bowl in 2003 and a near upset of Texas in 2004. After that game, Mangino earned more loyalty from his players with a rant that stated “dollar signs” were the reason that the BCS-worthy Longhorns eked out a victory over up-and-coming KU.
Mangino’s greatest triumph came in 2007, when the Jayhawks went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl over Virginia Tech. Mangino, the one-time ambulance driver on the Pennsylvania Turnpike who begged for an opportunity to coach at Division I-AA Youngstown State, was crowned the consensus national coach of the year.
But the jubilation of that magical season will be counteracted by the brutal seven-game losing streak that ended this season. The Jayhawks fell flat on their face when the expectations were the highest in program history. They were seeking a Big 12 North championship and a third consecutive bowl appearance, both unprecedented at KU, but they finished 5-7.
“I am sure none of us would be standing right here if the season went the way we had planned it,” Thornton said. “We had a talented team this year. We really did.”
What will Kansas fans remember, the good times or the bad?
“It’s a tough deal,” said John Vickerson, a KU junior. “I think people will remember Mangino for the Orange Bowl and sort of bringing KU football back, but some people will just remember all this.”
Vickerson was referring to this investigation, which, due to its public nature, led to some skeletons being removed from Mangino’s closet. In the past two weeks, Mangino has been accused by former players of physically harming his players and verbally lambasting them with a method that some believe is too personal. Players have also come forward and alleged that Mangino forced them to play with injuries. It is Mangino’s policy not to release injury information to the public.
Former Kansas wide receiver Dexton Fields, who played under Mangino from 2005 to 2008, said Mangino’s methods were not meant for players as talented as the ones he had later in his career.
“His style of coaching was good for early on, when he didn’t have the recruits and he had to work with the guys that he had to establish that mentality,” Fields said. “But as the years went on, now you start getting the recruits in, you started recruiting winners, guys who had already been successful and come from good programs. That’s when I think the coaching style was more of an Achilles heel than it was a strength.”
Mangino’s go-to phrase to describe his program’s philosophy was “keep sawing wood,” and ultimately he may have reaped what he sawed. His coaching style — which he defended throughout the last two weeks — brought him two wins away from A.R. Kennedy’s school record for career wins. Kennedy won his 52nd game in 1910. But it also made it tougher for Mangino to withstand a disappointing season like this one.
“It’s one of those things that’s just like boiling over and boiling over,” Thornton said, “and that one degree sets it over the top.
“There probably have been times he’s too tough, but that’s football. It’s nothing you couldn’t overcome and forget about.”
No one will soon forget the events of the last three weeks.