A New Mangini: Cleveland's complicated coach has loosened up in second season with Browns
BEREA, Ohio – On one of the recovery days he built into his team's training camp schedule, Eric Mangini leans back in a plush chair inside his apartment-sized office overlooking the Browns' lush practice fields, spits tobacco juice into an empty cup and lets out a hearty laugh.
It's been a wonderful second summer back in Ohio for Cleveland's complicated coach.
Last year, the laughter was limited.
He's a changed Mangini. Some say a better Mangini.
The family's great. He's dropped a few pounds. His team is downstairs working hard, lifting weights as they prepare for their Sept. 4 opener at Tampa Bay riding an improbable four-game winning streak that ended last season and saved Mangini's job.
Life is good for the man tagged both genius and idiot during his NFL career.
Relaxed and tanned in a golf shirt, shorts and sandals, Mangini is confident and upbeat during a one-hour-plus visit on a late August afternoon with a whisper of autumn's chill in the air. As a grounds crew relines the hash marks outside, the 39-year-old Mangini candidly discussed everything from LeBron's departure to the benefits of biofeedback to his off-season TV viewing habits.
No, he hasn't been watching HBO's popular football reality series, "Hard Knocks," an R-rated insider's look at the New York Jets, his former team. For Mangini, seeing the Jets trudge through the paces of camp only triggers thoughts of a year he'd like to forget.
"I lived Hard Knocks last season," he says, cracking himself up. "Except that the soundtrack was all boos. It can't get any harder than that."
Hard doesn't come close to describing Mangini's first season in Cleveland.
It was, by all accounts, a nightmare. Players and fans revolted against him. The media punished him. His hand-picked general manager quit. The Browns stunk.
He served as Cleveland's coach, president, GM and franchise frontman for much of it, and came within an eyelash of being fired from his second team in two seasons. But just when all seemed lost, Mangini was spared by new team president Mike Holmgren, who perhaps understood Mangini's predicament better than anyone.
"I've been there," said Holmgren, hired in December to make over an inept franchise that hasn't sniffed glory in decades. "I know what it's like to be a coach, and I know how tough it to turn things around quickly. I felt Eric needed and deserved more time."
Mangini got it, and given the surprising reprieve, he's making the most of a second chance — one that's coming with a Super Bowl-championship coach peering over his shoulder while driving a golf cart during practice that has a COACH HOLMGREN sticker on the front bumper.
Holmgren, though, swears he's not preparing to push Mangini aside and return to the sideline.
Not unless he has to.
"I am aware of his position and what that means," Holmgren said. "I had that position a long time. Eric's got a tough job. This is his team. I'm just here to help him."
Mangini is safe. As long as the Browns get better — a lot better.
"Want something to drink?" he asks.
Mangini ducks into the kitchen area inside his tastefully decorated office and returns with a bottle of water like the $3 one he charged Braylon Edwards $1,701 for last season, when the brash wide receiver refused to pay his hotel incidental during a road trip.
Mangini hardly allowed anyone inside his inner sanctum last season to explain what he was trying to accomplish on and off the field. He was guarded, even secretive.
Well, he's loosened up. He can still be a hard you-know-what if called for, but at the urging of Holmgren, his wife, Julie, and others who know Mangini as caring, loyal and quick-witted, he's learned that he doesn't have to put on the head coaching face 24/7.
He needed to be himself. Last year, Mangini tried to too hard to emulate Bill Belichick or Bill Parcells — his coaching mentors.
When he spoke to the Browns in meetings, their voices filled his head. What came out, came across as insincere, and he paid for it.
"The thing I find with my kids is I'll talk to them in my father's voice sometimes," said Mangini, whose dad suffered a fatal heart attack when he was 16. "I can hear his voice as I say something or as something is said to me. I have to say, 'OK, now I need to put this in my voice.'
"The same thing happens in football. When you are raised by two very strong figures like Bill and Bill, you tend to hear their voice a lot. I'm learning more need to put lessons in my voice and I need to deliver it in my style."
That's what he's doing now, and it seems to be working.
"I think the players get me a heck of a lot more than they did last year," he said. "I think I've worked a lot harder to show who I am. It's easy to get so caught up in what you're doing that you forget about just being a part of the group and letting them see the things you believe in and the person you are outside of being the head coach."
His desk is clutter free. There are scouting reports and evaluations stacked neatly across from a flat-screen TV paused on a play from the Browns' home game against St. Louis a few nights earlier. To his left, a copy of "Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence," rests on its open pages.
The wooden bookshelves contain family photos, and there's a Darth Vader mask — a Halloween costume — strangely occupying one of the cubby holes. Hmm, the dark side.
Mangini's reputation preceded him to Cleveland. Once his honeymoon ended after only one playoff appearance in New York, he was cast as a villain. Control freak. Arrogant. Ruthless. And those were some of the nicer things said about Mangini.
Still, Browns owner Randy Lerner hired him hoping Mangini would be humbled by his failure with the Jets. But Mangini only seemed more empowered to do things his way, and with no football executive to manage him, it didn't take long for things to unravel.
He was condemned for forcing rookies to take a 10-hour bus trip — to his football camp in Connecticut. Players complained about the length of practices and filed union grievances. He fined players for parking in the wrong stall. He was trying to instill discipline.
But it came across as petty, and he was lambasted by the national media. One magazine described him as Augustus Gloop, the fictional fat boy from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
When the Browns started 1-11, his fate seemed sealed. Holmgren, it was assumed, would begin his tenure with a new coach. But a funny thing happened on the way to Mangini's firing. Cleveland won and won and won and won again.
"I still don't know how they did it," said Holmgren, marveling that the Browns completed just 31 passes combined in the four victories.
Mangini views the late surge as proof that his system was taking hold.
"When guys finally got it, we played a certain way, which is the way I envisioned us playing each week," he said. "We won and we were rewarded for that effort. I think part of that was the growth of the relationship I had with the players and they had with me and the staff. It wasn't just player-coach, it was person to person. Everybody understood we were all working toward the same thing."
He has lightened up. Mangini's daily news briefings last season were often painful. He didn't duck questions, he just rarely answered them. This year, he's offering more insight into the team's direction. He gave players time off during camp. He's smiling more.
"Oh, no," Pro Bowl return specialist Josh Cribbs said, grinning. "Same guy, same coach. He's more experienced with the guys. He has a year under his belt. You know that we just got to do what he says, and that's it. You can't argue about it. He's the coach and what he says goes."
Holmgren has no regrets about keeping Mangini, and believes their relationship is growing deeper each day. Their bond hasn't been tested but will be if the Browns, who have a difficult schedule with six games in the nasty AFC North, start slowly.
Mangini loves the help he's getting from his boss.
"Feedback allows you to adjust your path," he said. "If you're just going to do what you without caring what anybody says or caring what anybody thinks or the values they can add, you lose the chance to get better."