For people who wonder how Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and many more college football coaches who have exhibited disturbing behavior continue stalking the sidelines, look no further than Kansas football. The Jayhawks, who just lost to Nicholls State Saturday night, who have won 15 games since 2010, who probably won’t win a game this season, who attract under 20,000 fans to home games, are an example — albeit an extreme example — of what can happen when a university acts according to societal morals and rids itself of a talented but problematic coach.
I’m talking of course about Mark Mangino. Nine years ago, after the most successful run in decades for the football team, Kansas axed Mangino for displaying violent physical and emotional behavior toward players throughout his tenure. Mangino was a tyrant who did not deserve to coach football at any level. Kansas fired him. It did what any institution, particularly one of higher learning, should do when it discovers a manager has created a culture of fear and abuse.
At least in that case, KU did the right thing. I don’t want sound as though I’m worshiping the KU athletic department. The athletic department has often been corrupt and unfeeling and just hasn’t gotten its deserved share of scrutiny largely because programs like Baylor, Michigan State and others have set an impossibly high standard for shame, callousness and neglect.
Fans clamor for the days of the “Our coach can eat your coach shirts” and Baby Mangino, but his team lived in a constant state of anxiety on the practice field and the locker room, fearing emotional and physical abuse. Mangino directed culturally insensitive comments toward black players. Raymond Brown told ESPN in 2009 Mangino yelled at him, “If you don’t shut up, I’m going to send you back to St. Louis so you can get shot with your homies.” Arist Wright said Mangino poked him in the chest. Several other players shared similar stories.
There’s likely no way former AD Lew Perkins made the decision to can Mangino in the interest of protecting athletes and promoting a positive atmosphere. Perkins, who never managed to not look like a cigar-smoking mob boss and presided over the athletic department during a ticket scandal that led to lower-level employees being indicted by the Feds, almost certainly fired Mangino because his outsized ego wouldn’t allow him to keep employing a coach he didn’t hire. He wanted his own man on the sidelines.
Despite those motives, the firing of a star coach whose behavior was undoubtedly objectionable led to the proper result, one we rarely see in college football.
And yet Mangino’s transgressions feel tame by the standards set by the top coaches in college football since. In 2009, the same year Mangino got his pink slip, Zach Smith was being arrested for felony aggravated battery against his wife, Courtney Smith, and Meyer was keeping him on his staff. When he lied about a 2015 incident with Smith this summer, he ended up being placed on leave for a few weeks and little else. At a press conference in which all he had to do to look like ⅛ of a human was whisper a slight apology or express some semblance of contrition, he couldn’t even say Courtney Smith’s name. And in a few weeks, after a three game suspension, Meyer will be on the sidelines and Ohio State will be winning.
The fruits of standing by your disgraced man are evident. Michigan State joins the Buckeyes in the top 10. Just a few months ago, ESPN reported coach Mark Dantonio had lied about having knowledge of previous sexual assaults committed by his players, even though he had been involved in the discipline of at least one player.
This weekend, Maryland just won a surprising game against Texas. The Terps’ head coach, DJ Durkin, is under investigation for a workout that killed Jordan McNair, and he could still be fired. But it might not happen. Central Florida held onto George O’Leary and eventually commissioned a statue for him after he designed and staged a workout in 2008 that led to the death of Ereck Plancher. Two witnesses at a civil trial, where UCF was found negligent, claimed O’Leary withheld water during the workout.
The rallying cries for these football men, when under duress, are predictable. Dantonio denied the ESPN claims and said, “I’m here for Spartan Nation.” Meyer, while under university investigation, wrote a letter to “Buckeye Nation” and then apologized to “Buckeye Nation” during his sad press conference. was their nation. In resorting to these calls for their fan bases, they are sending a clear message about what could happen if they lose their jobs: The nation could fall apart without the king. The football team could lose a lot of games.
Certainly Kansas’ fall from respectability was steeper because of the comically — and cosmically — terrible decisions to hire Turner Gill and Charlie Weis. But startup costs are associated with every coaching change. Even good coaches typically need a year or two before they find success at a new job. Success is much easier to maintain than build. The firing of a successful coach completely derails momentum. Ohio State, with its bevy of top recruits, would still have suffered had the administration fired Meyer.
As KU has shown every program in the country, the hardest task in all of college football is crawling out from the rubble left in the wake of the right decision.