Browns have a new Man(gini)

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.

New man?

”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.”

Or change.