Mangini goes from bottom to top as Browns’ coach

Published 2:37 am Friday, January 9, 2009

Introduced for the first time as Cleveland’s coach, Eric Mangini stepped to the podium and his football life flashed before him.

This is where it all began.

‘‘I feel like I should be getting some coffee or picking up some towels or something,’’ he joked.

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The ballboy returned as the boss.

Mangini, fired by the New York Jets after their season finished with a December nosedive, took over the rebuilding Browns on Thursday, completing a personal and professional career circle that started with him running errands in the early 1990s as an eager underling for then-Cleveland coach Bill Belichick.

The 37-year-old Mangini now has his dream job, the one he had a tough time convincing his mom was remotely possible when he came to Cleveland 14 years ago.

‘‘I was a 23-year-old ballboy and I had to explain that to my mother,’’ said Mangini, who signed a four-year contract. ‘‘I had student loans and it was a hard sell. I kept telling her, ’Mom, this is the Cleveland Browns. Do you understand? THE Cleveland Browns.’’’

Although he left to work in other NFL hot spots like Baltimore, New England and New York, those Cleveland memories never left Mangini. So when Browns owner Randy Lerner called him last week for an interview — one day after the Jets dumped him after three seasons — Mangini knew it was time to return to his roots.

‘‘It was the same feeling, that same level of pride,’’ he said. ‘‘It was the Dawg Pound. It was Jim Brown. It was all those special things with arguably the most storied franchise in NFL history. I remember thinking about the fans and I thought, all fans love football and love their team. And the difference is that Cleveland fans, they live football.’’

Truth is, Browns fans haven’t seen much good football in years.

Mangini, who agreed to a four-year deal, is inheriting a team with talent, but one that went 4-12 and didn’t score an offensive touchdown in its final six games under previous coach Romeo Crennel. Mangini hasn’t been on the job long enough to break down Cleveland’s roster, but he made it clear what types of players he wants.

‘‘I look for guys that are smart. I look for guys that are tough. I look for guys that are hardworking and I look for guys who are competitive,’’ he said. ‘‘And I don’t mean just a little competitive. I mean they want to win whether they’re playing checkers or in a sack race. And I want guys that are selfless.’’

Lerner did not speak at Mangini’s news conference, but he outlined his reasons for hiring Cleveland’s 12th full-time coach in an e-mail response to The Associated Press.

‘‘Some coaching experience was critical as well as a background that included mentors and programs that had won,’’ Lerner wrote. ‘‘Further, it was clear that Eric understood the hunger and urgency that we feel in Cleveland especially since he had worked at the Browns at the beginning of his career.

‘‘Finally, there is some reason to believe that young coaches can hit their stride following their initial NFL coaching experience. Based on that, we felt that Eric gave the Browns a strong chance of winning.’’

Lerner took the unusual step of hiring his coach before finding a general manager to replace Phil Savage, fired last month. Lerner has interviewed Scott Pioli, New England’s vice president of player personnel, but indications are Pioli will stay with the Patriots. Lerner also hopes to speak with Philadelphia GM Tom Heckert.

Mangini’s choice would be George Kokinis, Baltimore’s director of pro personnel, and his longtime friend. Lerner is expected to meet with Kokinis as early as Sunday.

‘‘He’s got tremendous substance,’’ Mangini said. ‘‘That being said, what ultimately is important is to get the very best people we can get in here to fill each of the roles, whether it’s GM, head coach or any in the organization.’’

Mangini would like to hire Jets quarterbacks coach Brian Daboll as his offensive coordinator and plans to talk to Oakland’s Rob Ryan about running his defense. Mangini also would like to keep Crennel, one of his closest friends who was fired as Browns coach after going 24-40 in four years.

‘‘I learned a ton of football from him and I’d love to have him here,’’ Mangini said.

As for his time in New York, Mangini, who was just 34 when he was hired by the Jets, said he enjoyed his experience but sidestepped direct questions about his ouster. He was dubbed ‘‘Mangenius’’ after leading the team to 10 wins in his first season, but what turned out to be his final year was marked by a 1-4 finish and a supposed rift with quarterback Brett Favre.

Mangini didn’t point any fingers and said he had no problem with the Jets’ summer acquisition of Favre, a trade that pushed out starting QB Chad Pennington.

‘‘Any of those decisions, I was intricately involved in and I really enjoyed my time with Brett,’’ he said. ‘‘He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback and came into a really challenging situation. I respected how important it was for him to be one of the guys and fit in with the team. I really like the time I spent with him.’’

Mangini acknowledged mistakes were made in his first head coaching gig, errors he’ll try not to repeat. One of Belichick’s proteges, Mangini was accused of being too controlling, too aloof, too sullen — too Belichickian. But the father of three boys insists he has always been his own man.

‘‘The most important thing to do is to be yourself and that’s who I felt I always was,’’ he said. ‘‘I learned so many things over three years. There’s no Dummies guide to head coaching. I’ve had some great mentors, I worked under Bill for a long time. I worked under Bill Parcells. They were my football parents.

‘‘But the important thing is to be the best coach you can be, the best father you can be, and learn from all of those experiences and grow and move forward.’’