LAWRENCE — As college football programs have evolved, becoming bigger and bigger, a new prevailing image has formed of the modern-day head coach: He is the multimillion-dollar CEO, the steward of the ship, a man with so many big-picture responsibilities that he hardly has time to coach his team.
Kansas coach Mark Mangino does not see himself this way. He is the same coach who carried the whistle as an assistant at New Castle (Pa.) High and Youngstown State. If there is wood to be sawed, he still grabs the saw. So when asked on Tuesday about the KU defense's sudden turnaround — the unit has played well enough to win three straight games but lost all of them due to a shockingly inept offense — Mangino indicated he felt his coaching was a major factor.
"I've been down on the defensive end of the practice field since August," Mangino said. "I've spent 95 percent of my time with the defense. That's unusual for me. I'm usually about 50-50. I like to have a hand in both. I knew back in April that we had some major issues on defense, and if we didn't get the defense going, we were headed for a real disaster."
All of that work to improve the defense, and Mangino's team could still be headed for a real disaster. The Jayhawks have lost three in a row entering Saturday's Sunflower Showdown at Kansas State, and their offense has switched places with the defense. Quarterback Todd Reesing and company are now the problem that needs fixing, so Mangino will react accordingly.
"I have not been down on the offensive side of the field hardly at all," Mangino said. "I go down for five minutes, just so the kids know I'm alive on offense, then I trot back down to the defensive end of the field. I think we've got it to a point where we're not hit-and-miss. We're not great, but we're solid enough that, with a good offense, they complement each other and we can win. So now, I turn my attention to the offense."
What does that mean for the offense? The defense can tell them what it's been like to have Mangino breathing down their necks for the past three months.
"It's a little different, knowing that a coach has more of an offensive background, but he's making the effort to be with the defense a lot more," KU safety Darrell Stuckey said. "It shows that he's interested in what you're doing. It's a different type of pressure for some guys."
Stuckey was asked if he felt that Mangino's presence has made an impact, and he said it was more the players just playing better. Certainly, the personnel changes that Mangino signed off on — notably starting freshman D.J. Beshears at cornerback, redshirt freshman John Williams at defensive tackle and redshirt freshman Lubbock Smith at free safety — have a direct correlation to KU's recent string of good performances.
But will the defensive players miss Mangino as he leaves them alone this week?
"Nah," Stuckey said. "He'll still be at practice. He'll still be looking back and forth. He'll just be physically placed somewhere else."
How much impact can a head coach have? Mangino suggested that the offense's struggles — KU has scored 13 and 21 points the last two weeks — may have been due to his time spent on the other end of the practice field.
"It's not because I have any magic wand or I'm a great coach or anything," Mangino said. "Sometimes I wonder if kids don't think... they're like your own children. If you spend too much time with one, the other one doesn't think that you think it's important. Well, of course it's important."
Reesing, who has turned the ball over seven times the last three games, said the offense hasn't been feeling unloved.
"No, not at all," Reesing said. "Maybe because he spent more time earlier in the year and the defense got things turned around, maybe he'll spend more time and we'll get turned around. Who knows?"
Difference of opinion —Mangino stood firm Tuesday on his post-game statement that his benching of Reesing during the fourth quarter of a 42-21 loss to Texas Tech was not "a big deal."
"I think you guys (media) make it a big deal," Mangino said. "It is not a big deal. When you look at the circumstances and what had taken place over a period of time, it was the appropriate thing to do."
Reesing was asked if he thought it was a big deal.
"Yeah, it was a big deal to me," Reesing said. "It is what it is. It's above my pay grade. It's his decision. I'm still the starting quarterback here, there's no doubt about that. This job is not up for grabs."