When Mark Mangino took his first head coaching job at Ellwood City (Pa.) Lincoln High in 1990, he was 33 years old, an up-and-coming former assistant at nearby Geneva College and considered a bright offensive mind.
"He was the best candidate," said Frank Aloi, then a Lincoln assistant principal.
The Lincoln Wolverines had gone 7-3 and made the playoffs in each of the two previous seasons, but they would go 1-9 under Mangino. The bad record was no surprise, given how the school year began. Just weeks into the season, a group of disgruntled parents and players went to the Ellwood City School Board demanding that Mangino be fired.
"It was a really nasty situation," said Thomas Costa, whose son, Landon, was on the team. "This is a pretty easygoing town. There were just some things that shocked people — language, a harsh approach to people — that kind of rubbed people the wrong way. Every once in a while you run across someone who's gonna be in a position to influence your kids, and you just don't feel like they do it in a way that's appropriate. So you speak up about it."
Mangino was not fired by the school board, but he only coached one season and did not finish the year as a teacher. A senior player from that team, who requested anonymity due to privacy concerns relating to his profession, said Mangino did not attend the Wolverines' end-of-the-year banquet.
Eleven years later, Mangino would pick up his second head coaching job at the University of Kansas. He would have unprecedented success at KU, going 12-1 and winning the 2008 Orange Bowl.
Even for Costa and the other folks in Ellwood City who fought against him, Mangino's rise was viewed as a great story. But this week's events in Lawrence — the athletic department investigation into Mangino's treatment of players stemming from an incident with senior linebacker Arist Wright and numerous revelations from former players — have opened up some old wounds.
"I was happy for the guy when I heard he went out there and had success," Costa said. "I thought, 'Everybody changes. Everybody grows up.' It's good to hear things like that. To read that story (Wednesday), I thought, 'Man, that's a shame.' "
The variety of allegations brought forward by former KU student-athletes all boil down to the same thing: Mangino's lack of respect for his players. And it was that issue that sent Lincoln parents to the school board.
Ellwood City, now a community of 16,000, was a typical western Pennsylvania town, built on the steel mills and working class ideals. Parents wanted their children to learn about work ethic through sports. But they felt Mangino had gone too far when they heard that he had injured players cleaning the locker room because "he felt they should be doing something," the former player said.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Costa said. "Kids were cleaning urinals and things like that — injured players. That just didn't sit too well with people."
Yet, there were some Wolverines who could handle Mangino's coaching style.
"He was probably the best coach I've ever had, in any sport," said Cam-Rahn Cortez, also a senior on the 1990 team. "He's very intense, which is something I like. He just knows how to get you motivated. He yelled at me as much as anybody, but I think it made me a better person."
The Wolverines were divided, and the whole team went to a school board meeting to watch. Cortez supported Mangino and spoke up on his behalf. The senior who asked for anonymity said he backed Mangino only because he was worried that if Mangino were fired, they would forfeit the rest of his senior season. He remembers the parents yelling at each other.
"There were people that liked him, and there were people that despised him," Cortez said.
Despite several meetings, according to Costa, the school board did not take action against Mangino. In fact, they offered him a teaching job in the history department. Mangino, who was unavailable to comment for this story, eventually declined the offer.
"When he decided this wasn't for him, I was relieved," Costa said.
Soon after leaving Lincoln, Mangino packed up his family and made that fateful voyage to Manhattan, to live in the basement of friend John Latina, who was on Bill Snyder's staff.
Back in Ellwood City, Mangino's former players tried to make sense of it all. More disturbing things about his time at Lincoln began to trickle out.
"The seniors were upset after he left because we found out there were letters from schools he wasn't giving the players," the senior player said. "I had a pile of letters."
Costa said the problem with Mangino was not his ability to coach football. In that regard, he was exactly what Ellwood City administrators promised when they hired the talented young coach from up the road in New Castle.
"As much as I did not like him, he knew his stuff as far as football was concerned," Costa said. "It was the people skills."