LAWRENCE — Kansas coach Mark Mangino wants to beat Missouri on Saturday. Heck, he may want this Border War victory more than any other during his career.
"But if my tenure here is gonna be based on one game," Mangino said, "then I think that would probably be a sad affair for all of us. I hate to think that one game would determine the future of us after eight years, a body of work over eight years."
In those eight years, Mangino has had the opportunity to coach members of 12 KU recruiting classes. What has become clear during the last week — as Mangino's treatment of those players has been dissected behind closed doors in an athletic-department investigation and out in the open through a barrage of media coverage — is that some players can take his coaching style and other players can't.
To Mangino, that's a fact of life for any coach. So he has not spent what could be his last days in that fancy new office at the Anderson Family Football Complex in sadness that some of his former players don't like him; he has rallied around the ones who do.
"I have had overwhelming support from former players, fans, people that I've coached with and coached against and strangers," Mangino said. "There have been so many e-mails and phone calls and text messages in the last week to me, my family, my staff, my support staff. Many parents have contacted the office. My only regret is that right now I'm focused on Missouri, and I can't return all those messages, but I will eventually."
Mangino ran down a list of former players who have contacted him — Marcus Henry, Brandon McAnderson, Nick Reid, Brandon Watkins and Charles Gordon.
"I could stand up here and rattle names off for an hour," Mangino said "So I think I'm appreciated by a lot of people. I really do believe that."
One of those names Mangino couldn't get to was that of former defensive tackle Travis Watkins, who spent two years under Terry Allen and three under Mangino, becoming a two-time team captain. Mangino and Watkins have kept in touch often since Watkins went on to become a booking agent for musical acts on college campuses. Watkins said he stops by Mangino's office to chat, sometimes for an hour or so, when he comes back to Lawrence.
Watkins e-mailed Mangino last week telling him that "the rest of the core of the Jayhawk Nation and former players are behind him," Watkins said. Mangino responded with a short e-mail expressing his thanks for the support.
Mangino and the guys like Watkins — the Allen recruits who stayed and finished their careers under Mangino — share a unique bond. Because nobody knows better than Mangino what that first group of players in 2002 went through.
"That first conditioning period was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Watkins said. "Some of those workouts were ridiculous. We got pushed almost beyond what we felt were human limits. They were testing your resolve as a man."
Watkins said Mangino knew exactly what he was doing. Watkins said the Jayhawks under Allen were undisciplined and that players were engaged in "negative activity." Players would often miss practices or sit them out. Mangino had to change the culture.
"It's always different that first year of a regime change," Watkins said. "You do that to weed out the guys that don't want to be there, guys that are cancerous to the team."
Watkins made it through that first season, but the demands didn't get much easier. Watkins recalled having a broken foot during his junior season. After realizing he couldn't get the year back with a medical redshirt, he and Mangino agreed that he would play. It turned out that Watkins came back too early and did not play well. In the moment, Mangino was unforgiving.
"He laced into me in front of the team, called me out," Watkins said. "At the time, I was thinking, 'You know I'm hurt.' But when I thought about it, I realized you can't have any excuses in life. If I'm out there, I need to be doing my best. To me, I look at that and say that guy understands what life is about."
Watkins faced the same kind of treatment that other former players have brought forward; he just dealt with it differently.
Mangino appears to have the support of current players, too. KU wide receiver Kerry Meier said he visited Mangino a few days after the investigation was announced.
"I sat down and talked with Coach to see how he felt," Meier said. "His spirits were high, and he was fine. He's so comfortable and happy to be here."
Entering what could be his last college football game, Meier was able to look at Mangino's situation from that eight-year perspective as well. He cited Mangino's success in making football matter at a basketball school.
"He's completely turned it from being face down to face up," Meier said. "I don't think you can fault the guy for believing what he believes. His mentality, he's brought the best out of players. The guys that haven't latched on and believed in what he's doing, they've moved on. The ones that toughed it out and stuck here and believed in him, we're thankful for where we are today and what he's done for this program."
Mangino said he believes in his players, too.
"We've got a lot of hard work invested here," Mangino said. "I have said this before. This is on record. I've put every waking moment of my life, since I got hired here, into this program. To be quite honest with you, when I'm not at work, I'm still at work. This job for me has been something I have put my heart and soul into."