Talent Level, Not Mangino's Approach, Changed

It took Kansas head football coach Mark Mangino about a nanosecond to answer the question I posed to him during his annual football signing day news conference last Wednesday in Lawrence.

The question seemed legitimate enough: "Coach, the talent level at Kansas has gotten better and better every year you've been here. Have you and your staff changed how you coach to accommodate that?"

Now, the back story: I'd wanted to ask that question for two years. In eight years on Mt. Oread, Mark Mangino and his staff have dramatically improved the talent level of the Jayhawks. They've improved from signing 25 one- and two-star kids and saying thank you to signing three- and a handful of four-star recruits, some of whom chose Kansas over the likes of Florida, Notre Dame and Ohio State (Oops, excuse me: THE Ohio State University.). Each year's recruiting class has been better than the one before it.

So, I'd been holding onto that question like Charlie holds onto Wonka's Golden Ticket. I waited to spring it when I knew Mangino had brought in a really impressive recruiting class. This group is ranked fifth in the conference behind impressive classes at Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Nebraska. Nationally, it was the #30 signing class. So I asked: surely you have to do something differently, right, coach?

Mangino said, without hesitating, "No."

I fully expected him to say, "And stop calling me Shirley."

He didn't, but he did explain that even though the overall talent level has increased dramatically, the Jayhawks are still looking for kids with values and habits compatible with the program he's building.

"Our philosophy has not changed: we want to get the best players we can that want to be at Kansas that fit the chemistry of our team. What I mean by that, they're good character kids. Kids that have strong values when it comes to work ethic, understanding teamwork, understanding unselfishness. We haven't changed who we're looking for in that respect. But some of the people who weren't listening a few years ago are listening, and that's good."

Well, maybe that's something that has changed: there are a lot more people today who will take a  phone call from the University of Kansas than just a couple of years ago.

"We invest time in players that we think can make our program better," the KU coach said. "Perhaps those doors were slammed in our face maybe a few years ago, fast. We didn't get a chance to recruit some of the kids that we wanted to. But the door's open a lot longer now. More people are listening, and more people are inviting us into their homes. More people are coming to our campus to see what we have and meet our people."

One might think that back-to-back bowl wins (including a BCS-bowl) and shiny new facilities would bring recruits out of the woodwork. In a way, one would be right. All that helped, sure, but there's more to it than that, according to Mangino.

"The facility helped – there's no question that a nice facility helps you – but that's not our big selling point here. Our selling point is people, and that's never changed in the time I've been here. I've worked as hard as I possible could, and I continue to work at getting the best people around me as assistant coaches and support staff people, everybody from the people who work in the weight room to the training room, the academic staff, we've tried to surround ourselves with good people who care about the kids. Facilities are a factor; it's nice to have good stuff when people come. But the difference is the people. I'm a firm believer in that."

He did, however, acknowledge that the "good stuff" helped. The 2008 Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech was big because this year's recruiting class hadn't made any commitments at the time, so they were open to an up-and-coming program like Kansas.

Mangino even credited KU's success on the basketball court for creating awareness of the university and for keeping that crimson-and-blue cartoon bird in front of people nearly every week during hoops season.

"Anytime you can have 'Jayhawks' running across the television screen in front of a national audience, everybody benefits," the coach said. "Everybody benefits from the success of men's basketball, everyone benefits from the success of the football program."

While Mangino didn't go so far as to use one of his favorite catchphrases and say that his program is "a work in progress," he did say that this year's heralded recruiting class is the product of all the work that he, his staff and his players have put in in the previous seven years. It all takes time.

"Everything gets a little better in steps: recruiting gets better, we get better, program is improving, facilities are improving. Everything's making a gradual climb. It's just the steps our program is taking."

When asked if this is his best recruiting class in eight years at KU, Mangino smiled a little bit and gave the kind of cautious answer that Jayhawk fans have come to expect from him.

"We'll see. I like it a lot. I probably say that every year because every year when I come in here, it does seem to improve a little each year. I would not hesitate to say that we've improved this year, this recruiting class, although it was really good last year, it improved and is probably a little better this year than a year ago."

So while Kansas players keep getting bigger, stronger and faster, their coach is going to keep sawing wood, and his program will continue to be a work in progress.  His team will work to get better each week. Ask him KU's opponent in three weeks, and he'll say he doesn't know because he's focused on his opponent next Saturday.

In other words, Mangino won't be changing a thing.

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