But now that he’s on the West Coast for the first time, don’t think for a second he’s upset how things played out at Michigan. Rather, he’s almost happy things went down the way they did.
“This is definitely not a step backwards or even lateral,” Manning said. “I think this is a better move for me right now. This is a better situation. The Pac-12 is more respected than any other conference in the country. I’m in a position where I can coach a position I’m familiar with and that I played in college. At the same time, I have the opportunity to come in here with a new defensive coordinator and be a part of change. All of those things were appealing to me when I interviewed. It just felt right in my heart and I’m excited for this opportunity.”
The question begs, though. How does a Michigan native and former Wolverines’ assistant whose recruiting territories included East Coast hot spots end up in Pullman?
“I knew Coach (Alex) Grinch through some mutual friends and coaches,” Manning said. “That kind of made the connection and I knew they had a position open. I was fortunate enough to come out here and interview and it kind of went from there. The timing was just good for me.”
“It’s different, man,” Manning added with a laugh. “Everyone says the weather here is bad, but this is much better than Michigan. The people have been inviting, welcoming and friendly. The transition has been really good for me. It’s kind of one of those things where I’m away from home, but I feel at home at the same time.”
And now that he’s at “home”, Manning said he’s sitting on pins and needles to get things going with the other WSU coaches out on the gridiron for practices. The Cougs have been going through Midnight Maneuvers, but spring ball is still a while away. The first day of practice is scheduled for March 26, with the Spring Game set for April 25 in Spokane.
And when that first practice does roll around, expect Manning to be ready to go with his outside linebackers group, with several focuses in mind.
“The first thing I want is for my guys to quickly learn how to properly get lined up and know what they’re doing when practice starts,” Manning said. “The best guys are the ones that know what they’re doing and play fast.
“After that, we’re going to focus on playing with some aggression. It’s not a nice game and it’s not a nice guys game. It’s a game of aggression and physicality. That’s going to be harder to try and instill, but as we get going with practice and go over film these guys are going to know that’s what’s going to be expected.”
“Nothing has really been set in stone, but I’ll probably be working with the BUCKS,” Manning said. “We’re calling them 'pass rushers' this year, and I’ll probably be working closely with the SAM linebackers as well. That’s kind of what Coach Grinch and I are envisioning right now. We’ll see how everything works out. The goal is to get these guys the maximum coaching possible. It should be fun.”
One guy Manning figures to be spending quite a bit of time working together with is Ken Wilson, who is listed on the official WSU site as "linebackers coach." Wilson will enter his third season at Washington State in 2015 and he and Manning spent time together on the recruiting trail in the final weeks after Manning was hired mid-January.
“Coach Wilson has been nothing but great to me,” Manning said. “He’s really been helping me figure things out. We went out together on the West Coast (primarily California) to recruit recently and that was a tremendous experience. He does an excellent job of bringing in talent up here. Obviously, his numbers speak for themselves on what he’s been able to do in that part of the country.”
SPEAKING OF RECRUITING, Manning was known to be one hell of a recruiter on the East Coast. While at Michigan, Manning said he recruited Virginia, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and helped spot-recruit other states. He’ll have a new focus while at Washington State, though.
“I can’t say for sure, but I think the early inclination would be that I’ll be taking on the Los Angeles area,” Manning said. “We’re going to be meeting later this week to talk about that and iron everything out. Now that 2015 is (almost) done, we’ve got to get organized and focus on the next class. "I tell you what, though, wherever I go I want to make a huge impact early. I’m ready to do my best and bring good players and good people to Pullman to help make this program better.”
Has he ever recruited in L.A. or California before?
“Somewhat,” Manning said. “I’ve good some really good friends in that area and some former teammates from college and the pros. I've got some ties there, but I think this recruiting thing is about the relationships you build. And how you’re able to go into an area and let people know what you’re all about. You have to build trust with the kids, their coaches and parents.
“You want kids to believe they can come here and succeed on and off the field. One of the greatest things about WSU is that the players have the opportunity to come play a top-level brand of football in a great place. WSU is second to none. This place is amazing and in my eyes -- it’s one of the best-kept secrets in the country. I was overwhelmed with the facilities and the excitement around the program. I’m ready to recruit, get my hands dirty.”
THE COUGS DON'T dip into East Coast recruiting much: it's difficult to overcome the geographical distance enough to ultimately win those recruiting battles but Manning said he sees value in returning to some areas he’s familiar with, to spot-recruit those areas and try to lock up future Cougs.
“That’s one of those points that we’ll be bringing up later this week,” Manning said. “I think it has to be worth the time and energy to recruit that far away. The thing is, in every city and every state you’re going to have kids who want to get away and see another part of the country. At the end of the day, when you have one of the top offenses in the country, it’s going to appeal to kids no matter where they’re from. We air it out and the guys are productive.
“On the other side, guys on defense have the opportunity to be a part of the change here at WSU. We’re going in the right direction right now. We have a new defensive coordinator -- and Coach Wilson and Coach (Joe) Salave’a who have been here for years. There’s no better time to come to Pullman than now. I tell you what, I’m definitely going to try and pluck some guys out of those places. Hopefully I can get a few and get a pipeline going out here for guys from the East.”
Manning already has in mind some major selling points.
“Sometimes if you want to go to the big city or a metropolitan area, you get lost in the shuffle,” Manning said. “In a place like this, it’s all about you. It’s really all about the school and the sports here. If I’m a kid, I’d be more than willing to come here and be 'the man' and have a great experience. This is truly a college experience. There’s no catching trains or dealing with any of that kind of stuff. You don’t have the craziness of a big city. You can focus on football and school. Pullman is great and I’m already loving it.”
He’ll love it even more, Manning said, when the 2015 campaign officially rolls around in the fall. And if there’s one thing you can expect from him at practices, starting with the spring, it’s that he’ll be one of the more jacked-up coaches (or players) on the field.
“Look, I’m an energetic guy,” Manning said. “If a guy makes a play, I’m going to go after him and chest bump him. If you like what you do then you have to act like you do. I have experience, too. I played at Michigan and went to the NFL for a few years. I hope that experience and my passion for the game appealed to the coaches here. Being a coach is no different than being a player. You invest a lot into this and if you’re not passionate about the game, this isn’t worth your time.
“I want the players to feel my passion and energy out on that field. I’m just a guy that always wants to get better, whether it’s coaching or whatever. I take a lot of pride in what I do and I feel like I’m a great teacher. This game is about teaching these guys and I take pride in being able to relate to any kid. I understand we have guys from all different backgrounds who might need to be taught a different way. It’s our job to figure out the right way to do that and get the message to them. That will allow them to play their best football.”