With his only coaching experience being with something called the Kew Colts, a semi-pro team in Australia, he found his way in 1994 to the door of Browns head coach Bill Belichick, who looked at Mangini's alma mater, Wesleyan University, saw that it was the same as his, and decided to throw the 23-year kid a bone by hiring him to bunch a jobs that included being a ball boy, filling up the soda machine in the media workroom and serving as a public relations intern.
There must have been some magic in that PR intern job back then, for the guy who had had it the previous year was somebody from Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney High School and Ohio State named Bo Pelini. Maybe you've heard of him. As head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, he nearly directed a stunning upset of Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game a month ago that would have drastically changed the match-up you'll be watching Thursday night in the BCS national title contest.
At that time – not last month but back in the first half of the 1990s -- the odds of Pelini and Mangini going from the bottom of the NFL food chain to becoming head coaches of a tradition-rich major college football program, or of an NFL team headquartered in the world's biggest media market, New York, in the next decade seemed about as good as Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi getting together with Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin for a big group-hug.
But if you bet that way, then you would have lost – big.
A couple years before Pelini settled in at Nebraska, Mangini was getting settled in as head coach of the New York Jets.
At that point, you can be sure, somebody else other than them was filling up the soda machine in the media workroom.
But not all good things last, and as part of that, Mangini was fired by the Jets almost as soon as the 2008 season ended.
No problem. The Long Odds Kid – the male version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown -- struck again, getting hired by the Browns to be their head coach eight days later.
But the 2009 season started horribly and then got worse. His buddy – or his former buddy, that is, George Kokinis – was fired as general manager halfway through the year, not long after another of Mangini's hand-picked people, team operations director Erin O'Brien, was summarily dismissed.
To make matters worse, irate Browns owner Randy Lerner fulfilled his vow to hire a credible football czar to run things and coaxed Mike Holmgren out of semi-retirement to be team president. At that point, with the Browns doing better down the stretch though their season was still an unmitigated disaster, the chances of Holmgren retaining a apparent polar opposite in Mangini, whom he really didn't know very well before he took the job, seemed to be even less than that cross-political party group hug.
Well, guess what? Aw, heck, you know already, Mangini has beaten the odds again. He and his staff will live to coach another season, Holmgren and the Browns announced midway through Thursday afternoon.
Good for Holmgren. Being a former – and maybe future – head coach himself, he didn't really want to pull the plug on the guy after just one season. That wouldn't have been fair. He can rest easy tonight knowing he treated the Browns' bad start-good finish type of Jekyll and Hyde season as the glass being half-full, not half-empty.
And, more importantly, good for Mangini, who, if he had been fired for the second time in a year, would have fallen back to the point where he would have been almost as close to filling up that soda machine again as he would have been to getting another NFL head coaching job anytime soon – or maybe anytime, period.
Now, after doing all the heavy work last year, he gets the chance to take the job to the next level.
And as part of that, he has to take the Browns to the next level.
Keep that talk about "the process" to a minimum and replace it instead with victories. If he has just one win after 12 games in 2010, as he did in 2009, then the clock will strike 12 and this time the curtain will come down on his tenure in Cleveland.
The 2009 season was his grace period. The 2010 campaign will carry no grace with it. The Browns will have to hit the ground running, not stumbling, bumbling, and fumbling again.
This losing in the expansion era has got to end, and Mangini has got to understand that. He's not coaching this team in a vacuum. There are fans and media members watching the club's every move. They want success, not a process. They expect much better this time around. Mangini has to deliver.
The empty seats at Cleveland Browns Stadium as the season wore down, the anger of the fans and the venom being spewed by the media, especially the national bunch with all those unkind caricatures of Mangini, weren't mirages or dreams. They were as real as the team's 5-11 finish, marking the second straight time and the ninth time in 11 seasons in this expansion era that the proud Browns – the team with 16 Pro Football Hall of Famers – have lost more games than they've won.
Somewhere, Otto Graham, Bill Willis, Lou Groza, Marion Motley and Dante Lavelli are turning over in their graves.
Eric, another season like the one in 2009, and the ghost of Paul Brown may come back and make you run laps around the practice field – again and again and again until your tongue hangs out.
The guess here is that Mangini, who's an extremely intelligent guy, understands all this fully. He knows he probably pushed the envelope pretty far this time – almost too far. He almost lost it all.
But now he gets a reprieve. He gets to be a football coach and not the guy in charge of everything else. And his big boss is a former football coach who remembered the time that his GM in Green Bay, Ron Wolf, told him that he would never give him a player he didn't want.
It's a good situation -- it really is – for Mangini.
Now Mangini has a chance to make it better.
Turn the Browns, who, according to former GM Phil Savage, had their best times in the black and white days, into a consistent winner? Come on, man. Can he do that?
Well, he's beaten the odds to this point, hasn't he?