Eric Mangini is a former NFL coach, former head coach of the New York Jets, and is currently an analyst for FOX Sports. Eric Mangini coached the New York Jets from 2006-2008, but he was also a defensive assistant on the team for head coach Bill Parcells from 1997-1999. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to speak with coach Mangini last week as we discussed his time with the New York Jets, his coaching career, and his change to an analyst position. Below is the transcript of the interview that took place, and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.
Thomas Christopher: A lot of people don’t know that your first experience coaching actually happened in Australia. Could you tell me a little bit about that experience?
Eric Mangini: Well I wasn’t planning to get into coaching. I was doing a study abroad in Melbourne, Australia. My brother was working as an investment banker there. So I get to Australia, my brother was working all the time and school didn’t start for another month so I was looking for something to do. A woman my brother worked with met this guy named Stan Long.
Stan Long was an American who said he was coaching American football in Australia. So she went back and told my brother; I went and found this guy and thought it’d be fun to be involved with football in Australia. I thought it would be a good way to meet people and pass the time until school started. So I go and ask Stan if I can help him out, and he says I can. Stan was coaching a team called the Devils. It didn’t take long for me to see with the Devils and with Stan, that he didn’t exactly have a background in football. You also have to understand at the time the internet wasn’t really a thing. You couldn’t research people the way you can now. So they end up firing Stan and ask me to be the head coach of this team.
I was a Junior in college, I had no idea how to coach an entire team. But they asked me to help them coach during this period. I really loved the guys and the people I met so I agreed to do it. About two weeks later the team folds so I think, okay, I’m done with football. Then a bunch of guys from that team went to a new team called the Cue Colts - which was a startup team - and they asked me to come work for them.
So I end up the defensive coordinator/de facto head coach, and then summer comes along and I have to go back to the states for work as part of my work-study program to make money for college. Then they say, well why don’t you stay and coach with us and we’ll pay you what you’d make for work-study during the summer. So I stay and we end up winning the championship.
It was a life-changing experience. I was so intrigued by coaching and I loved all the different aspects of it. So I took the second semester of my senior year off and went back to coach the team again and we won the championship. At that point, I knew I wanted to explore coaching as a career; even though I never had any intention to do that prior to my trip to Australia.
TC: It’s a truly remarkable story. So you went through that and ended up becoming a ball boy for the Cleveland Browns soon after, correct?
EM: Yes. So the only job I could get out of college was a ball boy for the Cleveland Browns. My mom at the time says to me, ‘you have twenty-five thousand dollars in student loans and you want to be a ball boy’? I had to explain to her that this was an opportunity to see what pro football was like. To be inside and at least get a look at what that meant because I had no idea. I didn’t know anybody in pro football, (and) I didn’t really know anybody in coaching.
TC: A lot of people credit you for building that team from 2006-08 and onward. What exactly was your involvement like in the draft process during your time with the Jets?
EM: One of the great things I had in New York was my relationship with Terry Bradway and Mike Tannenbaum. We always agreed that whatever decisions were made or whatever conflicts came up, we would resolve them together as head coach and GM. Same thing with free agency and the draft. We were going to identify what we needed and put together a collective plan on how to get there. We felt we had a really good perspective on both free agency and the draft, and how those resources played together. I really think that Mike, Terry, and the entire scouting staff - JoJo Wooden was there at the time - really made sure that the scouts collectively - and this is something I believed in as well - understood not just what we were looking for, but what we had and how each player who came in affected the pieces that were there.
TC: Right, everything was working in motion as one singular unit made of multiple parts. That kind of leads me to my next question. The team traded for Brett Favre in 2008. Would you have traded for Favre if you had the final call? Did you have a game plan going into that year and onward?
EM: At first it wasn’t something I wanted to do because I really believed that we were building the team and we had a specific philosophy on how we were doing it. We were building for the long-term, not necessarily going for a short-term fix. But once we collectively made a decision that we were going to do it and see where that can take us, I was all in. And I like Brett Favre a lot as a person, as a player. I think if he didn’t get hurt at the end of the year then that season would have ended very differently than how it did. It wasn’t a function of not wanting Brett Favre, it was more of a function of not aligning with the blueprint that we’d put together for long-term success.
TC: Did you have any sort of feeling seeing that team you essentially built go on the runs that they did in ‘09 and ‘10? Like, a ‘that could have been me’ feeling or were you over it and moving on at that point?
EM: Well whenever you leave a team that you’ve invested so much in - personally, professionally, emotionally - it’s mixed when they go on to have success without you. Obviously I was really happy for all the guys we brought in. We had brought in a specific type of player that was not only talented but that had solid, strong character. That locker room was full of high-character guys that were continuing to develop. So I was excited for them from that perspective. But then you have the other side of it. When you’re not a part of it that brings mixed emotions.
TC: What was your biggest learning curve during your transition to a head coaching job while with the Jets?
EM: Making sure the decisions you make are as authentic as possible. I had two very strong football fathers in Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. They did things a very specific way that fit their personality, and I believed in the things that they did. I still believe in the things that they did. The advice that I give young head coaches all the time is to take those philosophies, strategies, concepts that you believe in that you’ve learned through the process of coming up in your career, and instill them in your program; but make sure to do that in your own voice. I think I lost a little bit of that in my first year. I think I got better as time went on talking in my own voice. But I see it with my kids as well, I’ll hear myself say something and it’s something my dad may have said to me, and I think the same thing happens in football, or in any career. Mentors can impact not only what you do, but how you do it.
TC: During your time with the team, was there any player that truly stuck out to you?
EM: We had a ton of guys like that, it wasn’t just one individual. Chad Pennington had great work ethic. I was with Curtis (Martin) before I was a head coach and his work ethic was amazing. Laveranues Coles, loved Laveranues. Our relationship started out a little bit rocky initially; but not just his work ethic, but his toughness. He had an inherent toughness that was incredible. He came back from a rough high ankle sprain and he found a way to play and I didn’t think there was any chance he could. Guys like Jerricho Cotchery, Brad Smith, David Harris, Leon Washington, D’Brickashaw, Nick, Darrelle, I’m sure I’m missing a few guys. A lot of standup guys who had great work ethic. But that was one of the things we were going to identify in the draft process. We wanted guys with high character and we truly believed that when you got that, then the average player became good, the good player became great, and the great player became a Hall of Famer.
TC: I think you guys did a tremendous job. All of those players were anchors in my Jets fandom. I know now you’re a successful analyst at FOX Sports, but do you have any desire to get back into coaching?
EM: It’s an interesting decision because you can’t replace a lot of elements of coaching; whether it’s the camaraderie, the competition, the relationship with the coache and players. But it is all-encompassing, and it’s all-encompassing for a big part of the year, and I have three kids. One’s going to a senior next year, one’s a sophomore next year, and one’s going to be a 7th grader next year. The great thing about being on the analyst side is you do have flexibility and you do have time to be involved in their life and see the things that they’re doing, that maybe you don’t have when you’re coaching. There’s a lot of stuff that I miss and would be excited about doing again. But there’s the other element where I know I have a very small window with my kids before they’re out of the house, and I really love that aspect of what I’m doing now.
TC: That makes complete sense, in a blink of an eye they grow up. Do your sons have any interest in a career in football?
EM: My oldest is really into filmmaking. He’s played sports but his passion is more film-oriented. My middle and youngest son are both big fans of football and both plan on playing football in school, and hopefully beyond in their perspective. Whether they go into coaching or that industry, I’m not sure what they’ll do. I’m a big believer in whatever they’re into and passionate about, I’m going to get behind. I think that’s the best chance of being successful, when you’re passionate about something.
TC: Just to touch back on your shift from a coach to an analyst, has it changed your perspective on football in any way?
EM: One of the things I like about being an analyst is sometimes I felt as a coach, that there may just be one perspective represented from somebody’s analysis. I try not to do that ever, because I was on the other side for so long. And I think that fans are really smart, and they do a lot of work. It’s not just a superficial ‘look at their team’. So I don’t want to tell them who to be mad at, I don’t think that’s my role. I enjoy being able to show the thought process, the why a team makes a decision. Now, whether you agree or disagree with it, you need to make that decision. But I’m going to share with you what went in to that decision so the fan is as informed as possible.
TC: Do you have any thoughts on the current Jets head coach, Robert Saleh?
EM: It seems that he’s very positive, passionate, and enthusiastic. I think that’s contagious and it seems like the guys are getting behind that. It seems like the Jets committed to hiring a guy to be the head coach of the whole team, which is extremely important. Sometimes you get in a pattern where you hire an offensive coordinator who’s also a head coach, or a defensive coordinator who’s also a head coach and then the other side of the ball is like an autonomous group. They may play together on Sundays, but they’re not really working in conjunction with each other. It appears that they’ve addressed that and they’re going to have a head coach of their whole team which I think is a positive.
TC: My final question for you Eric. What do you believe is the most common misconception among fans regarding what goes on in an NFL team?
EM: One of the things that you’re always looking for in major league sports, especially when a team’s very successful is looking at advanced analytics and having some certainty. That hasn’t always been the same for pro football. You wish there was one set answer (for what works and what doesn’t). And what I’ve found is that as much as you try and find trends, you have to look at things in a case by case perspective. Because you don’t get as much carryover with so many guys working together. It’s harder to get those trends. The unexpected or the irregular pattern is more the pattern.
TC: Right, there not being a pattern, is the pattern kind of a thing.
EM: I say this all the time. When going into a season, and you have this idea or vision of what your team is going to be. And the really great coaches and teams realize what their team needs to be, and they pivot. I think that’s the difference between successful and unsuccessful organizations. Being able to identify the reality of those situations and being able to maximize that in any given season.
TC: That’s a great point. You can always see what team adjusts and which teams aren’t able to. That’s it for me Eric, thanks for taking the time out to do this I really appreciate it.