Title: “Being Reesing: The curious, glamorous, wacky and utterly unbelievable world of Lawrence’s most famed resident”
Date of publication: Sept. 12, 2009
By Dugan Arnett
This story is not about Todd Reesing.
Not exactly, anyway.
Certainly, you will find it to contain a great deal of information on Kansas University’s senior quarterback. Thoughts from friends and family members. Historical context. A collection of anecdotal tidbits.
While Todd Reesing is technically the entity that propels the narrative forward, however, it is also a story about status and celebrity and the manner in which a community embraces its heroes. It is about what it means to be the starting quarterback in a Midwestern college town and about what happens when you become — for the moment, anyway — the face of a team and a campus and a city.
At its core, it is a window into an unexplored world. A look behind the curtain, so to speak. A peek — from various angles — into the everyday life of Lawrence’s most famed resident.
An answer to the question: What, exactly, is it like being Todd Reesing?
• • •
One day, a rapper from Louisiana watches a college football game and gets an idea. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he watches highlights of a college football game and gets an idea. Or maybe his songwriters watch highlights of a college football game and get an idea. Anyway, the rapper eventually puts out a song. In it, between references to “Cali weed” and Seagram’s liquor, he mentions — of all things — a quarterback from Kansas University.
• • •
That's what Kevin Ashmos and Pat Sanguily want to talk about.
Kevin and Pat are two of Reesing’s oldest friends. Grew up playing Little League and wandering the mall with him. Used to make fun of his fondness for bad action movies and habit of making sure his undershirt always matched the horse on his Polo.
So their buddy’s ascension to national prominence, they’ll tell you, has taken some getting used to.
The first time Kevin came to a game in Lawrence, back in 2007, Reesing threw for 354 yards and six touchdowns, and Kansas beat Nebraska for just the second time since 1968. Afterward, when the two met up outside the stadium, it took them nearly an hour to make the one-block walk to Todd’s place on Alabama Street, so often was the quarterback bombarded with backslaps and autograph requests and the sloppy salutations of undergrads who, beer in tow, would hop off their porches to wander over and say hello.
“He’s signing autographs for 6-year-old kids,” says Kevin, a senior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “And we’re just like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Since then, things have only gotten wilder. There was the middle-aged guy in Miami who wanted to introduce Reesing to his daughter. And the time they were waiting to get into a new club in Austin, Texas, when the bouncer recognized Reesing and promptly ushered the group in. And the buckets of attention heaped upon him any time he’s out and about in Lawrence — much of it, his buddies point out, coming courtesy of shapely coeds (“It’s like he’s fishing with dynamite,” says Kevin, sighing.)
Not that his buddies are complaining. Thanks to Reesing, Kevin and Pat have been to Miami for the Orange Bowl, Arizona for the Insight Bowl and have enjoyed a front-row seat to Reesing’s unlikely rise — which has provided a formidable platform from which to air out their displeasure with perceived slights against their friend. The day after last December’s victory over Minnesota, for instance, the three were sitting at a Chili’s at the Phoenix airport, waiting for a flight to Vegas, when the quarterback was approached by a commentator from the NFL Network, who’d called the Insight Bowl the night before. Halfway through the conversation, Kevin — whose dad has taken to calling him “Turtle” after Vincent Chase’s running mate in “Entourage” — looked up and said bluntly, “Hey, why didn’t you pick our boy Todd for the MVP?”
Says Pat, “Todd was just like, ‘Oh … my … God.’”
Of course, right about the time they think things can’t get any crazier, they usually do. One night this summer, Pat — a senior at TCU — and a couple of friends were having dinner at a sushi place in Dallas when they got a call from Reesing, who had just learned that his name had been used in a new song by Grammy-winning rapper Lil’ Wayne.
The friends, huge Lil’ Wayne fans, weren’t quite sure what to make of this new piece of information.
“Dude,” said Reesing, “just go listen to it; it’s tight.”
So the buddies went straight home — even though they had previous plans to attend a birthday party — pulled up a video for the song on YouTube, and there it was, at the 2:17 mark: “I can make a quarter come back like Reesing.”
They just about lost it.
• • •
A local newspaper reporter goes out one day to do a “man on the street” story. You know the kind. Pick a question, pose it to a few strangers, print the answers in the paper. Today, the reporter has decided that — because of an uncharacteristic KU football loss the previous weekend — the question will be whether fans have grown skeptical about the team. Before long, the reporter comes across a nondescript college kid standing alone outside a storefront on Mass Street. The reporter asks if he can do a quick question-and-answer with him for the paper. Sure, says the college kid.
“Has the KU football team’s recent loss shaken your faith in the team?” the reporter asks.
“I sure hope not,” says the kid.
“Why’s that?” asks the reporter.
“I’m the quarterback,” says Todd Reesing.
• • •
Liam Kirby would like you to know that, if his face wasn’t perpetually pasted on magazine covers and sports pages and billboards — and if he didn’t make regular cameos on SportsCenter’s Top 10 — you’d never guess that Todd Reesing was one of the best college quarterbacks in America.
Liam is Reesing’s roommate, known him since they met through a mutual friend during Reesing’s first semester on campus, and if you ask him, he’ll tell you about the two-story house the two shared last year on Alabama Street, just a block from Memorial Stadium. Over the years, the house had been passed down from football player to football player, which was not exactly difficult to tell by looking at it.
The floors were wooden, and they creaked constantly. The washer and dryer were so unappealing that the two usually took their laundry elsewhere. Beneath the refrigerator, a mouse had taken up residence. When it scurried across the room, they’d throw CDs at it.
They lived the quintessential college lifestyle. They played darts and watched Sunday night HBO and subsisted primarily on fruit snacks and hummus and Gatorade. They let dirty dishes pile up and blasted techno music from the house’s speaker system and on rare free weekends would head to the Lake of the Ozarks — where, Liam would also like you to know, a couple of clueless Missouri alumni once spent 20 minutes bashing the Jayhawks and their undersized quarterback without realizing that the undersized quarterback was sitting five feet away.
“It’s weird,” says Liam, a senior at KU, “you just wouldn’t assume that, in Lawrence, Kan., this is ‘The Kid.’”
In fact, about the only hint that Reesing is anything but — as Liam puts it — “your average college frat boy” comes on Saturday mornings in the fall. That’s when the quarterback rolls out of bed — sometimes after shuffling downstairs in the middle of the night to unplug the stereo his roommate decided to blast — gets dressed, and makes the short jaunt over to Memorial Stadium, where he has done nothing but lead the Jayhawks to 20 victories over the past two seasons, break every conceivable school passing record and pull a once-dormant program by the collar into the national consciousness.
Of course, an hour or two after dissecting the defenses of Colorado or Kansas State or Nebraska, he usually can be found posted up in a booth at a local watering hole, celebrating the Jayhawks’ most recent victory right along with the fans who witnessed it.
After Kansas capped an unthinkable 12-1 season by topping Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl two years ago, for instance, Reesing marked this historic achievement by flying home to Texas, heading to the SMU campus and spending two days slummin’ it with Kevin and his frat buddies.
“He’s got his shirt off, with no shoes, playing pool at 10 o’clock in the morning at the Phi-Delt house three days after the biggest win in Kansas history,” says Kevin. “But he’s just a normal guy, having fun.”
• • •
A youth football team made up of 3- and 4-year-olds is running through a practice one day when Todd Reesing stops by to help out. Recently, the youngsters have been learning “alligator hands” — that is, the clapping of two hands together to catch a football. They’ve gotten pretty good at it, too, which is why when their high-profile visitor, apparently unschooled in the art of the alligator hands, proceeds to take a snap in an alternate manner, a dozen pint-sized footballers roll their eyes in exasperation.
“Uhhh … ” says one boy, clearly nonplussed with this blatant disregard for fundamental football technique. “You’re not holding your hands right, Todd. They’re supposed to be like this...”
• • •
If you ask her, Lisa Bergeron will introduce you to Todd Reesing’s biggest fan.
His name is Mikey, and he’s Bergeron’s blond-haired, soft-spoken 4-year-old son. The two met last year, when Reesing was taking an independent-study course with Bergeron — a professor in the KU School of Business — and Mikey sometimes would hang around his mom’s office. Before long, Mikey was padding around town in a No. 5 Reesing jersey. Not long after that, he and Reesing were wreaking havoc together on a weekly basis — the quarterback pushing Mikey through Summerfield Hall in a mail basket or hopping onto the kid’s scooter and weaving his way through campus, with Mikey chasing after him, giggling.
For Mikey, it couldn’t be cooler. In Reesing, he has a friend who’ll go to lunch and sing along to Katy Perry songs with him. A pal who, when Bergeron’s classes ran late last semester, would pick him up from preschool at Hilltop on campus, gather his blankies and walk him out — leaving a trail of presumably flustered preschool girls in their wake.
Two weeks ago, meanwhile, Mikey had his first day of preschool. It was a tough morning. Lot of tears. But then Reesing stopped by before class with a smile and a few encouraging words, and, well, things didn’t seem quite so bad after that.
At the same time, being Mikey’s hero comes with a certain level of responsibility. Once, when Reesing forgot to collect one of Mikey’s blankets from school — “Ovie” and “Dovie”, they’re called — he had to return to the school to pick them up. And after the youngster showed up for a KU football practice last spring and spent most of the evening clamoring — unsuccessfully — for Reesing’s attention from the stands, he marched right up to the quarterback the next time he saw him and demanded an explanation.
“I mean, he read him the riot act,” says Bergeron. “… I don’t think he realizes, to a certain degree, that (Todd) is there to play football and not to fraternize with a 4-year-old.”
This fall, for the second straight semester, Reesing will work as a teaching assistant for Bergeron, which means that, when he’s not attempting to steer the Kansas football team to its first Big 12 championship in program history, the school’s most high-profile student will be grading papers and teaching classes and helping slack-jawed students with their finance homework (“We’ve seen a little more traffic,” Bergeron said of office hours visits. “With females, particularly.”)
More importantly, it means that Mikey — who has reportedly been stomping around his pee-wee football field lately imitating a certain celebratory fist-pump/hip-thrust — has another few months to pal around with Reesing.
On a recent afternoon in Bergeron’s office, while Mikey was busy snacking on potato chips and demonstrating the aforementioned fist-pump, his mom was detailing Mikey’s excitement for the upcoming Kansas football season. He’d just gotten a new Reesing jersey, she was saying, and for the second straight year, the Bergerons will have season tickets.
This led to the following exchange:
Visitor: “Mikey, what are you looking forward to most about going to Kansas games this fall?”
Mikey (after some thought): “Funnel cakes.”
Visitor: “Anything else?”
Mikey (after a little more thought): “Funnel cakes. And Todd.”
• • •
A local business puts out a line of T-shirts devoted to the Kansas football team and its starting quarterback. They are blue and they are witty — "Thank God for Todd"; "Reesing is a HILF" — and on game days, they can be found on a significant number of torsos.
Before one trip home to Austin, Reesing picked one up for his mom, Debi. "The Future Mrs. Reesing," it read.
He figured the current one might like it.
• • •
Steve Reesing's talking about The Question — and, more precisely, the frequency with which it is delivered.
Steve is Todd’s dad — the one who loaded his son into a rental car and took him to meet Kansas coach Mark Mangino when college recruiters weren’t exactly beating down the door to recruit a 5-foot-10 prep quarterback — and ever since his youngest son started lobbing touchdown passes at a record-setting clip a couple years back, he can’t seem to leave the house without getting it.
He’ll be at the grocery store or the barbershop or a business gathering and a stranger will overhear his last name or take notice of his Kansas T-shirt and politely inquire, “You’re not related to Todd by any chance, are you?”
Happens all the time, and not just in Austin. California. Georgia. New York. Doesn’t seem to matter. Once, when Steve — a senior vice president for an Austin-based financial service company — was hosting some out-of-town business associates, the visitors made the Todd connection during a meeting and proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes talking college football before getting back to the business at hand.
“As my friends tell me, I’m no longer Steve Reesing,” he says. “I’m just The Father of Todd Reesing.”
Being the father of one of college football’s most well-known quarterbacks, however, has its perks. Not long ago, Steve was at a golf tournament in Lake Travis, a slant route from Todd’s old high school, when he ran into Doug Flutie, the quarterback to whom his son is most often compared. Steve introduced himself, and the two talked football and golf and Todd, and before they parted ways, Flutie gave Steve his cell number. Told him to have Todd call anytime.
There are other things, too. Like Willie, who owns a family restaurant in the Austin area and has been asking for a signed photo of Reesing to hang in the restaurant’s dining room.
And the lady in Steve’s office – the one from accounting — who e-mailed Steve recently to tell him that, while she’s never been able to sit through a football game before, she can’t seem to pull herself away from the screen when she’s watching Todd run that fancy Kansas offense.
A few weeks ago, meanwhile, Reesing’s older brother, Kyle, was walking down Third Avenue in Manhattan, where he works as an analyst for a financial company, when something caught his eye from a nearby newsstand. Staring back at him from the cover of USA Today’s college football preview magazine was the kid he used to bully during backyard basketball games.
“I wouldn’t say it’s weird,” Kyle says of seeing his brother in the national spotlight. “It’s more cool. More that word. ... To see him getting some national publicity, and to not have everything going to the stereotypical guys you’d think it would be going to — that’s pretty cool.”
• • •
Carl’s people are on the phone.
It’s November 2007, and Carl Edwards — NASCAR sensation, Subway pitchman, former beau to Olympic swimmer/Playboy model Amanda Beard — is looking for a sideline pass to an upcoming Kansas football game. Apparently, he’s heard the noise the Jayhawks and their sophomore quarterback have been making nationally and wants to see for himself.
Thing is, the Kansas media-relations people are out of passes. Have been for close to two weeks.
So they have to say no. To Carl Edwards.
• • •
Stop by his office during a lazy August afternoon, and Mike Strauss will let you know that Reesing is scheduled to do an interview with ESPN’s “College Football Live” next Wednesday. Or at least he thinks it’s “College Football Live.”
“That’s the one on ESPN, right?” he asks, shuffling through some papers.
It’s hard to keep track these days.
Strauss is the third-year sports information director for the Kansas football team, which means it’s his job to accommodate the constant stream of media requests that come pouring in each fall. Strauss is not exactly a stranger to big-time college athletics. During a 21-year career, he has worked at Oklahoma State, Utah State and the Big 12 Conference offices; managing the time and access of people like Eddie Sutton and Bryant Reeves and Barry Sanders.
But with the possible exception of Sanders — the 1988 Heisman winner – he’s not sure any of them garnered the amount of media attention Reesing has.
On average, Strauss fields eight to 10 Reesing requests a week during the season — though that number sometimes doubled during the team’s historic 2007 run, when Kansas blazed to an 11-0 start and reporters from ESPN and Sports Illustrated and The New York Times began popping up in Lawrence, bent on writing about the Jayhawks and their unlikely superstar.
Says Strauss, “I talked to (Times reporter) Thayer Evans so much it felt like he was one of the regular beat writers.”
And it’s not just reporters. Strauss has grown intimately familiar with the postgame crowds that await Reesing’s emergence from the locker room. He’s seen the kids in No. 5 jerseys and their camera-toting parents. He’s seen the elation from the youngsters who walk away with Reesing’s signature — and, occasionally, the devastation from those that don’t.
After the Iowa State game two years ago, for instance, Reesing was feeling particularly worn down. It was late in the season, and he’d already done a news conference, a handful of radio interviews, gone through post-game treatment. So Strauss told the crowd waiting outside the stadium that the quarterback would sign as many autographs as he could, but then he had to meet his waiting family.
The plan went well enough, until Strauss began ushering Reesing away and turned back to see a little boy — realizing that he would not be leaving that night with Reesing’s signature — break into a state of hysteria that Strauss still hasn’t been able to shake from his memory.
You want to know what it’s like being Todd Reesing?
Strauss smiles from behind his desk.
“You know those shirts from a couple years ago – ‘Todd is God’?” he asks. “Well, that’s really how people see him.”
• • •
It’s late summer in Lawrence, and everywhere you go, folks are talking about the Kansas football team and its larger-than-life quarterback.
From their chairs at the downtown barbershops and over drinks at the old Eldridge Hotel, the locals — having seen the unusual things their senior signal-caller can do with a football — are certain that the upcoming season is going to be special. And why not? The previous fall, the Jayhawks had put together an impressive season, highlighted by a particularly noteworthy victory over a much-ballyhooed Missouri team.
One thing: It’s 1961, and the larger-than-life quarterback is a homegrown product with a quick smile and a buzz cut. Kid by the name of Hadl.
• • •
Here’s a legend, and he’ll tell you — with a good deal of perspective — exactly what it’s like being Todd Reesing.
For two years in the early 1960s, John Hadl was the best show in town, the local kid who’d shunned national power Oklahoma to stay in Lawrence and help build his hometown school into a national power — which, of course, he did. On Saturday afternoons in the fall, he piled up yards and ground out victories and, for his efforts, twice was named an All-American.
So you call him up one afternoon, tell him you’re doing a story on Todd Reesing — but, really, a story on what it means to be the starting quarterback on a Midwestern college campus — and the Last Great Kansas Quarterback chuckles into the phone. Yeah, he says, he can tell you a little bit about that.
And for the next 20 minutes, he does. He tells you how the people of Lawrence liked doting on their hometown heroes. About the free haircuts and the free meals and the pretty girls that would sometimes say hi on the way to class. He tells you about the fine group of guys he played with and the work hard/play hard ethos they adhered to. About the first time he opened up an issue of Sports Illustrated and saw his name, and how, through all the autograph requests and media attention and All-American honors, his buddies – the same ones he still goes golfing with today – never let him get a big head about it.
He’ll tell you it was some kind of life.
“Every day,” he says, a good bit of nostalgia hanging from his words, “you got up and felt good about everything.”
Before hanging up, he tells you one more thing.
Following his senior season at Kansas, in 1961, Hadl went on to enjoy a 17-year NFL career. He threw for 33,500 yards and 244 touchdowns and built himself a resume that some think is Hall of Fame-worthy. He played in front of packed stadiums and national television audiences, partied with Joe Namath and dined with John Wayne (“A man’s man,” is how he describes The Duke). And as much fun as that professional lifestyle was, he tells you there’s something special about being the starting quarterback on a college campus. Something you can’t quite replicate no matter how large the crowds or how bright the lights.
“You’re playing for your school, you’re playing for your student body, you’re representing your university,” he says. “That meant a lot to me. ... And having success doing that made me feel real good, there’s no doubt about that.”
• • •
Late Saturday night, in a meeting room next to Memorial Stadium, in front of a gaggle of cameras and recorders and notebooks, Todd Reesing sat smiling.
A few minutes earlier, he’d led the then-No. 25 Jayhawks to a season-opening victory over Northern Colorado, piecing together a typically dominant performance. He had dodged defenders and whistled passes and contributed four touchdowns to the effort, and now he was wearing a charcoal suit and grinning big, playfully answering the questions that came flying at him from all directions.
A few feet away, meanwhile, a smaller group had begun to form around another player — a backup quarterback out of Dodge City. Earlier that night, in the first game of his college career, he had come off the bench and put on quite a show. He had completed all of his passes and scrambled for big gains, and although he is young and unproven — a red-shirt freshman with exactly one quarter of Div. I experience — some have looked at his size and athleticism and swagger and been struck by the possibilities.
His name is Kale Pick, and some think he’s the next big thing.
Publication: Charlotte Sun-Herald
Title: “A Tale of Two Coaches”
Date of publication: Aug. 5, 2007
By Dugan Arnett
WAUCHULA — It’s a steamy afternoon in July, and Tim Price, the first-year head coach of the Hardee Wildcats, is sitting behind a cluttered desk in his office at the Hardee High School football stadium, talking about the future.
He is dressed, as most high school football coaches are, in gym shorts and Nike tennis shoes, and strewn in front of him is the detritus of his chosen trade: mail from various universities, a few inspirational books, some scribbled plays, the execution of which he — and a town of 4,300 — is hoping will carry the Wildcats deep into the state playoffs this fall.
It’s been five months since Price took the reigns of one of Florida’s most successful high school football programs. Five months since the former Wildcats assistant accepted a position that, in the town of Wauchula, might be more illustrious than that of the mayor’s.
“The thing is,” Price is saying, a bit of good-ol’-boy southern drawl clinging to his words, “I’m not coming here trying to change a bunch of things. I’m coming in, I guess you would say, trying to (ease) back into the crowd. Trying to mingle back in. Because Hardee football is about more than me.
“It’s about tradition and continuing to try to go in the direction we’ve been going.”
* * *
It’s a steamy afternoon in July, and Derren Bryan, the former coach of the Hardee Wildcats, is sitting behind a cluttered desk in his office at Albritton Insurance Services, talking about the past.
He is dressed, as most insurance salesmen are, in a collared shirt and dress shoes, and strewn in front of him is the detritus of his chosen trade: a copy of the Harvard Business Review, some empty cans of Diet Canada Dry, a directory for the Florida Association of Insurance Agents.
It’s been seven months since Bryan walked away from the program he helped transform into one of the state’s elite. Seven months since the tug of one family — the one that includes wife Diane and sons Jace and Jorren — began to outweigh the tug of another.
“Before I took over, we had two of the only losing seasons we’d ever had,” he is saying, a bit of good-ol’-boy southern drawl clinging to his words. “And in the time I was coach, we were able to turn our program into what I call a machine. We took a program that was struggling, and we turned it into something. Something that had some respect in the state.
“To walk away from something like that? It was very difficult.”
* * *
It’s March 2006, and Tim Price is in a tough spot.
It’s a Sunday evening, the night before he’s scheduled to interview for the first head-coaching job of his career, at Hardee High School in Wauchula, and he’s got to figure out how to replace a legend.
He’s gone over possible interview questions. Prepared his answers. But something’s missing, and it’s eating at him.
It’s not his resume, a solid testament to the 13 years he’s spent moving his way up the high school coaching ranks. The four years at Okeechobee as a JV assistant and wide receivers coach. The year at Frostproof as a wide receivers and quarterbacks coach. And the two years each at Bartow, Avon Park and Hardee, where he served under Derren Bryan as the running backs and defensive backs coach.
He’s spent the past two seasons working as the co-offensive coordinator at Thomasville High in Georgia, a 2A school that, on occasion, played in front of crowds of 16,000 or more.
But here’s the thing: How do you stroll into an office and explain to a group of school administrators that you’re going to improve a football team that has lost one regular-season game in the past five years? How do you suggest altering a program that has been a staple of the community since 1930, when the Wildcats won the first of 11 conference titles? How do you convince them you’re going to improve upon perfection?
Turns out, you don’t.
The next day, Price spends nearly all of the hour-and-a-half-long interview talking about how he wants to keep things the same. How he wants to steer the program precisely the way it’s been always been steered at Hardee. How it will take someone who knows the school and the town to uphold the program’s place in the Florida prep football hierarchy.
Price walks out of the office afterward feeling good.
Three days later, he’s head coach of the Wildcats.
* * *
It’s September 2006, and Derren Bryan is in a tough spot.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, midway through the 2006 high school football season, and he’s got to decide between football and family.
Hardee football is in his blood. He was a standout for the Wildcats in high school. His dad, Darrel, coached at the school before becoming the district’s superintendent. And as head coach of his alma mater, he has done nothing besides reel off five straight district titles, jumpstart a 46-game regular-season winning streak and amass a 60-11 career record at a school that has yet, in his tenure, to produce a player with enough talent to warrant a Division I scholarship.
Building a program is like building a house. That’s the analogy he uses to describe the sense of ownership he feels every time he thinks about what he and his staff have been able to accomplish, about turning the program into something the people of Wauchula can talk about with pride over slices of Key Lime cake downtown at the Java Café.
But here’s the thing: How do you keep feeding the machine when it’s becoming all too obvious the toll it’s taking on your family? How do you stay when you’ve got a son at home (and another on the way), who’s growing up without a daddy? How do you keep plugging away day after day, night after night, when you’re missing trick-or-treating and trips to Busch Gardens and just about every other milestone of your boy’s childhood?
Turns out, you don’t.
One evening, as the coach is leaving the house on his way to a football meeting, three-year-old Jace follows him to the door. He wants to go for a ride on the four-wheeler with his dad. He wants to go so bad that tears are trickling down his cheeks as he stands there, begging his father not to leave.
“Daddy,” he sobs, “You’re always gone!”
Months later, after the coach has tendered his resignation, he will point to this moment as the one that cemented his decision. Hearing your three-year-old boy tell you that you’re never home, he’ll say, can tear a man’s heart in two.
But tonight, he’s got a job to do — it’s Week 5, after all — and so he gets into his truck and heads down Highway 17 toward the stadium.
Crying the whole way.
* * *
Football is a big deal in Wauchula, which means that, depending on how you look at it, Tim Price has either the best or worst job in town.
On the one hand, he is now the face of the mighty Wildcats, a team the locals line up in droves to watch on Friday nights in the fall.
On the other, he is the man responsible for maintaining the status quo, for assuring the level of prominence enjoyed throughout the program’s history is not jeopardized.
There are constant reminders of this responsibility. There’s the 20-foot-high record board that towers over the school’s football field, paying homage to the Wildcats’ district-, regional- and state-wide exploits over the past century. And the rows of district championship trophies nestled snugly in a display case located less than 10 feet from his new office.
And the guy at the golf course a few months back, who wandered over to welcome the new head coach to Wauchula.
“You know what we expect around here,” the man said, before parting ways. “We expect to win.”
Says Hardee High principal Mike Wilkinson of the school’s head football coaching position, “It’s one of those jobs where, until you’ve been there, until you’ve been in that seat, you can’t fully understand the pressure.”
Which is a bit troubling, because, on paper, the Wildcats do not exactly appear poised for greatness in 2007. The team loses 22 seniors from last year’s 11-2 team. Participation, which hovered around 50 players last season, has fallen somewhere in the neighborhood of 36 this year. And when many of the Wildcats’ starters take the field this fall, it will be the first time they have done so in a varsity game.
“You just hope that people realize, you know, that 22 seniors are gone and that we’re undergoing the changing of the guard,” says Price, as players trickle into the team’s locker room before a recent workout. “Some will, some won’t, and I’ll just have to deal with it.”
On the eve of his first season as a head football coach, he is asked about his greatest fear.
“Failure,” he says, and he chuckles uneasily.
* * *
Football is a big deal in Wauchula, which means that, depending on how you look at it, Derren Bryan might have gotten out of coaching at just the right time. He is settling into his new job, as a general manager at Albritton Insurance Services, quite nicely. A lot of it is familiar. Goal-setting. Character standards. Personnel management. Not long after he started, the agency was preparing to give a presentation in an effort to close a business deal, so Bryan and company president Joe Albritton stayed at the office until midnight the night before, hammering out a game plan. Which was reminiscent of the times he and his assistants would be at the stadium until three or four in the morning the week before a game, running on nothing but caffeine and adrenaline.
But it’s different, too.
For one thing, if he botches a decision these days, there aren’t 5,000 people there to witness it. For another, he doesn’t require two weeks advance notice to spend an afternoon with his family, has the freedom to shoot over to the YMCA for an hour on his lunch break and is always home in time for supper on weeknights.
That was his greatest asset as a coach — and perhaps his ultimate reason for leaving: he refused to be unprepared. Which is why, during the season, he spent six and a half days a week at the stadium. Why he was there by 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings to break down film of the previous night’s game, and why he stayed until 4 p.m. Why, on Sundays, he left just enough time to squeeze in church and brunch before heading back over to the stadium for a 4 p.m. coaches meeting.
And it’s why, in the end, he had to take a deep breath, swallow hard and walk away.
“What it came down to was that I didn’t think there was any way that I could make more time for my family and not have football suffer,” he says. “I was at an impasse. I had delegated as much as I could delegate.
“And I decided, if I can’t do it right, then this community, these kids, this school, deserves to have someone who is going to put every ounce of themselves into it.”
* * *
It’s an overcast afternoon in August, just a few days before Florida high school football teams may officially begin practice, and Tim Price is excited. Ecstatic even.
In less than a week, his team will travel to Lake Placid for a four-day camp. By the start of the school year, he hopes to be moved into the home he and wife Kim are having built in Sebring. And on August 31, when the Wildcats open their season at home against North Fort Myers, he will finally find out whether the past five months of work will pay off.
It has been a hectic past few months. There is equipment to be ordered and buses to be scheduled and a number of behind-the-scenes tasks he didn’t even know existed when he was an assistant coach. Before the team’s Spring Game against Lake Wales, he walked into the locker room minutes before the Wildcats were to take the field and realized he had no idea what he was going to tell his team.
“I don’t even remember what I went with,” he says, shaking his head.
At the moment, though, as he sits in his gym shorts and running shoes, behind a desk covered with junk mail and offensive formations, he seems quite content with his particular place in the world.
“As you’re coming up as an assistant, you always believe in everyone you’re working with,” he says.
“But there’s always been in the back of my head, ‘Well, I wonder if we could’ve done it this way.’ Or ‘I wonder if we could have done it that way.’ And now there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. If I’m going to question anyone, it’s going to be myself — I’m going to find out if my way works.”
“That’s going to be the best thing.”
* * *
It’s an overcast afternoon in August, just a few days before Florida high school football teams may officially begin practice, and Derren Bryan is excited. Ecstatic even.
For the first time in years, he has concrete plans to go hunting with his dad. Son Jorren, Bryan is convinced, is only days away from crawling for the first time. And in September, he’ll take his family to a game at Western State College of Colorado, the first time he will have seen the Mountaineers play since graduating from the school as an all-American offensive tackle in 1994.
It’s been an adjustment, of course, this transition from die-hard coach to die-hard dad. There are still things to be learned about the corporate world, for instance. And sometimes, he says, when a touch of nostalgia hits, he’ll find himself scribbling down football formations at work.
And who knows? Maybe, when his boys are grown and there are no more milestones to witness, he’ll manage to find his way back into coaching.
At the moment however, as he sits in his collared shirt and dress shoes, behind a desk covered with business journals and paperwork, he seems quite content with his particular place in the world.
“I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to going to watch a (Hardee High) game and just watching,” he says. “Get off work, have some supper, then show up to the game and laugh and cut up with the coaches beforehand. They’re going to be green, getting ready to puke they’re so nervous, and I’m just going to be sitting there … enjoying a football game.”
“That’s going to be the best thing.”
Publication: Lawrence Journal-World
Title: “Not-so-gentle reign”
Date of publication: Nov. 19, 2009
By Dugan Arnett
For Kansas University football coach Mark Mangino, the hits just keep on coming.
On the heels of Tuesday’s launching of an internal investigation into the actions of the Jayhawks’ eighth-year coach, nearly a dozen former and current players spoke with the Journal-World on Wednesday about Mangino, some describing a well-intentioned disciplinarian but many others painting a picture of a man who was controlling, abusive and oftentimes kept players in an extended state of fear.
Among the allegations made by players interviewed by the Journal-World included:
- Near-daily verbal attacks on players, in some instances involving personal matters that athletes felt went well beyond the boundaries of a player-coach relationship.
- Verbal abuse of assistant coaches, including a 2008 incident in which Mangino threatened the job of defensive coordinator Clint Bowen.
- Failing to disclose player injuries to the detriment of the team’s athletes.
- Players who left the program at least in part because of the negative environment they were subjected to.
- An incident during the 2006 season in which, according to former linebacker Joe Mortensen, Mangino put his hands on then-running backs coach Earle Mosley after one of the team’s running backs had failed to pick up a blitz during a game. Mosley later left the program and now coaches running backs for the New York Sentinels of the United Football League.
The investigation, prompted by the concerns of senior linebacker Arist Wright, who approached athletic director Lew Perkins after Mangino allegedly poked him in the chest several weeks ago, is being headed by associate athletic director for risk management Lori Williams, and will seek out the thoughts and experiences of current players and those with ties to the program.
What they’ll find, some former players say, are those who harbor a lingering distaste for the coach and his volatile temperament.
“If Lew Perkins called me up and asked me what I thought they should do,” said Mortensen, who served as a team captain under Mangino, “I’d be like ‘Let him go.’”
The ugly side
The recent allegations, players say, have been a long time coming.
Even as the program’s collective stock rose, improving steadily after Mangino arrived in 2002 and peaking in 2007 with a 12-1 season that included a victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, those close to the program say behind-the-scenes issues were a constant source of anguish.
In his first few weeks on campus, for instance, Mortensen — a native of Oakland, Calif. — received a minor-in-possession of alcohol citation while caught drinking outside of The Hawk, a local bar.
Figuring it was the right thing to do, the player went to Mangino to inform him of the situation.
During their meeting, Mangino allegedly swore and threatened to revoke Mortensen’s scholarship, calling him a “bum” and telling the player that “he’ll send me back to Oakland and I’ll be drinking out of a brown paper bag the rest of my life.”
Two former players, meanwhile, confirmed a Rivals.com report that during a practice confrontation with former receiver Raymond Brown, whose brother had recently been shot and hospitalized, Mangino told the player, “Don’t yes sir me, or I will send you back to St. Louis so you can get shot with your homies.”
“What I would say is sometimes his temper came off in a way that wasn’t constructive, which is where you run into trouble as a coach,” said former fullback Austine Nwabuisi. “He was just trying to be ugly as a coach, as opposed to being constructive or motivational.”
Things stretched far beyond a lack of tact, however.
Mortensen indicated he suffered a knee injury as a result of disciplinary measures taken after he chose to spend a week at home following the Orange Bowl instead of immediately returning to Lawrence to undergo MCL surgery on his right knee.
When he returned to Lawrence, Mortensen says, he was subjected to three months of early-morning drills that involved putting significant pressure on his good leg. Eventually, he tore his left ACL, an injury he attributes to the amount of strain he was forced to put onto the leg as punishment.
In some instances, former receiver Dexton Fields said, assistant coaches would take it upon themselves to cuss players out in an effort to “keep the big man off of our backs,” and Mortensen described the rare occasions Mangino was forced to miss practice as some of the most enjoyable evenings of the season.
“Those practices were the smoothest, nicest, funnest practices,” Mortensen said. “No one’s getting cussed at, no one’s feeling the pressure, so we’re just out there having fun, playing football, learning and doing it.”
Fields also said that outgoing players left having developed no real relationship with the coach.
“Could we go talk to him (now)? Who knows?” said Fields. “Who knows who’s even tried. We go up to the facilities and we talk to the trainers and the strength coach, but I don’t know if too many people go into his office to talk.”
The motivational side
Not all of the former players interviewed remember things the same way.
Former tight end Lyonel Anderson calls Mangino “my guy”, describing how the coach brought him on as an intern last season while the player finished his degree. He says he never witnessed a line being crossed, that he felt there was always a motivational aspect in Mangino’s approach and that he cherished his time at Kansas.
“Listen, whether it’s at Kansas, whether it’s at Alabama, anywhere, the best teams are going to be run the same way,” Anderson said. “You got to have thick skin to play this game. I just think sometimes people are a little too soft.”
Former running back Brandon McAnderson reiterated that sentiment, saying that, while at times intense, the coach’s gruff demeanor usually served a purpose.
“As an 18-year old, I wasn’t ready to be challenged,” McAnderson said. “(Coaches) would say things to me and I’d be like ‘Wow, I think I want to go home.’ And then when I started to respond to those challenges, I started to see results. So every time they challenged me, I came back stronger. And that’s what his discipline is about.”
A handful of those interviewed, meanwhile, insisted that Mangino’s approach is no different than that of other Div.-I college coaches.
Some pointed to the coach’s aggressive nature, in fact, as the main reason the program — coming off six straight losing seasons before Mangino took over in 2002 — was able to transform into a perennial bowl contender, gaining bowl eligibility in five of the past seven seasons.
“Hey, Nick Saban ain’t down there baking cookies for guys in Alabama,” said Anderson. “I saw a game two weeks ago, he almost broke a headset and started barking in a guy’s face on national TV. That looked worse to me than (the poking incident) sounds, and that’s in front of a billion people.”
Others aren’t so sure.
Mortensen, now a linebacker with the UFL’s Sentinels, says he routinely trades war stories with current teammates about the various episodes they were subjected to during their college days.
He’s says he’s still waiting for someone to outdo him.
“We’re talking, and I’m telling them stories, and they’re telling me stories about their coaches,” Mortensen said. “And I’m winning. I win every single day.”
Still, others argue whether reports of harsh treatment are reason enough to dismiss the coach — who, with a career record of 50-46, is two victories shy of tying A.R. Kennedy’s school record — and on Wednesday, current receiver Kerry Meier went as far as to imply that firing Mangino would not be in the program’s best interest.
“What coach Mangino’s doing and what he’s done throughout his career here, I don’t think you can really fault the guy for being upset at (this) situation,” said Meier. “He’s taken this program to new and great heights that I don’t think anybody ever imagined. And if they’re looking to bring somebody in to try and turn this program around again, it’s going to be a tough, tough challenge to try and find somebody to do that.”
So now what?
With two games remaining in a 5-5 season that has been viewed largely as a disappointment, the team travels to Austin, Texas, on Saturday night for a matchup with the No. 3 Longhorns, and, for now, Mangino is expected to be on the sidelines.
The coach Wednesday declined to discuss the specific incident involving Wright, but reiterated that he has done nothing inappropriate and that he doesn’t believe his intensity to be unlike that of other Big 12 coaches.
“If people have given up on me in certain quarters, so be it,” he said. “I can’t control that. But what I can control is being with these kids and preparing them for Texas, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
For the moment, that’s the plan. As of Wednesday evening, a “Mangino Mafia” T-shirt still hung in the window of Joe College, a popular downtown clothing store. Players prepared for what figures to be a daunting test against an unbeaten Texas team, and a town awaited the resolution to a situation that appears to be growing murkier by the day.