Mark Mangino reflects on his complicated Kansas exit and improbable 2007 team

2007. 

Oh yeah, you know what this is about. 

It's a year that needs no additional context for college football fans. It stands alone, enshrined, as the sport's most improbable, stunning, unpredictable, topsy-turvy, unnecessarily stressful and mind-bending season in memory. It was defined by a constant stream of stimuli that made it seem as though we were watching games in a parallel universe thanks to a space-time anomaly. 

And while it's impossible to choose just one of those stimuli as the most improbable, stunning, unpredictable, topsy-turvy, unnecessarily stressful and mind-bending, there is one that at least deserves a nomination: Mark Mangino leading Kansas -- bleeping Kansas -- to a 12-1 season and winning the Orange Bowl. 

Even the man himself was incredulous. "If you had told me before the 2007 season that we were going 12-1, I would have called the mental hospital and had you shipped away," Mangino told CBS Sports. 

Though Mangino took the Jayhawks to heights previously unknown, the feel-good story didn't last. Two years later in December 2009, Mangino, KU's most ingenious coach who went 50-48 in eight seasons and oversaw its best team, resigned amid multiple allegations of player mistreatment. Other than one appearance as Iowa State's offensive coordinator in 2014, he hasn't returned to Lawrence's Memorial Stadium since his ouster.

Until now. 

On Sept. 2, Mangino will go back to KU for the season opener against Southeast Missouri State to be ceremonially added to the school's hall of fame. The program will also induct the 2007 team into the hall and add former cornerback Aqib Talib and offensive lineman Anthony Collins to the program's ring of honor. 

It's a high honor for someone who left the program in such controversial fashion. It's that dynamic that makes his return a complex matter. Mangino did unthinkably great things at Kansas, but the stories -- some of them told in explicit detail -- were what they were all the same. It was enough that the school and coach to part ways following two seasons of declining results. 

In an 2009 statement, then athletic director Lew Perkins said that he and Mangino "reached a mutually satisfactory agreement that reflects the appreciation we have for his efforts on behalf of Kansas football." Attempts to reach Perkins for this story were unsuccessful. 

Mangino, for the record, has never changed his stance. He doesn't believe he did anything wrong and there are players and coaches who back him wholeheartedly to this day.  

"He was one of my favorite coaches," Talib, now a member of the Denver Broncos, told CBS Sports. "He brought out the best in everyone because he got things from them that they didn't even know they had in them. He was always straight-forward. He'd tell you, 'This is how it's going to be.' Everything, every day was a competition.

"His style ... 75 percent of the coaches in the NFL are like him. I remember [former Tampa Bay coach] Jon Gruden jumping down my throat, but I was ready for it because of coach Mangino. He prepared me." 

"You know, I worked with Coach [Mangino], and I'll tell you this: I never saw anything but complete professionalism," Beaty told the Topeka Capital-Journal last week. "I never saw anything but a guy that just worked his guys and prepared them for every situation a man could be prepared for. Coached 'em hard, loved 'em hard, required them to give everything they could to this university. But in return, he took care of them like they were his own kids. So I was inside of it, and that's what it was like."

Beaty's comments line up with how Mangino speaks about his former players today. "We had great kids there. We had a lot of fun. We worked hard. The overwhelming majority of kids, we had great relationships," he said. "There were a few guys who didn't have fun. But it's not been worth my time [to dwell on] how I left. What's important to me is the time that I was there. That was special to me." 

Still, Mangino isn't entirely sure what to expect when he returns. He hasn't been recognized by his former employer since he parted ways nearly eight years ago. Responses on social media have been, in a word, "mixed." 

"I'm prepared for anything, but knowing the Kansas fans -- and we had a core of die-hard fans who sat through rain delays and followed us to bowl games -- they'll be receptive," Mangino said. "I'm sure there will be some people mad at me, but overall I think it'll be good. I'm happy to see them, I just hope they're happy to see me."

Talib was more optimistic that the reunion would be "all positive." This will be, after all, his first Hall of Fame induction at any level. "The people who said the things they said, they're all gone," Talib said. "This is a new Kansas team."

Mangino recalls being initially contacted for the event in June by KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger and Beaty, a former assistant under Mangino. Caught of guard, the ex-Jayhawks coach said he needed time to process what he was being asked to do. Returning to Kansas, as far he was concerned, wasn't on the radar. "I don't make snap decisions so I needed time to think about all the angles: the good, the bad and the indifferent involved in it," Mangino said. 

He consulted his family. His wife, Mary Jane, was just as surprised as he was. His daughter, a Kansas grad, was supportive. His son Tommy, an assistant at Kentucky, felt his father should return. And then there were the players Mangino knew would be in attendance. The coach who spends part of his time in Naples, Florida, says he still keeps in touch with many of them through texts and phone calls. He wants to see them now 10 years later as grown men, husbands and fathers. That and the support he had received from fans and former players, swayed him.  

"I thought about it, the pros and cons, and what I eventually came up with is this: I'm not bitter nor do I carry any grudges against Kansas. Certainly I didn't like the way it ended. I'd be less than honest if I said otherwise," Mangino explained. "But coaches are built differently in terms of their mental makeup. Good or bad, these things happen every day. It's not how you dealt with the issue, it's how you react to it. 

"Within a matter of days [of being let go] I had moved on. It took a lot longer for my family, especially considering we had spent eight years in Lawrence and liked it there. I had invested a great part of my life working there and trying to get the program where it should be," he continued. "Yeah, you're disappointed, but you move on. I got in contact with my friends, Mary Jane and I traveled and spent a lot of quality time with the grandkids and family. I wasn't going to let that drag me down.

"Nobody on the face of the Earth is in charge of my happiness except me." 

But Mangino's exit obviously hasn't overshadowed the success he brought. The passing of time certainly helps. What Kansas is celebrating in less than two weeks is as astounding now as it was 10 years ago, perhaps more so given the program's struggles to win so much as a conference game over the past seven years. During that span, the Jayhawks have hired three coaches and never won more than three games in a season. Since starting 5-0 in 2009, the Jayhawks are a combined 14-65 over those seven years.

There have been 117 years of Jayhawks football if you include this one. Less than half produced winning seasons, and even then, a majority of them came during the era of ties. Prior to 2007, Kansas had just two 10-win efforts. The early years under coach Doc Kennedy (52-9) were the most consistently successful, but the early 1900s are a far cry from the football of today.

A 12-1 Orange Bowl champion Kansas team sounds fluky, and to be sure, there was an element of planetary alignment attributed to it. The Jayhawks avoided Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 South on the regular-season schedule. No other team in the Big 12 North besides Kansas and Missouri finished with a winning record. The Border War against the rival Tigers, a program in the middle of its own surprising surge, on Nov. 24 in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium had legitimate BCS implications. Mizzou staved off a furious Kansas comeback in a 36-28 victory that sent the Tigers to the Big 12 championship game. 

"I guess you could call that the Golden Age of the Border War," Mangino said. 

The Border War always meant something. Both sides will corroborate this irrefutably because it has such historical significance. On this particular occasion, and at the risk of trademark infringement from Missouri's present conference, it just meant more. 

The luck factor only goes so far, however. The 2007 Jayhawks were (and are still) by every measure the best team the school has fielded. The BCS rankings from November of that year are a historical document reflecting a team of circumstance and destiny. It's an image that should be seen. Just don't stare at it directly for too long. 

BCS Rankings as of Nov. 18. 2007

RankTeamRecord

1.

LSU

10-1

2.

Kansas

11-0

3.

West Virginia 

9-1

4.

Missouri

10-1

This was thanks to the overachievement of mostly under-recruited players who were either an inch or two too short, positionless, or both. But they could play, and Mangino remarked that after three or four years together the team chemistry was off the charts. The 2007 team produced two first-team All-Americans (Collins and Talib), a number of All-Big 12 selections and a Heisman Trophy candidate (quarterback Todd Reesing). A few, Talib among them, went on to be pros. 

"After my redshirt sophomore year [2006] I started getting calls about agents wanting me to come out of school. Well, coach Mangino must have received wind of this. So he called me into his office and said if I came back one more year, I'd turn into his first first-round pick."

Talib took his coach's advice and it paid off. During his redshirt junior season in 2007, Talib had a career-best 66 tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. He was given offensive snaps, too. Though he had just eight receptions for 182 yards in 2007, Talib hauled in four touchdowns. In 2008, he was selected with the 20th overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was, indeed, the first first-round draft pick at Kansas since defensive lineman Dana Stubblefield in 1993 with the 26th pick to the San Francisco 49ers. 

"Aqib had a couple of offers [out of high school], but others were concerned because he played all kinds of different positions," Mangino said. "I've been around at least one coach who wouldn't recruit a guy unless he had a specific position for him on the recruiting board. We took guys on the board who were athletes. We know he's going to play somewhere for us. We may not know today, but we'll know soon. That's where Talib came in."

The lengthy, 6-foot-1 corner was but one example. Kansas gamed the star system before it turned into what it is today. It was Moneyball at its finest ... but without the money part. 

"We had Todd, who wasn't a highly recruited guy, but his record speaks for itself," Mangino said. "Kerry Meier was a quarterback, but he was such a good athlete that he made the transition to receiver. He did it without complaining and he became a role model on the team because of it and he probably could have started for 50 other Division I schools."

Reesing, listed at 5-foot-11, threw for more than 11,000 yards and racked up 115 touchdowns in three years as a starter. Meier hauled in more than 2,000 receiving yards in 2008 and 2009. 

"Some guys are overacheivers. [Defensive end] Russell Brorsen wasn't a big guy, but he was a great wrestler in the state of Oklahoma. Players and coaches alike will tell you [defensive lineman] James McClinton was one of the toughest players to block in the Big 12. But he was only six feet tall so nobody thought he could play Division I," Mangino said.

"[Cornerback] Chris Harris Jr. had an offer from Tulsa and I think that's it. He had great feet and hips, but other programs were afraid because he was 5-foot-10. They thought he wasn't big enough. Everyone wanted 6-foot-2 corners because outside receivers were so big. It doesn't matter how big you are; can you snap your hips and run? Can you transition?"

Harris was also a member of the Denver Broncos during their Super Bowl 50 run. 

There were more stories like these. They would have been countless if you asked Mangino for them. When he reunites with his former players on that first full Saturday of the 2017 season, there will surely be more. Despite the potential for mixed emotions, the memories of 10 years ago will remain unchanged. "It feels great. I can't believe it was 10 years ago. Time flies," Talib said.

kansas-mangino.jpg
Mangino tries not to dwell on how he left Kansas after the success he had with the program. Getty Images

"I've been asked is this some kind of validation that I did it right. Shoot, I'm not looking for that. Kansas called me and I was more than happy to be a part of this. I'm happy to be with my players. There's no question I appreciate the gesture," Mangino said. "But I wasn't looking for anything. I didn't need anything. I'm pretty comfortable with my lot in life right now. You don't dwell on the things you did eight or 10 years ago.

"I'll be proud to stand next to them because they were the greatest football team Kansas has put out on the football field," he continued. "I'll be proud to be associated with them." 

CBS Sports Writer

Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,... Full Bio

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