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K-State experiences made Mangino and Leavitt kindred spirits


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K-State experiences made Mangino and Leavitt kindred spirits

By BLAIR KERKHOFF

The Kansas City Star

From a major-college coaching perspective, destinations didn’t get much worse than Kansas State in the early 1990s.

The program that Bill Snyder inherited was carrying a 27-game winless streak, which reached 30 in his first season.

So when assistant coach Jim Leavitt came aboard in 1990 and Mark Mangino a year later, it would have taken a vivid imagination for them to see themselves as head coaches at two of the nation’s nouveau riche programs.

But on Friday, their teams will be knocking heads in the first marquee game of a big college football weekend as Mangino’s No. 13 Kansas visits Leavitt’s No. 19 South Florida.

“We were a bunch of young guys working hard, just trying to stay employed,†Mangino said. “Nobody had time to sit back and think, ‘Maybe I’ll be a head coach sometime.’ â€

That time crunch was the stuff of legend in the Kansas State football offices. Early mornings and late evenings were common. Snyder admitted to skipping meals to cram in more work.

“In those days, you just tried to get all this work done in the morning, go out for a jog at lunch, go to practice and back to work,†Leavitt said.

The effort resulted in what is widely acknowledged as the greatest turnaround in the game’s history. In 1991, the Wildcats posted their first winning season in more than a decade. They reached a bowl game in 1993 and stood top-ranked in a major poll in 1998.

By then, Leavitt had returned to his native Florida to start the Bulls’ program. Mangino left after the 1998 season to join another former K-State assistant, Bob Stoops, at Oklahoma.

In the years since, both Mangino and Leavitt became winners. South Florida, coming off successive nine-victory seasons, has appeared in three straight bowl games and climbed as high as No. 2 last season. The Bulls, 2-0, are the Big East’s highest-ranked team.

Kansas has been bowl-eligible in three of the last four years and is coming off its greatest season ever, a 12-1 record capped by an Orange Bowl triumph.

The Kansas State years provided both coaches with unique experiences. The core lesson: No obstacle is too great to overcome.

Leavitt is the only coach in Bulls’ history. The team’s first season was 1997, and the program operated out of trailers until four years ago. In the early years, Leavitt had a jobs jar for his staff. In addition to their coaching duties, each had to take a chore like vacuuming, mopping and emptying trash.

“We started it all in a trailer,†Leavitt said.

Mangino and his staff didn’t take on housekeeping duties when he arrived at Kansas for the 2002 season, but the cleanup task was formidable. The Jayhawks were coming off six straight losing seasons. Mangino thought about his years at K-State and how Snyder had approached a losing culture.

“There are so many things different that you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to take this blueprint and apply it here,’ †Mangino said. “You have to find your own way, understand what your hurdles are and design a program that fits your parameters.

“Coach Snyder was able to do that — find the proper path for that program — and I learned that I had to find the proper path for our program.â€

It was no surprise that both coaches had taken a roll-up-the-sleeves approach to Manhattan. Battling is all they had ever known.

Leavitt, who had been a three-year starter as defensive back and Big Eight batting champion at Missouri, started his coaching career as a $12,400-a-year defensive coordinator at Division III Dubuque (Iowa) University. He went from there to Morningside, also in Iowa, and was part of a program that posted a winning record for the first time in 28 years.

Mangino earned $950 a month as a graduate assistant, his first job at K-State. He was living in the basement of the coach, John Latina, who got him the job.

“Heck, I just remember trying to win games and get a paycheck to take care of your family,†Mangino said.

Friday will be the second meeting between the former K-State aides. Kansas defeated South Florida in Lawrence two years ago, and over the years, running into old Snyder assistants has been unavoidable. Seven from those early years went on to become head coaches, and besides Mangino and Leavitt, Stoops (Oklahoma) and Mike Stoops (Arizona) continue to run programs.

Mangino said he’s kept tabs on those friends who share that workaholic past.

“I watch the scores on the scroll; I check out my friends’ scores,†Mangino said. “If you play early and they play late, you get to watch them. You were in the trenches with them, and you want them to have success.â€

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A shameless bump for a good read.

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