On one of the recovery days he built into his team’s training camp schedule, Eric Mangini leans back in a plush chair inside his apartment-sized office overlooking the Browns’ lush practice fields, spits tobacco juice into an empty cup and lets out a hearty laugh.
It’s been a wonderful second summer back in Ohio for Cleveland’s complicated coach.
Last year, the laughter was limited.
He’s a changed Mangini. Some say a better Mangini.
The family’s great. He’s dropped a few pounds. His team is downstairs working hard, lifting weights as they prepare for their Sept. 4 opener at Tampa Bay riding an improbable four-game winning streak that ended last season and saved Mangini’s job.
Life is good for the man tagged both genius and idiot during his NFL career.
Mangini is confident and upbeat. No, he hasn’t been watching HBO’s popular football reality series, “Hard Knocks,” an R-rated insider’s look at the New York Jets, his former team. For Mangini, seeing the Jets trudge through the paces of camp only triggers thoughts of a year he’d like to forget.
“I lived Hard Knocks last season,” he says, cracking himself up. “Except that the soundtrack was all boos. It can’t get any harder than that.”
Hard doesn’t come close to describing Mangini’s first season in Cleveland.
It was, by all accounts, a nightmare. Players and fans revolted against him. The media punished him. His hand-picked general manager quit. The Browns stunk.
He served as Cleveland’s coach, president, GM and franchise frontman for much of it, and came within an eyelash of being fired from his second team in two seasons. But just when all seemed lost, Mangini was spared by new team president Mike Holmgren, who perhaps understood Mangini’s predicament better than anyone.
“I’ve been there,” said Holmgren, hired in December to make over an inept franchise that hasn’t sniffed glory in decades. “I know what it’s like to be a coach, and I know how tough it is to turn things around quickly. I felt Eric needed and deserved more time.”
Mangini got it, and given the surprising reprieve, he’s making the most of a second chance — one that’s coming with a Super Bowl-championship coach peering over his shoulder while driving a golf cart during practice that has a COACH HOLMGREN sticker on the front bumper.
Holmgren, though, swears he’s not preparing to push Mangini aside and return to the sideline.
Not unless he has to.
“I am aware of his position and what that means,” Holmgren said. “I had that position a long time. Eric’s got a tough job. This is his team. I’m just here to help him.”
Mangini is safe. As long as the Browns get better — a lot better.
“Oh, no,” Pro Bowl return specialist Josh Cribbs said, grinning. “Same guy, same coach. He’s more experienced with the guys. He has a year under his belt. You know that we just got to do what he says, and that’s it. You can’t argue about it. He’s the coach and what he says goes.”
Holmgren has no regrets about keeping Mangini, and believes their relationship is growing deeper each day. Their bond hasn’t been tested but will be if the Browns, who have a difficult schedule with six games in the nasty AFC North, start slowly.
Mangini loves the help he’s getting from his boss.
“Feedback allows you to adjust your path,” he said.