By BRIAN DULIK
Hiring Eric Mangini is not a gamble or a calculated risk by the Browns. It’s a safe, smart move by a franchise that hasn’t made many correct calls in the last quarter-century.
The 37-year-old may not have been the flashiest or the most exciting coach on the market, but he was the best choice for a pigskin-crazy market like Cleveland.
“All fans love football and love their team,” said Mangini, who spent the past three seasons in charge of the New York Jets. “The difference is, Cleveland fans, they live football – and it’s a special intensity.
“I want to promise to them that we’re going to have good, hard-working, caring people in this organization. I promise you that’s the vision and that’s what we’ll be pushing forward and working for every day.”
Mangini was formally introduced as the 15th head coach in team history at a jam-packed news conference on Thursday morning, roughly 12 hours after signing a four-year contract in Berea.
The Hartford native was jovial and quick-witted, yet obviously comfortable in his own skin as he discussed the major changes in his life since being fired by the Jets on Dec. 29.
It was quite a triumphant return to town, considering he broke into the NFL as a 23-year-old Browns ball boy and previously worked inside the team headquarters as a glorified gopher.
“I remember I was in a picture with 11- and 12-year-olds with my arms around them, and I had to explain that to my mother,” Mangini recalled with a laugh. “I had student loans and it was a hard sell. I kept telling her, `Mom, this is the Cleveland Browns. Do you understand? The Cleveland Browns.
“When Randy (Lerner) called me about coming back, it was that same feeling, that same level of excitement, that same level of pride. It is really special to be back here.”
Unlike many hires in Cleveland’s expansion era, Mangini has a clear appreciation of what the Browns mean to this area. He also will never take his new job for granted, given his former positions within the organization as a football fetcher and a public relations intern.
Make no mistake about it, he is the typical “everyman” that Clevelanders identify with, right down to his slightly paunchy 5-foot-10 frame.
“I feel like I should be bringing you guys Bucci’s (a nearby restaurant), getting some coffee or picking up towels or something,” quipped Mangini, who actually sent catered meals to the local media all three times his Jets played the Browns. “This is a great honor and I couldn’t be happier about coming back to Cleveland.
“Thank you very much and `Go Browns.”’
Among those on hand to share in the big day were his wife Julie and their three sons, his brother-in-law – Indians general manager Mark Shapiro – and somewhat reclusive team owner Lerner.
Predictably, all of them chose to stay out of the spotlight that has enveloped the organization since the firing of coach (and close Mangini friend) Romeo Crennel 10 days earlier.
That figures to be the case as the Browns go forward, as well, because Mangini is now the face of the franchise, and will be, regardless of who is hired as their general manager.
“I believe in truth in sports,” he said. “It’s not about just having talented players, but having talented players with character. I want them to be smart, tough, hard working, and competitive, whether it’s in checkers or a sack race. They have to be selfless and truly have a passion for the game.”
Those qualities are all present in Mangini, who was praised by team president Mike Keenan as “the most driven, most passionate and most qualified to be the coach of the Cleveland Browns.”
On paper, at least, that is the case. Whether those traits translate into victories remains to be seen.
But knowing this is Mangini’s dream job, it would be foolish to bet against him.
“I don’t want my boys to be Browns fans because their dad is the head coach,” said Mangini, who will turn 38 on Jan. 19. “I want them to be Browns fans because of what we do on Sunday. I want them to be Browns fans because of what we do the other six days in the week.
“This is an incredible honor to be here. I can’t wait to get started.”
Dulik may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-721-4059.