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Eric Wolford, the energetic, 41-year-old coach at Youngstown State drew from many powerful coaching figures in building his philosophy toward football and recruiting.
In 1989, Bob Stoops lured Wolford to Kansas State, where he started four years at offensive guard under Bill Snyder. While there he helped ignite perhaps the greatest turnaround in college football history after the Wildcats lost a then-Division I record 27 consecutive games.
Wolford then became a graduate assistant under Snyder before moving on to jobs under Mike Stoops at Arizona, Ron Zook at Illinois and Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. In December 2009, he retured to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, to take control of the FCS-level Penguins.
But it is the words of Mark Mangino, who coordinated recruiting and the running game at K-State during Wolford's playing days, that stand out amid all that Wolford has gathered.
"One of Coach Mangino's favorite sayings," Wolford said, "is that recruiting is a lot like shaving. If you're not recruiting every day, you look like a bum."
Mangino didn't coin the expression. Many have used it, from former Purdue basketball coach Gene Keady to Florida football coach Will Muschamp.
Still, it hit home with Wolford. So when he went in search of a tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator this winter, he tapped Mangino, the Kansas coach from 2002 to 2009 who was preparing to return to the game from his home in southwest Florida.
"Of the opportunities that were presented to me, [Youngstown State] might not have been the best-paying or the biggest program," Mangino said, "but it was the best fit."
It's an odd fit in some ways -- the 2007 National Coach of the Year working for a former pupil at a level or two below where he's accustomed. But for Mangino, 56, refreshed and noticeably slimmer than in his days at Kansas, the move made sense.
|Mark Mangino spent last season a new strategy at Youngstown State, but with cues from his previous FBS stops.|
Mangino earned his degree from YSU, worked his first job there under Jim Tressel and grew up in nearby New Castle, Pa. His wife, Mary Jane, who last fall completed treatment for breast cancer, is also from the area.
His wife's cancer fight provided perspective. Mangino, long overweight, said he recognized the need to address his own health.
"I'm living a healthier lifestyle now and taking better care of myself," Mangino said. "I'm not putting football ahead of myself. I've learned that's not a great idea. I still have work to do, but I feel terrific, and I'm continuing to improve in that area."
Mangino resigned under pressure at KU in 2009 after allegations of player mistreatment and a tumble from near the top of the Big 12. Just two years earlier, the Jayhawks won a school-record 12 games, including an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
Mangino said he kept close tabs on the game in his time off. He made several trips to Oklahoma to watch Stoops and spent a week with Raheem Morris, another former K-State assistant, and the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2010. Mangino visited Urban Meyer at Ohio State last year and spent time with the Bengals and Browns in the NFL.
He also nurtured his relationship with Snyder, which suffered some strain after Mangino left Kansas State for rival OU in 1999.
Snyder, in his second term atop the K-State program, invited Mangino to watch from the sideline when the Wildcats played at Miami in September 2011. Mangino visited Snyder in Manhattan, Kan., last April. They also write back and forth, Mangino said.
Mangino's decision to take the job at YSU represents a return to his roots in more ways than one. He made his mark in the business as a tireless recruiter and prudent evaluator of talent.
He also learned the value of recruiting character as much as talent.
"Most of the guys who were impact players for us at KU were character guys, confident guys," Mangino said.
He said he maintains pride in finding under-recruited prospects such as current New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, whom he recruited at Kansas with the help of former assistant Dave Doeren, now the coach at North Carolina State.
And of course Mangino nabbed Todd Reesing, the quarterback for that Orange Bowl-winning team. Assistant Tim Beck, who is currently the Nebraska offensive coordinator, was the first to bring Reesing to Mangino's attention.
Reesing, undersized and turned away by numerous top programs out of Austin (Texas) Lake Travis, arrived on campus before Mangino the morning of his recruiting trip. The coach went in to meet him with a warning from Beck: The kid wasn't very tall.
"I said OK, but I was anxious to meet him," Mangino said. "I liked his demeanor. He stood up when I walked in the room. He looked me in the eye. He gave me a firm handshake. He carried a conversation. A lot of kids, the first time they talk to a coach, their eyes are down or they're uneasy. Not him. He was confident. I really liked that."
We can't go by rankings and recruiting stars. We have to find guys who we can project and develop. There's an art to that.” -- Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford
Mangino offered him a scholarship that day in Lawrence. Reesing committed soon thereafter and threw for 90 touchdowns and more than 11,000 yards in four years.
The coach brings the same principles to this move into the FCS, where that skill to find overlooked talent isn't just a good option; it's a requirement.
"If you know what it's like in the SEC or the Big 12, you can't imagine what it's like for us," Wolford said. "We've got to have really long lists, watch a lot of kids on film and have a pecking order, because guys fall off our board fast."
YSU and other FCS programs look for prospects with no offers and hope they don't get noticed quickly.
"We can't go by rankings and recruiting stars," Wolford said. "We have to find guys who we can project and develop. There's an art to that."
An art that Wolford said Mangino might just perfect in a short time, considering his background.
During his time away from the game, a few coaching friends sent Mangino practice film to evaluate. He said he monitored recruiting trends that swayed with changes in the game, particularly on the offensive side.
When he arrived at YSU, he learned quickly to stop evaluating through the eyes of a Big 12 coach. At first, he said, he watched a few tapes and set them aside, but later found himself digging back through the footage.
"You look back at guys and say, 'Wait a minute, maybe he can play for us,'" Mangino said. "I do think there are a lot of diamonds in the rough. Case in point, look at the NFL draft and see how many FCS and D-II players show up. It's amazing."
With Mangino at his side as an evaluator for as long as the coach chooses to stay in Youngstown -- a year or two, maybe longer -- Wolford will have a powerful edge.
"It's something we can make work," he said.
A little perspective goes a long way for Mangino, who's basking in the glow of a return to his roots -- in coaching and life.