HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- The old general manager's office belongs to the new general manager, the former assistant general manager. Actually, the new GM/old assistant GM is relatively young; as you might have heard, Mike Tannenbaum is 37 years old.
Anyway, his new office, as of last Sunday morning, pretty much still had its old look to it, save for the row of family pictures of Tannenbaum, his wife, Michelle, and his 2-year-old daughter, Ella, arranged behind Terry Bradway's old desk, which sits at a new angle. Of course, there is the wall-sized fish tank that stands opposite where Tannenbaum sits, brought over from the old office. He says it "takes the edge off." Watching the tank's colorful inhabitants swim about, he jokes about how simple life is for them -- no worries, no agents, no media, no salary-cap problems. Before taking a seat, Tannenbaum notices a floating object and thinks he's lost another one. False alarm.
New New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini, 35, the other half of the youngest GM-coach tandem in the NFL, joins Tannenbaum at the table in front of the tank, a favorite of Mangini's 2-year-old son, Jake. Father does not share his son's affection, in this case.
"I don't know if I'm feelin' the fish tank, dawg," Mangini mutters to Tannenbaum, which is as loud as it gets for him most of the time.
Mangini says that precisely what the imported aquatic environment needs is some edge to it; he jokingly suggests adding a few piranhas. Seriously, doing so would serve to speed up the process Tannenbaum's already started. You see he's already lost six of what was once 12 fish because he often neglects them. He's that into his work. His real babies are the Jets, for whom there's always something more to do.
"He's a guy that lives this job 24-7, 365," Bradway says.
Life's imagination -- amazing, isn't it? It was a mere 11 years ago that Tannenbaum and Mangini were a couple of guppies trying to survive with the old Cleveland Browns, the former a personnel assistant and the latter a coaching assistant after having served as a 23-year-old ball boy (one with a degree from Wesleyan, which has to be some kind of record for overqualification), then briefly as an intern in the public relations department, during which time head coach Bill Belichick noticed the kid's work ethic. Tannenbaum and Mangini would run into each other often in the facility's well-stocked kitchen (fortunate for a couple of cash-strapped wannabes), located near the main copy machine.
"One of the biggest copiers you've ever seen," Tannenbaum says. "We called it Queen Mary."
Now look at them. Two king fish charged with rebuilding the Jets in the image of the New England Patriots, one teasing the other about the fish tank in his office. "In New Orleans [as a Saints intern in 1994] I had a chair," Tannenbaum says with a chuckle.
Jets chairman and CEO Woody Johnson has the closest thing possible to the Patriots' duo of Belichick and personnel guru Scott Pioli, short of getting the real thing. Mangini has spent 10 of his 11 seasons in the NFL working closely with Belichick, last year as his defensive coordinator, and has long worn the title of "Belichick's protégé." The Manginis are expecting their second son next month, Luke William. Yes, William is in honor of Belichick. Mangini is a lot like his mentor in terms of intelligence, but unfortunately isn't smart enough to develop a different fashion style. His attire on this Sunday morning: sneakers, shorts and, yup, a gray, hooded, Jets sweatshirt.
Tannenbaum came to the Jets in 1997 after being recommended by Belichick and Pioli to Bill Parcells; Tannenbaum shared office space with Pioli until he and Belichick left for New England. Tannenbaum would spend the next nine seasons with New York, the past five as assistant GM, before he recommended to Johnson and Bradway that his pal Mangini replace the departed Herman Edwards.
Tannenbaum and Mangini remained close during the six years Mangini served with the Patriots, just as they did when Mangini went to Baltimore with the Browns in 1996, and Tannenbaum back to the Saints. It was in Baltimore that Mangini met his wife, the former Julie Shapiro, sister of Indians GM Mark Shapiro, who is a close friend of Pioli's from his time in Cleveland.
"Philosophically, we believe in the same things," Mangini says of what Johnson calls a "natural partnership" with Tannenbaum. "Even if there's disagreements along the way, our core values are the same. When you share core values with people and you have a working relationship and a level of communication like we have, that's really helpful in getting to the decision that best helps the organization."
Mangini and Tannenbaum aren't just on the same page. Their life stories read the same. Their personal lives have paralleled in many instances. They married three weeks apart; Mangini on June 9, 2001, Tannenbaum on June 30. Jake Mangini and Ella Tannenbaum were born two weeks apart. And both couples are expecting again.
Mangini: "We both have great wives."
Tannenbaum: "Absolutely. They're both tolerant, understanding and supportive, and have product knowledge of what this is all about."
Mangini: "Mike, you don't want the defining characteristics to be tolerant, supportive and understanding …
Tannenbaum: "What's wrong with that?"
Mangini: "It's your wife. You're not evaluating a player."
Tannenbaum: "OK. How would you describe Michelle?"
Mangini: "A saint to be married to you."
We're clearly talking about two talented individuals; they have to be, to have ascended the ranks so quickly. The Raiders, Dolphins and Browns offered Mangini defensive coordinator jobs the past two offseasons. But make no mistake -- both men have paid their professional dues and then some. They had to enter the league through the back door to arrive at the forefront of what they hope will be a renaissance in New York.
Forget fish for a moment. These two, they quickly learned, are birds of a feather.
Tannenbaum was born in New York City and raised in Needham, Mass. His father, Richie, has spent almost 30 years working in public transportation and is nearing retirement.
"He's had six sick days," Mike Tannenbaum says.
No wonder. Tannenbaum's motto is "pick a job you love, and you'll never work a day in your life." He graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in accounting, then eschewed a $26,000-a-year gig to volunteer for the summer of 1991 with the Pittsfield (NY) Mets of the New York-Penn League. A fraternity brother's dad hooked him up with a gig at the local post office. Tannenbaum worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., earning enough to cover his living expenses.
"My parents gave me everything I had to have, and nothing of what I wanted," he says. He still has the stereo he bought by saving the tips he earned delivering the Boston Globe.
That night job at the post office earned him the nickname "Claven," after Cliff Claven, a character from the popular show, "Cheers." By day, Tannenbaum's duties were to pull out the tarp, pour cheese for nachos, pick up dry cleaning, etc. So began a career in sports.
He later earned a certificate in sports law from Tulane Law School. Paid his way through. Worked for nothing for the Saints in 1994. Made 300 bucks a week with the Browns. Gained Parcells' trust enough so that Parcells would have hired him as his general manager in Tampa Bay, had he become the head coach in 2002. Participated in two coaching searches and spent the past five years running the Jets' day-to-day operation, as Bradway split his time between Long Island and his New Jersey home.
"To me, that's a football guy," says Bradway, referring to a criticism of Tannenbaum that he is a lawyer whose background is in contracts and salary-cap management, and not scouting. "There's a lot of people in this business that like all the other stuff that goes along with it -- wearing the jacket, wearing the hat -- that aren't willing to put the time in and make the sacrifice.
"The guys that paid their dues, the guys that worked for free, the guys that never got into this for the money and do whatever it takes to be successful, those are the football guys."
Mangini's father, Carmine, was the son of an Italian immigrant. The family owned a sandwich shop in Hartford, Conn., and the kids mowed lawns to make ends meet. In the winter, they would shovel snow. Mangini's first job was in grammar school, as a paperboy. In high school, Mangini worked weekends transporting patients to and from hospital X-ray rooms. He finished third in his high school class and was all-state and captain for both the football and wrestling teams at Bulkeley High School.
Mangini worked at a deli and for the ground crew to earn cash while at Wesleyan University. He got his first taste of coaching by volunteering for the New England Crusaders semipro team. While studying abroad in Australia, he got caught up in coaching a couple of American-rules football teams -- he had a college coach fax him some coaching information, which he'd study by day and put into practice at night. One of the teams, the Kew Colts, won 26 consecutive games.
"At that point in my life, I knew this was what I wanted to do," Mangini said.
He finished college with 36˝ sacks as a nose tackle and a degree in political science. He went back to live with his folks and worked as a substitute teacher for a few months. One day he taught kindergarten, the next high school science, and the next middle school physical education. He wanted to get back into football, so he called up his old coach at Wesleyan (Conn.), Kevin Spencer, who was on the Browns' staff and is now the Steelers' special teams coach.
"A common misconception is that Bill [Belichick] and I had some preexisting relationship," Mangini says. "I called up Spence and said, 'Look, is there anything I can do for the Browns?' He calls me back and says, 'I can get you a job as a ball boy.' I said, 'OK, when do I need to be there?'"
As a coaching assistant in Cleveland, Mangini worked closely with offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz.
"Eric's got the right motives," says Ferentz, now the head coach at Iowa and an annual fixture atop wish lists of teams with coaching vacancies. "He's coaching because he loves coaching. He was never driven to be a coordinator or a head coach in the NFL. My sense is he'd be as happy at Hofstra as he is with the Jets."
Mangini and Tannenbaum might as well move on campus, they're at Hofstra University, the team's preseason facility, so often. Julie Mangini brings Jake to the office for at least an hour every night, just like she did when Eric worked for the Patriots. It isn't unusual for the Tannenbaums to have dinner at Jets headquarters. Point is, whatever answers the rookie GM and head coach don't have, they won't stop until they find them.
"You have to tell these guys to get out of the building," Johnson says.
Tannenbaum and Mangini want that kind of commitment from their players. They're competing with New England for the same type of employees: committed, competitive, smart and "all about ball," Mangini says. The plan is to build a team of like-minded individuals that mirrors the partnership at the top.
"We've both been workers our whole lives," Mangini says. "Our friendship evolved from our belief system. Mike and I gravitated to each other because we're the same type of guy."
Jets fans are more likely to see their team in Super Bowl XLI than they are to read about a rift between Mangini and Tannenbaum.
Says Pioli of his friends and now rivals, "They're talented, they work their butts off and they've got each other's back."
Turning around the Jets -- 4-12 last year, over the cap and over the hill on offense -- isn't likely to happen overnight. Meantime, you can find New York's brass at the office. With the fishes.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.