The first few minutes of Eric Mangini's first news conference as ''HC of the NYJ" might turn out to be the most nerve-racking moments of his tenure, but the former defensive coordinator of the Patriots looked very much in control yesterday, vowing to build the New York Jets into an organization that will contend for the Super Bowl championship.
Speaking in Hempstead, N.Y., about his beginnings and how an experience with Australian football made him realize that coaching -- and not investment banking -- was his true passion, he navigated through questions he was hearing for the first time as a head coach. Mangini handled the session with some direct answers, some general responses, and some humor.
Mangini, who turns 35 tomorrow, signed a five-year deal with the Jets at a rate of more than $2 million per season, which was south of the $3 million he was seeking. The length of the deal is a sign that the Jets are willing to grow with Mangini, now the youngest head coach in the NFL.
Mangini had been working on a three-year, $2 million deal with the Patriots, which he signed last offseason when he became defensive coordinator following the departure of Romeo Crennel to Cleveland. He was scheduled to earn $600,000 in the second year and $800,000 in the third.
He did not have a definitive response to the most pressing question facing the Jets: the medical status of quarterback Chad Pennington, who is coming off shoulder surgery. Mangini indicated that until he's able to confer with the team's medical staff, it would be premature to comment.
''I think Chad Pennington is a tremendous competitor," said Mangini. ''I think he's a hard worker. I think he's smart. And I respect all of the things that Chad has done."
Addressing the perception that Bill Belichick still runs the New England defense -- a perception that somewhat tainted Crennel's credentials at times -- Mangini asserted, ''I called every single play last year."
Mangini certainly acknowledged Belichick's input and said he would have been a fool not to use it. He also said, when asked about his coaching style, that he is not Belichick and he is not his first boss, Bill Parcells. He said he will forge his own identity and do things his way.
''I've got tremendous mentors," Mangini said. ''I've worked with some of the greatest coaching minds in the NFL."
Mangini said he intends to move swiftly to name a coaching staff and let the current Jets assistants know of their fate. He'll likely name a new defensive coordinator and possibly an offensive coordinator.
With linebackers coach Dean Pees being named Patriots defensive coordinator, there are no New England assistants whose contracts will expire this season, so Mangini would have to get permission from the Patriots to interview any of them, and offer promotions; that does not appear to be in the cards.
Most of Mangini's work with the Jets will have to be on the offensive side, where they have been decimated by injuries.
One player who has been impressed with Mangini's work is Jets veteran guard/center Pete Kendall.
''We had the misfortune of catching the Patriots twice in the last month, almost certainly the time when their defense was playing their best," said Kendall. ''I don't know too much about Eric, but I certainly know of his work, and that was excellent.
''He's a young guy who has coached with Belichick for a dozen years. I don't think his age is an issue. He knows his football."
Mangini's first taste of coaching came when he was studying abroad in Melbourne as an undergraduate at Wesleyan; he was head coach and defensive coordinator for an Australian semipro team, the Kew Colts.
He also was a defensive assistant on Parcells's Jets staff from 1997-99, a staff that included Belichick, Crennel, and Al Groh. He said he was looking forward to returning.
''I know how passionate Jets fans are," Mangini said. ''I've been here with them and I've played against them, and I'm a lot happier to be here with them."
Mangini doesn't believe his youth is an issue, considering he was the young guy everywhere he's been.
''I've been a young guy on the defensive staff," he said. ''I was the young guy on the offensive staffs. The only time I was an old guy is when I was a ballboy. I think it's two days from now I turn 35 -- it's getting better already."
In another lighter moment, Mangini was asked his thoughts on whom the Jets might draft.
''Let's see, I just got through the playoffs a few days ago, I just got hired as the head coach, and you're asking me who I'm looking to draft?" he said. ''I probably won't ever tell you who I'm looking to draft. Because Bill's not going to tell you, and Nick [Saban, Miami coach] is not going to tell you. And the rest of the NFL is not going to tell you. If you find out, that's going to be a problem."
Mangini said his experience coaching against the Jets and game-planning for them will help in evaluating players and forming schemes that will benefit the offense.
''My experience in the Patriots organization will help as well," he said.
Mangini is surely not in awe of having to face his old team.
''We're going to build a team that can play anyone, anytime," he said. ''You can't be afraid in this league."
There are now Belichick branches in Miami (Saban) and New York (Mangini). Will the Bills hire one as well?