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Winning formula

Patriots' Mangini draws on varied past -- from Australia to Crennel

FOXBOROUGH -- The Australian state of Victoria bills itself as ''The place to be."

And they take their football seriously in the land down under. So seriously that the official website of Melbourne, the country's second-largest city and capital of Victoria, refers to its citizenry's love for the sport as a religion.

What better place to begin a football coaching career.

Problem is, that would be Australian Rules football.

So when Eric Mangini traveled the 10,428 miles from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., to Melbourne in 1992, he wasn't there to retrace the footsteps of any legendary NFL coach.

He was following his older brother, Kyle, an investment banker who had relocated there.

As a prospective investment banker, Eric Mangini turned out to be one heck of a football coach.

Though he's just 34, Mangini's rise to his current lofty position in the coaching community -- defensive coordinator of the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots -- wasn't exactly meteoric.

His first NFL position was as a coaches' assistant under Bill Belichick in Cleveland, where he was often seen picking up grimy jerseys in the locker room.

''The only thing I was running was the laundry," Mangini joked.

But that was a step up from the first job on his resume: head coach of the Kew Colts.

The story doesn't have a particularly spectacular introduction. After deciding to take a semester of study abroad at the start of 1992, Mangini was bored while waiting for school to begin at the University of Melbourne. A girlfriend of Kyle ran into a guy in a sporting goods store who brought up the fact that he coached American football. She mentioned it to Kyle, who passed it along to Eric. After hunting the guy down, Mangini had something to do in his spare time: volunteer as an assistant coach.

That team folded soon after, but some players asked Mangini to work with an expansion team in the league. Before he knew it, he was the head coach.

After a sterling 22-3-1 record and two league titles in two seasons, Mangini knew he'd found his calling. (Belichick, who also attended Wesleyan, was in the business 27 years before he won any kind of championship as a head coach -- the 2002 Super Bowl).

''We're not talking about the highest level of coaching here," Mangini said. ''There were some pretty poor decisions strategically. They'd go for it on fourth down sometimes from their own 20, on fourth and 8. It's was like, 'What are you doing?' "

A far cry from the NFL, but Mangini wasn't exactly a seasoned coach. He had played nose tackle at Wesleyan, but hadn't considered coaching as a profession.

Eric was so green, Kyle remembers him making a slew of middle-of-the-night phone calls (because of the 14-hour time difference) to consult his college coach. A $400 phone bill ingrains the memory.

''He really didn't know anything about coaching; never coached before and never talked about it, so to a degree, stumbled into it," Kyle said by phone from Melbourne. ''But the thing that really stood out is we were always better prepared and in better shape than our opponents.

''He did a tremendous job of organizing a real defined practice regimen and even early on, he did a terrific job of pulling guys together."

As a coordinator in the NFL, having taken over for Romeo Crennel a week after Super Bowl XXXIX, Mangini is in charge of a unit that has players who range in age from 35-year-old Chad Brown, who is six months older than Mangini, to James Sanders, who is 21. Players who hail from big cities, Chicago and Houston, and those from places few have heard of, like Brusly, La. (population 2,000). And players from cities as fast as Miami and slow as Bryan, Texas.

In his first coaching job, it's arguable his team was even more diverse. From ''butchers to lawyers" is how Kyle Mangini described his teammates in the semi-professional club league.

Mangini may be a few months younger than Brown, but at 21 he coached a 40-year-old Vietnam veteran, among others.

''It was a pretty big cross section of Australian society -- insurance salesmen, police officers, bouncers at strip joints," Eric Mangini said. ''Relating to all those different age groups and different backgrounds, I think, helps here in relating to the different types of people that we get with the Patriots each year."

''Eric pulled together guys who were phenomenally diverse," Kyle said. ''We had a guy from Croatia. A guy from Serbia. We had guys from all walks of life, practicing in the cold and rain at night after working all day. None of us were paid.

''One of the key reasons guys were out there was because Eric pulled them all together for the common goal. Winning.

''I could see then that he had unlimited potential as a coach."

Others have noticed that potential in recent years.

This offseason he was wooed by Cleveland, after Crennel was named head coach, and Miami. A year ago, the Raiders were interested in making him their defensive coordinator.

In the end, he elected to remain with the Patriots and Belichick, whom he has coached with for all but one of his 10 NFL seasons.

''It was exciting to have the opportunity here and at the other places," Mangini said. ''It was a learning process, seeing what the situations held and trying to make the best decision for my family.

''Each place had a ton of positives, but I really like the way that this organization is shaped and run. I really believe in the program that we've put together. I believe in the people that are here.

''It's fun to work with the people that we have here because you're focused on winning. It's a universal focus and that's what's important across the board. You don't have to fight a lot of the things you may have to fight at other places just to get to the game."

Winning and losing games, and his contribution to either, is what Mangini will be judged on. He was judged on that as the Patriots' secondary coach the past five years, but an assistant defensive coach has to do a terrible job or tackle somebody on the sideline to get much attention.

The spotlight has changed, make that arrived.

But being one of the standard ''questions" facing the 2005 Patriots doesn't bother Mangini. He's not irritated that some wonder if he is ready to take over for Crennel, defensive coordinator of three NFL championship squads. He isn't nervous that eyes will be on him and fingers will point in his direction when there are breakdowns for a team that is trying to win an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl.

''I don't know if nervous is the right word, maybe it's excited," Mangini said. ''I look forward to the challenge. And I think it's going to be a great challenge."

Mangini's charges don't seem too concerned.

''We haven't gotten into a situation where there are live bullets, yet, but I think Mangini will do a great job," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. ''If he wasn't qualified and wasn't capable, then Bill wouldn't have hired him.

''I've got full confidence in Bill and he knows what will work and what won't work. I think Mangini's worked hard over his career, this is his time."

It may be his time, but Mangini made it clear that this isn't his defense.

''There are a lot of names on this defense and there'll probably be a lot of names in the future on this defense," Mangini said. ''Everybody kind of adds to it and it evolves. It's interesting to see the evolution of Bill's defense. He's always staying ahead of the curve. That's why the defense evolves and changes.

''I'm hoping that Mangini will be another name on a defense that's done a lot of good things."

The Patriots may not do a host of different things, but things will be different under Mangini.

''If anything, Eric is more aggressive [than Crennel]," Patriots lineman Vince Wilfork said. ''Where Romeo was conservative -- go to it if we have to -- Eric is like, 'Let's put the flame out before it even starts.' "

Mangini admits that aggression is a strong part of what he brings to the table, but he doesn't see the Patriots moving from their focus of doing whatever it takes to beat that week's opponent. From blitzing all game long one week to sitting back in a full-out zone the next, Mangini said winning that game is more important than sticking to a philosophy.

''I'm not sure how it's going to play out," Mangini said. ''I've been around a lot of games that [Crennel] called and I've benefited from that and from talking to him about why he called things at different places.

''Hopefully, I can build on the experience I had with him. Build on the success that he had, some of the mistakes that he may have made, that he shared with me, things he wished he would have done differently."

A lot of teaching goes into having a versatile defense that adjusts well to opponents. Good thing Mangini puts teaching atop the list of things he believes he does well.

Players say he is relentless in asking questions and expecting correct answers in meetings. It's a Socratic method of teaching that's not about putting his players on the spot, but forcing them to learn the defense in and out. Mangini wants each player to not only know what the Patriots want to do, but what opponents want to do, and what it will take to stop them.

Crennel demanded the same thing, but may have provided more give in the give-and-take sessions. Mangini expects his players to give information.

Which leads to No. 1 on his list of things he needs to improve on as a coach.

''I might need to be a little bit more patient with players learning the material," Mangini said. ''Everyone learns at different paces, but I expect it to be learned quickly and thoroughly. I need to understand that different guys are going to learn at different paces."

Don't take that to mean he will ever go soft.

His one-word description of a player not being prepared? Inexcusable.

''Everybody has a chance to get it right," he said. ''Either you don't know or you don't care -- both of them are problems. We're here whenever somebody needs us and we can spend as much time as possible to get it right. Fortunately, we have guys who work hard to get it right."

Work hard to get it right is something Mangini promises to do. After taking vacation time to get away and recharge for the six-month grind of an NFL season, he returned to his office at Gillette Stadium last week knowing he would be doing more leading than following than he has since that Australian championship.

There is even off-the-field evidence that he is ready.

Seconds after his first television interview as defensive coordinator of the Patriots, some four months after being named to the position, Mangini got the attention of the reporter to make a clarification.

After speaking passionately about the wildly successful youth camp he and former Patriots safety Tebucky Jones host each year in Hartford, Mangini was asked about his new job.

He said he hoped there would be little difference between his coaching and Crennel's, and under Crennel, the Patriots won three of the past four Super Bowls, so he planned to match that.

Well, he didn't say that, but he said something that would have sounded a lot like that in an evening news sound bite.

Mangini is smart enough to know the media could misuse such a clip.

Mangini was savvy enough to figure out a way to play defense against a journalist with a quip.

And he has been around long enough to know that Belichick might take exception to said slip.

Smart. Savvy. Experienced.

That's the former Kew Colts head coach, and first-year Patriots defensive coordinator.

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