Mortensen on Mangino

Joe Mortensen (Steve Puppe photo)

Joe Mortensen has rarely been afraid to speak his mind. But the former Kansas linebacker, now a member of the New York Sentinels in the United Football League, said he often found himself holding his tongue during weekly press conferences.

"You know me," Joe Mortensen said. "I always wanted to be outright. But whenever I was asked about Coach Mangino, I always felt like I had to put on a front."

"I'm going to put this out there," Mortensen said. "I'm not a saint. I got an MIP (Minor In Possession) as a freshman, I got in trouble a couple times. I'm no saint. But I always worked hard, and I always gave 100 percent in everything I did. I never had a great relationship with Mangino, not with the way he talked to me and treated me."

Mortensen said his problems started shortly after arriving on campus. A friend from a rival school, who was headed up to Oregon to play football was shot and killed. Mortensen, upset about the loss, proceeded to go out and get intoxicated. He received an MIP.

"It didn't get out," Mortensen said. "I decided to go to Mangino to tell him that I got in trouble. I wanted to be a man about it. Then, and I'll never forget this, he belittled me, talking about my friend and how I was no friend to him. I talked back, telling him how he didn't know anything about that, and I almost lost my scholarship. I was 18, man."

"Now I love KU," Mortensen said. "I have friends from there that I will have the rest of my life. It wasn't horrible playing there. I loved my assistant coaches, loved the strength staff. I loved Lew Perkins, and I still love the fans. But I could have done without Mangino."

Mortensen said Mangino told him repeatedly that he would kick him off the team.

"He said he would send me back to Oakland, and I would drink out of a brown paper bag and become a bum," Mortensen said. "You might think it was funny, but he's being serious, and he's saying that in front of everybody."

And that everybody, Mortensen said, wasn't limited to teammates and coaches.

"Mike (Rivera) and I were frustrated our senior years. We were both hurt. I was coming off an ACL surgery, and Mike had a big crack in his foot," Mortensen said. "We couldn't make plays like we used to. Well, at one practice, we had about 10 NFL Scouts there. We're up for awards because of the way we played the year before."

"Mangino knows we're hurt," Mortensen said. "But he's getting on us at practice, saying ‘Butkus my ass' and ‘you guys suck.' He didn't say anything about the fact that we were hurting. The scouts were just shaking their heads. I didn't want to say anything because I didn't want the scouts to think I was crazy."

Mortensen said he feared speaking out about Mangino as a player.

"I felt like if I said anything, he would badmouth me to the scouts," Mortensen said. "But later, I found out he did badmouth us. He said I was uncoachable, that I had a bad attitude. He said the same thing about Mike. I couldn't understand that. I was the team captain. I had all the respect of my teammates."

"It really hurt Mike to be treated like that," Mortensen said. "To call him out for performance, when he's playing hurt, it really affected him. It was definitely rough."

Rivera declined to comment for the story.

Mortensen said he knew other players who had similar stories.

One teammate, Mortensen said, lost a grandmother. The players went out to the Hawk — Mortensen said they weren't supposed to go out at the time — where they wound up scuffling with the basketball team.

"Just like we always do," Mortensen said, laughing.

The players were punished, exiled to 6 a.m. stadium steps and drills, and threatened that an unfinished workout would result in the loss of scholarship.

"Guys were bending over, throwing up, but we were working," Mortensen said. "Remember, one of the guys' grandmother had passed like four days earlier, and Mangino started yelling at him, saying ‘what kind of grandson are you, you're going out and getting drunk.'

"It took all my strength not to say anything," Mortensen said. "We finished, but we were exhausted."

Mortensen said his biggest problem came with the treatment of John McCoy, who returned to KU following 18 months in Iraq.

"Nobody has ever done anything on this before," Mortensen said. "He came back to play his senior year, my sophomore year. He came back, spent like a month at home, and did all the conditioning. He spent all winter, all summer going through it. But there was some academic misconduct stuff that went on when he was here before, and a week before the season started, he was told that he couldn't play and was suspended."

"All he wanted to do was play his last season of football," Mortensen said. "He didn't have anything to do with that stuff. None of the coaches really got in trouble, but they blamed it on a player, and nobody stood up for him."

Mortensen said he wasn't surprised by many of the stories that were coming out.

"He said ruthless stuff, just ruthless," Mortensen said. "He would use (problems) like a gun. That was a lot worse than anything physical. I didn't think that was that bad."

"As far as putting hands on players, like some people have been talking about, I don't really think he's a physical coach," Mortensen said. "He grabs guys by the facemask, and he pushes guys sometimes. But come on. We're big football players. He can't hurt us. I don't agree with any (physical complaints). But in terms of emotionally tearing somebody down and belittling them, well, I got used to that at KU."

Mortensen said Mangino's actions often created an "us versus him" attitude.

"I'd hear players say a lot, ‘man, if I saw him in a dark alley,'" Mortensen said. "He was never part of our family. It was always him versus the rest of the team."

But Mortensen said he wasn't sure that Mangino should be let go.

"I don't know if they should fire him," Mortensen said. "The way that he talks to people and disrespects them … he just can't do that, especially when you're talking about somebody molding young minds. It's just disgusting. He needs to learn, as a man, that kindness goes a long way. Hopefully, that's what he realizes after this, after hearing what all these players, and team captains are saying, that he should run the football team differently."

"But he can't act like this is because he lost five games straight," Mortensen said. "This isn't about that. It's not because of that at all."

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