Eric Mangini, 38, won three Super Bowls as an assistant with the Patriots and earned his first head-coaching job with the Jets in 2006. He was fired after the 2008 season and now serves as head coach of the Browns. (Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Allen Park -- The pay stunk. The hours were worse. But when Detroit coach Jim Schwartz stops to share a laugh before Sunday's game with his Cleveland counterpart, Eric Mangini, it'll be easy to say it was worth it.
Back in the early 1990s, they were fresh-faced, football-loving fools, or so it seemed. Schwartz had set aside his economics degree from Georgetown and worked his way up as a college assistant, before landing an unpaid job on Bill Belichick's staff in Cleveland. Mangini decided to scrap his plans to be an investment banker, putting his political science degree to good use instead as Cleveland's ball boy.
"My mom always had a tough time with that, because I had gone to school and had a bunch of student loans," laughed Mangini, who later made the leap from public relations intern to quality-control coach. "And when I took the job as a ball boy, she thought I'd lost my mind. But I just wanted to get in the door."
Once inside, they started working on their graduate degrees -- a "Ph.D. in footballology," as Schwartz calls it. And they were in good company, working alongside future head coaches and front-office executives like Nick Saban, Kirk Ferentz, Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff.
"We all thought we were low, but Tom was on the grounds crew," Schwartz said of Dimitroff, now the Atlanta Falcons' general manager. "He was cutting grass and pulling tarps and covered in paint. He'd come in for lunch and he'd watch film -- he'd do that on his free time. The thing that happened there was that there were a lot of young guys there -- a lot of guys who weren't married and didn't have any responsibilities other than learning football. I think everybody was in the same boat. Nobody had any money, everybody was eager to learn."
"Schwartzie" was arguably the brightest student.
"Really, really smart," said Mangini, who at 38 already is in his fourth season as an NFL head coach. "Very smart, always forward-thinking, always trying to figure out better ways to do things. And his work ethic was outstanding -- he was going to set the tempo.
"With the defensive breakdowns you always inherit a process, and one of the things that Bill Belichick was looking for from the young guys was, 'OK, here's what we have,' and he wanted you to make it better. Jim would make it better. It just seemed like that's what he was always working on, 'How can I improve this? How can we be more efficient at this?' "
He still is, of course. But the pay is considerably better now.
Mangini, who ended up trading the fifth overall pick in last April's draft, said the Lions' top pick, Matthew Stafford , impressed the Browns staff, too.
"The handle he had on the Georgia offense, he could answer our questions almost before they came out of our mouths," Mangini said. "He would answer it in a way that was incredibly detailed -- position by position, player by player, what their responsibility was. I'm sure he's taken that same work ethic and applied it to the offense in Detroit."
... Detroit faces a local TV blackout Sunday against Cleveland for the eighth time in their last 11 home games. But while tickets remain for next week's Thanksgiving game against Green Bay, a sellout is expected. One reason: Detroit is among the NFL's top three teams -- Atlanta and Kansas City are the others -- in terms of group ticket sales this season.
By the numbers
0 Touchdowns scored by Cleveland RBs and WRs this season
3 TD passes by Browns quarterbacks in their last 15 games (since Nov. 23, 2008)
29 INTs by Browns quarterbacks in their last 15 games (since Nov. 23, 2008)
Finally, a fair fight
Strength of schedule hasn't been kind to Cleveland or Detroit thus far this season. The toughest schedules to date in the NFL:
2. (tie) Detroit
Brandon Pettigrew's projected receiving totals for 2009 match up favorably with the rookie seasons of some of the NFL's best tight ends:
|* Brandon Pettigrew||41||466||11.4||2|
* projected totals for 16 games based on current production
“I can’t remember the last time I had an adult beverage. Even though I’m thinking about starting drinking. Probably gonna start smoking, too.”
-- Jim Schwartz , Lions coach, joking about the long, frustrating hours involved with game preparation for a 1-8 team.
Browns at Lions
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit
TV/radio: Blacked out locally/WXYT 97.1, 1270
Records: Cleveland 1-8, Detroit 1-8
Line: Lions by 3 1/2
Series: Detroit leads 13-4