Ken Mannie enters his 20th season as Michigan State's strength and conditioning coach. (Matthew Mitchell / Special to Detroit News)
East Lansing — When Ken Mannie first reported for work as Michigan State’s strength and conditioning coach in December 1994, he was told he had a graduate assistant to help him.
Mannie couldn’t find the assistant that day. He still hasn’t.
“I don’t know who he was, never showed up,” Mannie said with a hearty laugh. “He must of just high-tailed it out of here.”
Things have changed dramatically since that day — for Mannie and Michigan State.
As he enters his 20th season, Mannie has become a leader in his field and now runs an entire department, one that includes far more than a GA nobody could ever find. A staff of six work full time for Mannie, three on football. He also has a graduate assistant and two interns.
“Our program has blossomed,” Mannie said. “It’s literally a strength and conditioning department as opposed to that guy over there, that Mannie guy all by himself.”
The football program has blossomed in that time, as well. Last season’s Rose Bowl victory capped a 13-win season, the third with double-digit victories in the last four. Since coach Mark Dantonio arrived in 2007, the Spartans have won two Big Ten championships and have reached a bowl each season, winning three straight.
And as much credit as Dantonio and his staff receive, the most important man most outside of the program don’t know is the also the longest-serving. That person is Mannie, who has worked for five coaches.
Most fans know Mannie when they see him, even if they’re not sure what his role is. On game days, he’s the one leading the team onto the field in early warmups. And he’s the guy usually prowling the sideline looking like he’s ready to jump into the action himself.
But to the coaches and players he’s more.
“He speaks toward mentoring young people and he’s been a difference-maker,” Dantonio said. “He is truly a light for so many people when they come in every morning, they may be feeling down, they may be going through some type of trial or tribulation and he’s the guy a lot of times that sees them first, whether it’s 5:30 in the morning or 9:30 in the morning.”
Mannie and Dantonio first worked together as graduate assistants at Ohio State in 1984, then at Michigan State in the mid-1990s when Dantonio was the secondary coach under Nick Saban.
Now, heading into the eighth season with Dantonio as coach, they each count their blessings they are together again.
“I say this sincerely and he feels same way, too, it’s like working for your brother,” Mannie said. “A brother that’s a great friend.”
But while both are happy to be working together again, they also share the same commitment to their players.
And that commitment is recognized by the many Spartans who have come and gone over the years.
Before the Capital One Bowl after the 2010 season, then-senior John Stipek got emotional talking about Mannie.
“The things that he has taught me about being a man and responsibility,” Stipek said, “I will apply those for the rest of my life.”
The same sort of feeling exists in 2014.
“Coach Mannie is great,” quarterback Connor Cook said. “Besides the (other) coaches, he’s our No. 1 guy that we’re always around. He has a great relationship with all of us.”
Mannie admits leading players today is a bit tougher than it was when he began 40 years ago as a high school teacher and coach. The sense of entitlement is more of an issue, though it allows Mannie the chance to employ one of the many sayings he constantly puts into the players’ minds.
“The only thing you’re entitled to around here is the opportunity to work your tail off and earn the privilege of wearing our green jersey,” Mannie said, reciting one of his favorite mantras.
It’s one of several, including, “Be a man worth following,” and, “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.”
The last one is taken from former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, but Mannie hammers it home on a regular basis, as much for success in life as it is for performance on the football field.
“Most people pull off the road long before the extra mile because the extra mile is too challenging, too difficult, it takes too much dedication, it takes too much commitment,” Mannie said. “We constantly stress it. We want you to compete there, we want you to train there, we want you to live there on the extra mile. Just don’t drive through it. That’s where you should compete, train and live your entire life. That’s what you should base your entire life on — being on the extra mile and you can’t help but be successful.”
It’s been a formula that has worked well for Mannie, regardless of generation. He coaches a different type of player these days, but the underlying goal of preparing young men for life is the same.
Mannie likes to tell the story of seeing a player walking to class talking on one cell phone, texting on another and listening in one ear to his IPod. It’s that technology that can make it tougher getting through to kids, but Mannie chooses to use it to his advantage, once again applying a helpful phrase.
This one is about being willing to put your name on it, and Mannie uses it regularly when talking about social media.
“Before you hit send on your Twitter account, just look at it for a couple of seconds and then really ask, ‘Do I want to put my name on this?’ ” Mannie said, relaying a typical conversation he has with players.
No doubt it’s different than when Mannie first started coaching and it’s certainly different from when he started at Michigan State. But though he’s had chances to leave, he’s always been pulled back by a place he now calls home.
“We didn’t come to Michigan State with the intention of using it as a stepping-stone to somewhere else,” Mannie said of his wife, Marianne, and daughter, Alaina. “We came here with the express purpose of contributing to building something great.
“I get my paycheck for training kids physically and getting them ready to play this great game of football here at Michigan State. But really, deep down in my heart, it goes way beyond that.”
It’s that approach that has made Mannie such a big part of Michigan State. Dantonio has seen it from his friend for more than 30 years.
Said Dantonio: “You talk about people that are truly friends for life, and will go above and beyond — not just for me but for our players and for everybody involved and hold them accountable in other areas of their life, not just football — that’s Ken Mannie.”