"does everything (besides rpms) usually install in a ./configure, make, make check, make install chain of commands, or am i going about things the hard way?"
Usually they do. When the developer does not conform to the standard pattern that is often a sign of a shoddy job and a difficult install.
If you want to make a tarball into a rpm then you could use checkinstall. After you install checkinstall then the install sequence becomes:
and then install the resulting rpm package.
"how do you set permissions for each user? i'm about tired of having to log into root every time i want to install something."
An easier way is:
As user start a terminal. Use the su command to temporarily become root. Use rpm (or checkinstall) to do the install and then exit out of root and out of the terminal.
"mandrake detected my scrollmouse fine on install and still does now, but doesn't detect the wheel scrolling up and down. it detects me pushing it in though."
Mandrake has a utility to configure the mouse. I do not know its name. Maybe some Mandrake user knows the name or you might find it on the Mandrake web site.