NFL Coaches: 'You Have to Be Certifiable to Do What We Do'

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NFL Coaches: 'You Have to Be Certifiable to Do What We Do'
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The NFL coaching profession has always been…different. 

It is a profession where extremes co-exist in an unnatural balance. Coaches are proud of their blue-collar work ethic, but one league official estimated the divorce rate for coaches to be at 60 to 70 percent. They are happy in their jobs, but the hours wreak havoc on their health. The former head of the NFL Coaches Association, Larry Kennan, once called health issues "a plague on our profession."

The belief among some head coaches is that they are rewarded handsomely, but the stress and health issues kill them earlier—even earlier than the players they coach. But they don't care. They push through.

Sometimes, the wives leave. They push through. They miss the kids' soccer games and graduations. Sorry, my bad. Got a game coming. They push through. Pain in the chest? It'll go away. Go to the doc right after practice.

Push through.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"You have to be certifiable to do what we do," Giants coach Jim Fassel once told me.

Before Jon Gruden had a cushy network job, he was a coach, and when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, some players called him "311" because he arose at 3:11 a.m. He always wanted to beat everyone into the office. Not just people on the Bucs, but all coaches around the NFL.

Gruden's wife, Cindy, told me something years ago that epitomized what it was like being married to an NFL coach. It remains relevant today. Even more so.

"We just don't see each other a lot, but you sort of get used to it," she said. "I knew that getting into the whole thing. Since we moved to Tampa, I've done a lot of wallpapering and painting."

She laughed and added, "I'm not real needy. That's what it takes to be married to Jon. So I think he married me because I bothered him the least. I've met a lot of coaching wives, and they are the same way. They are extremely independent. You have to be, because you spend a lot of time without your husband.

"One of the players' wives told me once, 'I don't make many friends, because I don't know when we're going to move.' I guess the same could be said for the wife of an NFL head coach."

None of this is said to engender sympathy. While many lower-level coaches earn a pittance, NFL head coaches earn millions and have guaranteed contracts.

This is all stated to show how coaches think. Almost nothing comes before football, because football requires all or nothing.

We don't know if the coaching lifestyle led to Houston coach Gary Kubiak collapsing on the field during a game or Denver coach John Fox needing his heart surgically repaired. We don't know for certain, but in conversations with several assistant coaches on Monday, this was the general consensus: "Either of those guys could easily be me."

No one knows, but the aftermath has caused coaches to pause—even if it's for a few seconds—to think about the coaching lifestyle and how it simultaneously rewards and erodes.

"Seeing [Kubiak] lying there, it scares you," said one assistant. "It makes you wonder if it's worth it."

"But then, after I thought about it," the assistant explained, "I moved on. That's what you have to do."

The coaching profession has always been brutal, but it's far worse now. Coaches do make more money—eight make at least $6 million per season, according to Forbes. That's a great deal of cash. They get health benefits, a great work environment and, if they win, adulation and near worship.

Yet the scrutiny is draining. Social media has added a level of stress that Vince Lombardi never had to deal with. Coaches are second-guessed and mocked on the Internet with such regularity that the stress is greatly amplified.

"Studies demonstrate heart disease is one of the consequences of work stress," said Dr. Ben Wedro, an emergency room physician who writes frequently on sports medicine issues. "Job strain or demand-control model talks about the relationship between how much work needs to be done and how much control one has over the work environment. There is a direct relationship between high work demand and heart attack risk.

"The picture of a coach sleeping in his office is the epitome of too much work and not having the ability to say when enough is enough. The effort-reward imbalance model says that the amount of reward, like salary, fame or personal satisfaction, needs to meet the workload. Those with an imbalance have up as twice as much risk to develop angina and heart attack.

"The job of head coach allows complete control and none at all. It’s controlling personnel, game plan, practice schedules and game-day routines but knowing that players, their agents, general managers and owners are constantly looking over your shoulder. It’s also knowing that assistant coaches and coordinators covet your job, just like you coveted your predecessor's.

"Success is not always measured in wins and losses, but sometimes by how much more was accomplished with the personnel provided. The stress is ever present and job security, or lack thereof, may be only one ACL tear away."

Mike Powell/Getty Images

Coaches like Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs were prime examples of coaching burnout. Gibbs was so obsessive that he had all clocks removed from rooms where the game plans were formulated. No time-keeping pieces were allowed. Coaches worked through the night and knew when it was six in the morning because that's when the Concorde landed at nearby Dulles Airport.

I've written about these issues before in books and stories, but now it's worse because the stakes are bigger. Mo' money equals mo' problems.

What assistants tell me now is something that hasn't changed. Football causes you to put your life on hold. It causes you to pause things in your marriage and relationships with your children. While a coach focuses on football, his health worsens. He'll ignore health issues until he no longer can.

He pushes through.

Until life pushes back.

 

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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