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Inside the Life of a College Football Assistant Coach

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Inside the Life of a College Football Assistant Coach
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Before Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand became one of the hottest coaching commodities in the country, before he starred in his own Reddit AMA and long before he challenged Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury to a “rap throwdown” on Twitter, Hand spent roughly 10 days sleeping on a couch in the Vanderbilt locker room.

At the time, his future was uncertain. After leaving Tulsa for Nashville in August of 2010, James Franklin took over as head coach in December. When Franklin came in, Hand didn’t know if he’d be at Vanderbilt much longer, so the couch served as a temporary apartment when he wasn’t on the road recruiting.

“I’m four months into the job and the entire staff gets let go,” Hand said. “I’ve got a family and a home in Tulsa, and here I was just sleeping in a locker room in Nashville. I wondered what I just did to my career.”

And then the lights turned on. Literally.

Franklin entered the facility around 5 a.m. and found Hand asleep on the couch, which had been described as “nasty” by its former tenant. This pre-sunrise moment served as a turning point in Hand’s career.

“He [James] always has said that this moment showed him how much I wanted to be there,” Hand said regarding the early morning encounter.

This is not the exalted life of an assistant coach you’re accustomed to. The life you know is perk-driven—especially when it comes to the small fortune to be made—along with the prospects of living out a lifelong dream.

Passion and paychecks rarely coexist, although they can here.

But there’s another side, a collection of life events that often go unnoticed. What you don’t hear about are the nights—or even weeks—on the couch, the families pulled away from lives without warning, the rugged roads traveled to this wealth and the real-life implications that come with one of the more unstable jobs you could possibly imagine.

 

Musical Chairs: The Endless Search For Stability 

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It never starts at Penn State or Vanderbilt. And it certainly didn’t for Hand. His college coaching career began at West Virginia Wesleyan in 1991, where he made $200 a month as a graduate assistant. With this “salary,” he also received tuition for his master’s and a meal ticket to the cafeteria. 

His first full-time job came just a few years later with current Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez at Glenville State College.

“I made $7,500 cash my first three years of coaching,” Hand said. “I got paid $21,000 a year at Glenville State and I thought I hit the lottery.”

With this first stable job came the harsh reality of the profession. After Rodriguez took the offensive coordinator position at Tulane in 1997, the entire staff was let go.

“I thought the only way you could really control your destiny as a coach was by winning,” Hand said. “We had won four straight conference championships and we all got let go. That was a real lesson for me.”

After bouncing around at Concord College as a defensive coordinator and Clemson as a graduate assistant, Hand finally landed at West Virginia in 2001. He reunited with his old coach, Rodriguez. And for the first time in his brief coaching career he found the closest thing to solid ground.

“I had been in the profession for 10 years and I made a total of around $100,000.” Hand said. “My wife basically financed my whole career, up until the point I got hired at West Virginia.”

Hand stayed at West Virginia until 2007, when he left to become the co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa. In 2009, he was named the assistant head coach before leaving for Vanderbilt a year later.

Former Commodores head coach Robbie Caldwell was the man that lured Hand away. Caldwell, however, was fired months later, leaving Hand in a delicate (but familiar) spot. That’s where James Franklin and the couch come in.

If Hand’s coaching career seems like an intricate maze, it’s really not, at least not by comparison to his peers. This is the new normal. Track the careers of most head and assistant coaches at major programs and you’ll see a similar path, one with disappointment, joy, moving trucks and frequent flyer miles.

“The 20-year assistant coach at one college is rare nowadays,” Hand said. “That’s just the nature of the profession.”

 

The Family Business

The move to Penn State has been different for Hand. Obviously every move is different—though equally exciting and terrifying—but for Hand, the move to Happy Valley is still a work in progress. It’s not a matter of his commitment to the program or the excitement of starting anew, but rather, the ramifications of yet another change.

More specifically, it’s about family.

“My son is a junior in high school and my daughter is a sophomore,” Hand said. “That’s a tough time to ask your children to up and move. My son only has one shot at being a senior in high school, and we’re working through that. My family might stay in Nashville for a while, and that’s incredibly hard.”

It hasn't stopped the coach from making his wife breakfast in bed from afar.

This is the part of the coaching carousel that is easiest to overlook. It’s also the part that you can most relate to if given the opportunity. You may not know what it’s like to tell a room full of offensive linemen you’re leaving. You likely know the stresses of moving, however, and how difficult such transition can be on your inner circle.

A coach’s family might grow slightly numb to the action—having been through it before—but it’s never easy. It also never really slows down.

“It’s a badge of honor as an assistant coach to say that your kids went to the same high school all four years,” Hand said. “I know just a handful of coaches who have been able to say this.”

The migration from Nashville to Happy Valley is one that stretches far beyond just James Franklin and Herb Hand. Altogether it included roughly 15 staff members—assistants, strength coaches and administrators—who are now working at Penn State, hoping to find the recipe for success in a new location. It’s also larger than that when it comes to the very foundation of the change.

“That’s 15 families—not just people—but families that are up and moving,” Hand said. “If there’s 15 that up and leave, there are 15 that are coming in.”

The word “family” also takes on a different form in the football realm. It’s blood, but it’s more than that. It’s the players you go to battle with—the ones you start recruiting well before they play a down for you—and it’s the world you live in.

You’re not just leaving the players you coached—in Hand’s case, the offensive lines—you’re breaking away from roots that grew strong, seemingly overnight.

“The hardest part about leaving any job I’ve ever left is the relationships,” Hand said. “Not just the relationships you have with your players—they’re like sons—but also the relationships you have with the city that you’re in. I embraced every community that I have lived in.”

Hand wasn’t just a fixture at one of the nation’s hottest football programs during his time in Nashville. He was also on the board of directors for Our Kids, a Tennessee-based organization dealing with child sexual abuse.

His passion for this cause carries with his voice, both with what he’s leaving behind in Nashville and the opportunities ahead. It’s yet another transition that he is adjusting to, one that he cares deeply about. This one—given the timing, location and recent history—carries a bit more meaning as he become a part of a new community and cause.

Hand has already started working with Centre County CAC and the Penns Valley Youth Center. And he's only getting started.

“It feels like this is where I’m supposed to be,” Hand said.

 

“Three Air Mattresses and Some Suitcases”

The Nashville couch has been retired. Herb Hand has worked his way to one of the nation’s most prominent football powers, doing the only profession he has ever known with a coach he is deeply loyal to. He loves his new job, his new city and his “new” staff. Change is slowly becoming the norm.

“I am very happy with how things are at Penn State,” Hand said. “I’ve worked my tail off to get here, so I don’t ever say I’m fortunate. Everybody in this building has a similar story.”

Don’t feel bad for Hand and the thousands of coaches just like him. They don’t want you to. They decided on this path long ago, knowing the rug could be pulled out from under them at any time.

They are compensated handsomely for assuming such risk, and they wear these battle wounds—the stops at various campuses accompanied with different titles—with the utmost pride, like a weightlifter showing you his volcanic hands.

“I guarantee if you talk to the majority of the coaches around the country who are working at this level, they can all tell you stories about struggling as a GA and working their way up through the ranks,” Hand said. “That’s the side people don’t tend to see.”

We don’t see the Pennsylvania house Hand is currently renting near campus, or the handful of coaches who have asked to crash there for a few weeks after being thrown into a similar situation. And we certainly don’t see the furniture in this house, although that’s through no fault of our own.

There isn’t any.

“Three air mattresses and some suitcases,” Hand says with laughter when talking about his home décor.

This is other side of being an assistant coach, the one that is often out of sight. It is a job that can come with unfathomable advantages—if you’re willing and able to take it that far—and the questionable sleeping arrangement every now and then.

 

*Adam Kramer is the lead college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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