The ache to be a head coach began early in life for Lance Neal. He was a senior at Irvine High School, playing for Coach Terry Henigan.
“I watched him every day,” Neal said. “I watched the relationships he developed with his players. I saw how he cared. The person I am is because of him. I wanted to pass that along. I knew I wanted to be a head coach.”
The pain of being a head coach began shortly after Neal became one. He accepted the Cypress job in late April after four years as an assistant at Irvine. By mid-June, he had quit and was back at Irvine.
“The six weeks or so I was there the stress just grew,” Neal said. “The administrative duties you have as a head coach just takes away the time you can spend with your kids. It takes away from the time you can spend with your family. They were suffering from lack of attention. I knew I didn’t want to be a head coach.”
In the past, being an assistant coach was like being the sorcerer’s apprentice. You watched, learned and hoped that some day you could make your own magic. But those same assistant jobs are starting to look pretty appealing as a permanent assignment.
More and more former head coaches have returned to their roots as assistants. Their reasons for not wanting to be the top guy vary, but generally they have one answer for why they enjoy being an assistant.
“I don’t know one head coach who just coaches,” said Garden Grove assistant Art Michalik, who has been a head coach at Pacifica and Los Amigos. “I got into coaching to work with kids. I’m getting to do that again.”
Mark McMahon has been an assistant at Villa Park for the last three seasons. He was an assistant at El Modena two seasons before that.
Those five years have done little to erase the memory of his final season as head coach at Orange.
McMahon had success at Orange. In 1986, he guided the Panthers to the Pacific Coast League co-championship and their first playoff berth since 1972. Two years later, he was sick of the job.
“We had four assistant coaches and I lost two of them just before the season began,” McMahon said. “One got a job with the San Francisco Giants. The other was an insurance salesman and was told by his boss that he was spending too much time coaching football. I couldn’t blame them. They were both walk-ons and we were paying peanuts. But on the night of our first game, I found myself with only two assistant coaches. I vowed then that I would never be a head coach again.”
McMahon has kept that promise. He helps organize Villa Park practices. He breaks down game film. He works with the team’s quarterbacks. During games, he is the offensive coordinator.
In short, he provides Spartan Coach Pat Mahoney with something that was lacking at Orange. A stable assistant on staff. A guy to count on.
“At least I know that Pat will have at least one person to take some of the load off his shoulders,” McMahon said.
The value of that is immeasurable, according to head coaches.
Michalik has 30 years of coaching experience. He was the head coach at Pacifica for eight seasons and at Los Amigos for seven.
He now coaches the offensive and defensive lines at Garden Grove. He also is a father confessor for Coach Jeff Buenafe.
“The benefits of having a guy like Art around go way beyond X’s and O’s,” Buenafe said. “He’s always there to give me insight about on dealing with parents or the administration or the district. He’s dealt with all that before.”
The duties of a head coach have increased multifold in the last decade. The off-the-field activities have ballooned. Time has always been a factor in coaching. There’s always been too little of it. But it has steadily decreased in recent years.
Keeping tabs on players in the classroom, glad-handing with parents at booster club meetings and the ever-present need to raise money involve hours that used to be spent coaching. To get back to that purer form, coaches have given up their programs and become subordinates.
“I never lost the feeling for being a coach,” Michalik said. “But the budget started getting involved and you had to worry about where the money was coming from. I don’t have time to be a fund-raiser.”
Michalik has time for a lot of things now. During the summer, he will even ride his bicycle from his home in Corona to Garden Grove for practice, something that would have cut into the time allotted for paperwork as a head coach.
“I don’t have to be concerned about anything except how well the line plays,” he said. “The rest of my time is for my family.”
Which is another common reason for stepping down.
“Basically, being a head coach means extra duty,” said Los Amigos assistant Roger Takahashi, a former head coach at La Quinta. “On Tuesday nights, I’m home with my family. Before, I would be at a booster club meeting. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the parents, but you teach all day, then coach in the afternoon and do a two-hour booster club meeting at night. That’s a lot of time away from your family.”
Bob Johnson thought so, too. He made El Toro into a major power during his 12 years as coach. He had a record of 119-45 and won three Southern Section titles. Yet, after the 1990 season he resigned.
At the time, Johnson had two sons playing college football; Bret was at Michigan State and Rob was at USC. He wanted to be able to watch both play, so his coaching career was placed on hold.
When Bret graduated last spring, it left his father with some extra time. So it was back to coaching, as an assistant at Mission Viejo.
“It gives me the opportunity to coach and I still have time to go see Rob play,” Johnson said. “When I was a head coach, I never really looked at the off-the-field stuff as a burden. I just kept working. I enjoyed them at the time, but I enjoy not having to do them now.”
And those who benefit are the players.
“Who wouldn’t want Bob Johnson running their offense?” said Mission Viejo Coach Marty Spalding, a long-time friend of Johnson’s. “You have a guy like him coaching and the players seem to play better.”
Spalding is fortunate to have two former head coaches on staff; Bill Denny, who was a high school head coach in Pennsylvania, also is an assistant for the Diablos.
“They can teach me in some respects,” Spalding said. “I’ve already learned a great deal from Bill. He works a lot with computers and watching him assimilate the information is pretty amazing. Having former head coaches like Bob and Bill allows me to get quality input.”
Said Saddleback College assistant Bill Cunerty: “A good assistant can take stress off a head coach. At the same time, you’re just an assistant. You have a singular responsibility. I think people see being a head coach as being glamorous. Anyone who’s been one knows that’s not true.”
Cunerty went through the glamour stage himself. He built Capistrano Valley’s program in the late 1970s, then was hired at Saddleback.
“The community college level is the best of both worlds,” Cunerty said. “You get to do what you enjoy most, which is work with the kids. You’re also still at a level where the players listen to you. When you get to higher levels, you’re not as much a teacher as a caretaker. The community college level, to me, is a gold mine for a coach.”
Others have followed the community college route, but there are a limited number of those jobs. Many coaches find their way back to the high school practice field.
“The bottom line is I love coaching,” McMahon said. “I love to go over the films. I love to make practice plans. I love working with the kids. I love the camaraderie of other coaches. I don’t want to be the one worrying whether the scoreboard will be working on game night.”
In other words, he can satisfy the ache, without the pain.