A relatively tough job
Some of the most challenging coaching assignments of Jim Mora’s career didn’t take place anywhere near the sidelines during Atlanta Falcons football games. They came when he walked through the front door of his home afterward.
It was then -- particularly after a bitter loss -- that Mora and his wife would counsel their 12-year-old son, Cole, on how to best handle the day-after-defeat barbs he would inevitably encounter the next morning at school.
“If we didn’t do well, we thought about how it was going to affect him,” said Mora, who became Seattle’s assistant head coach after being fired by the Falcons in January. “We had many Sunday night talks after losses about going to school the next day, and how he was going to deal with it if kids teased him.”
So it goes in the NFL, where the coaching jobs pay millions but the toll can be taken on a family.
The first games of the regular season won’t be played until September, but preparations are already revving into high gear for the start of training camps later this month. And, operating under a win-now-or-you’re-fired specter, even now coaches are driven to around-the-clock work hours while increasingly being judged by more than just their win-loss record.
Owners, fans and league representatives want not only winners, but also leaders whose private lives are able to survive public scrutiny.
Sometimes that’s asking a little too much. A few of the league’s most successful coaches recently have endured family situations both tragic and painful. In December 2005, there was the suicide of James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy. Then, in a three-month span last fall and winter, there was the drug arrest of Stephen Belichick, son of the New England Patriots’ three-time Super Bowl-winning Coach Bill Belichick, and, in separate incidents on the same day in January, Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid’s sons Garrett and Britt were arrested on multiple violations.
After each case, the fathers faced questions with a similar undercurrent: Had their seemingly single-minded focus on football adversely affected their children?
Dungy took a week off after his son died, handing his duties to assistant coach Jim Caldwell for a game before returning. Belichick did not take a break from coaching. Reid took off five weeks, skipping the scouting combine in February and contemplating retirement before returning to work after a news conference during which he said his family was “the most important thing” in his life.
As those dramas played out -- to much debate and judgment over the airwaves -- several other coaches throughout the league say they found cause for self-analysis, examining their work habits and priorities.
New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton, who has a 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, said Reid’s situation “made me think about my job as a father, husband and coach. We’re all searching for that balance. I think it’s impacted all of us to a degree as to how we regard our role in the family.”
With salaries and expectations constantly on the rise, the pressure for coaches to pour every available hour into their jobs is intense even though the staff sizes are increasingly large and improved technology allows coaches to do more in less time.
Regardless, it’s not unusual for a coach to sleep in his office during the week on a pull-out couch. Steve Spurrier scoffed at that when he became coach of the Washington Redskins, leaving his workaholic peers feeling vindicated when Spurrier resigned after 7-9 and 5-11 seasons.
“There’s huge pressure to put in the hours, not just from other teams but from within the staff,” said Larry Kennan, who coached for 32 years and is now executive director of the NFL Coaches Assn. “Guys worry, ‘Who’s coming in earlier than me? Who’s leaving later?’ A lot of us have that fear built into us that if I’m not carrying my load, people are going to write me off as a slacker.”
The late George Allen, who coached the Rams when they were in Los Angeles and the Redskins, once said, “I always called the opposing coach at 10 o’clock Wednesday night, and if nobody answered, I knew we would win on Sunday.”
Tampa Bay’s Jon Gruden famously sets his alarm for 3:17 a.m. Nick Saban, the former Miami Dolphins coach, turned down an invitation last year to dine with President Bush because it conflicted with the Dolphins’ practice schedule.
Typically, it’s the coaches’ wives who keep the households together. They’re the ones who move the family from city to city, maintain the finances, befriend the neighbors. Their husbands simply aren’t around.
“The demands we put on our family are extensive,” said Brian Billick, coach of the Baltimore Ravens. “You always ask your family to recognize, ‘No, I don’t love my job more than I love you. But you’re more forgiving. So, naturally, you’re going to get the brunt of it because the job is unforgiving and relentless.’ ”
Then, there’s the unspoken: the ax dangling over the career of every NFL coach, one waiting to fall when the losses pile too high.
Billick recalls the 1997 season, when he was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator, that there were rumors Dennis Green and his staff needed to win their wild-card game against the New York Giants to keep their jobs.
“I was about to put my youngest, who was 8 or 10, to bed on Friday night before I left for New York,” Billick said. “And she looked up and said, ‘Daddy, if we lose to the Giants, do I have to leave my friends?’
“I thought, ‘Geez, just reach up here and rip it out,’ ” he said, grabbing at his chest. “When you get that, it brings it into sharp focus.”
Billick is among the coaches who embrace the concept of time away from football. Each February, he gives each of his assistants a calendar with predetermined days off and they are not allowed in the facility on those days. Also, their wives are informed of those days off.
Additionally, the Ravens eschew the tradition of ordering in for food on Thursday nights, because Billick wants his coaches home for dinner. And he makes Friday a light day, insisting his coaches leave by 3 p.m.
Another exception is Denver Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan, who said he learned the importance of balancing family life with work when he was an assistant in San Francisco. There, as a member of George Seifert’s staff, he discovered it’s possible to be both successful and sane in your work habits.
“I never took more than a week off in my life until I went to San Francisco,” he said. “I went there and they just shut down the building for a month.... No one was allowed to go in. And when they did that and I was away for a month, I thought it was going to be horrible. But it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Mora said he loved growing up as the son of an NFL coach but also said there might be more pressure on families now, in part because of the intensified media scrutiny. He said his move from Atlanta to a lower-profile job in Seattle has been a good thing.
“Now, Cole’s kind of living the life that I lived as a kid,” he said. “Coach [Mike] Holmgren was good enough to let him come to mini-camp and work the practices, be out on the field, work in the equipment room ... be in some meetings with me and be around the team. Those to me were always the greatest moments growing up, and I’m happy that he gets to do it.”
Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs recalls the time in the early 1980s when he brought Coy, his 8-year-old son, to training camp in Carlisle, Pa., then essentially forgot about him for three days. Gibbs realized he had lost track of the boy while passing one of the buildings on the Dickinson College campus.
“I was walking to lunch,” he said, “and all of a sudden I see this kid get thrown off about eight steps and bounce out onto the grass. I looked up and it was Coy. The boys [of General Manager Bobby Beathard] had thrown him off the upstairs.”
Coy was wild-eyed and happy, his mouth ringed with chocolate.
“He hadn’t slept, I’ll bet you, five hours in three days,” his dad recalled. “I looked and went, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I picked him up, took him back to the dorm and said, ‘Get in the shower.’ I showered him up. I think he slept for 25 straight hours.”
Gibbs never told his wife that story, and clearly the incident didn’t sour Coy on the experience of training camp. He later spent three seasons as a Redskins assistant coach under his father.
After last season, Coy left the team to run a motocross team for Joe Gibbs Racing, deciding the life just wasn’t for him. But his dad offered an unquestionably reasonable explanation for the departure:
“He’s got a young family.”