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February 5, 2004 Columns No Comments


The Life of a College Basketball Coach

by Jim Woods

Garden State Parkway: Montvale, NJ Travel Plaza: Burger King, Nathan’s, Dunkin’ Donuts.

Route 91 Exit 21: Middletown, CT: The first Wendy’s you can stop at if you travel the Merritt Parkway to Route 91 to get to Hartford from New York.

Massachusetts Turnpike: Charlton Travel Plaza: McDonald’s, Ben and Jerry’s, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels.

The above list is not an overeater’s dream drive to New England, but rather it is information that nearly every college basketball coach from New York to Maine knows. I’d be willing to bet that 75% percent of coaches in the region have eaten multiple meals at any of those places. That is just a small sample of the fast food/highway/exit list I could recite to you off the top of my head. Don’t you think for a second I needed to use “Google” to get those places. Any of my friends could tell you that these are things that I just know. That list epitomizes the life of a college basketball coach.

In the past few weeks, stories about coaches and their health have dominated the headlines. Just last week stories about the health Rick Majerus and Rick Pitino dominated the college hoops’ headlines. Their cases are well publicized, but they are not alone. There are many guys out there who are headed down the same path if they are not careful. It is not the healthiest lifestyle in the world, but does it have to be this way? The nature of the business right now makes it very difficult to lead a normal life. Every coach needs to watch their health closely, but many times they feel there is too much other stuff that needs to be worried about in their programs to pay attention to it. Let’s examine some of the reasons why coaching is not the healthiest of professions.

Travel

Coaching is a job where you are always on the “go.” Recruiting, games, speaking engagements, meetings, and fund-raisers are just some of the reasons why you are always on the move. These are all things you obviously need to do to run a successful program. It is not out of the ordinary for a coach to be at practice in the early afternoon Monday, drive two hours to watch a recruit, drive home that night, fly out the next morning to see another recruit, fly from there to meet the team in the city where they are playing a road game on Wednesday and then fly back with the team first thing Thursday morning. Or worse, you can take the bus back five hours after the game Wednesday night if you are not coaching at a “high-major.” This is the reality of being an assistant coach. At the same time the head coach may be doing more local recruiting where he is in driving distance of campus because he can not be away from the team. So when you are thinking about all the “glory” that goes along with being a coach, think about that schedule. Is that something you want to do? A little bit easier if you are single, but now have a wife and children and think of the stress that puts on both you and them while you are away. That certainly is not healthy in a whole other way. The travel can easily wear you down and cause a great deal of fatigue. I remember a Big East assistant told me one time that he had to look at the paper at the door of his hotel room because he had no idea what city he was in when he woke up. When it gets to that point you know you are in trouble.

Pressure

Coaching, especially at the Division I level, is a win or else profession. That is the reality of your job. The livelihood of your family is based on the decisions of seventeen year olds to come to your school, and once they decide to come, how are they going to perform as eighteen to twenty one year olds. Sure, every coach thinks they are going to win and they can control the outcomes, but as good as you may be at your job each game has a winner and a loser. Losses are going to add up. You don’t win all the time and you never can be sure that you have won enough. You have a guaranteed contract, but what does that mean? You never know if you are winning enough for the higher ups that call the shots at the university. I bet Larry Hunter thought he was doing a good job at Ohio University when went 19-11 in 2000-2001 and was 204-148 in his twelve year tenure at the school. He had graduated 85% of his players. It wasn’t good enough for his administration and he was fired at the end of that 19-win season. When guys with records like that are getting let go, every coach has to be on their toes. As a result, guys put a great deal of pressure on themselves and their staff to perform and get positive results. Pressure isn’t always a bad thing, and many thrive on it, but after awhile it can wear anybody down.

As an assistant you also feel a great deal of pressure. It is a pressure of a different kind. You are working not only to satisfy a boss, but also try and work your way up the ladder. I often thought the pressure of satisfying the boss was as great as the winning and losing games. You feel such a strong sense of loyalty to this one person because they have given you the chance you have always wanted. The last thing you want to do is let them down and in turn hurt them. When you are an assistant your life is often times dictated by your boss, maybe more so than in any other profession. My boss now in the business world has expectations of me when I am at the office during my assigned hours from Monday through Friday. As a coach I was on call 365 days a year. I could not plan a weekend with my girlfriend (now wife) without first making sure I wasn’t being sent to Kentucky to watch some recruit play. I never knew if we made dinner reservations for eight on a Friday night if I would have to cancel because he decides to call a meeting. I was lucky to work for somebody who was very easy to communicate with and was understanding. I know for a fact though that some guys are not that lucky. I’ve heard too many horror stories.

This intense pressure for all coaches will wear you down. You’ll lose a lot of nights of sleep after you lose a game or a recruit. Sometimes you may lose your appetite, though I for one could never attest to that. Again, these pressures effect your family and they have to live it in a whole other way. It is detrimental to many a relationship. Obviously, none of this is perfect for your health.

Why Do It and How to Deal With It

I hope I haven’t scared people away from ever wanting to coach. Why do these guys do it? It is simply a love for the game and a desire to teach the game to others. There is a passion and energy that is associated with coaching college kids that you don’t get in many other jobs. For all of the negative factors I have listed above, there are still so many positives. There is no feeling like going into a high school kid’s living room and convincing them to come to your school. Especially if they are from a tough background and you have given somebody the chance to be the first person from their family to go to college. Cutting down that net after winning a tournament title is exhilarating. Despite what the Microsoft Office commercials are showing now, corporate people do not cut down the projection screen in the boardroom when they close a big deal. The job can also be financially beneficial beyond your wildest dreams. Every two weeks you collect a nice paycheck and say to yourself, “I get this money to coach basketball.” In the right situation with the right boss (AD or Head Coach), it can be a very fun job. I had no problem with my school or boss, but my decision to stop coaching was strictly a lifestyle one. I felt that I wanted to be able to do more things and enjoy more of a quiet life with family and friends. That outweighed the joy I got from coaching. As the saying goes, “different strokes for different folks.”

Can you stay healthy and do this job? Absolutely. Guys find different ways to stay loose and relaxed. Many play golf, others read, some work out and still play ball. All of those things are necessary to stay healthy. You obviously need to take care of yourself physically and watch what you eat. Everybody should be doing that, but coaches even more so. Because of that stress, pressure and travel you need to stay in good shape to handle it all. I wasn’t very disciplined in that area, as those that have worked with me can attest to. You really have to try and watch the eating habits but I could not. That fast food diet I mentioned at the beginning was quick and easy and in a life where there is little time for anything, those meals come in handy. I had one too many breakfast of Pepsi and Yodels to write about. My boss at UNH thought a healthy meal was Chex Mix and a Strawberry Coolada from Dunkin Donuts. But he offset that with two workouts a day, seven days a week.

People are going to get sick in any profession. At the age most head coaches are at, it is not a surprise that some get sick and have to take time off. I don’t think coaches getting sick should alarm us, but we need to be concerned. I hope guys are taking care of themselves and will see that there is more to life then winning and losing games. Take time to enjoy their families, and take the time to care for themselves.

Notes from “The Sideline”

• I am on Bobby Knight’s side in this latest incident. I myself have wanted to berate somebody on line at the salad bar when they take too many croutons and bacon bits. I didn’t know where a salad bar was when I coached, but I do now.

• The NBA obviously does not care about the negative publicity associated with the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Co-captains for one of the teams in the NBA All Star Celebrity Game will be none other than P Diddy (excuse me, Sean Combs) and Paris Hilton. I heard Paris has a sweet up and under move, but has trouble defending the interior. Okay, that’s enough of that.

• As predicted in this column, Loyola (MD) avoided setting the record for consecutive losses by knocking of Marist last week. Congratulations to Scott Hicks and his ball club.

• Everybody needs to get off John Fox’s back about going for the two-point conversion at 21-16. All year he relied on his defense and kicking to win games. He obviously was confident his defense would hold the Pats to 21 and he would only need a field goal. In big games you play to your strengths and you play aggressive. Now everybody should be on the kicker’s back for booting the ball out of bounds, but he is getting let off easy.

• Michigan State assistant coach Doug Wojik looks to be the logical choice to replace retiring head coach Don DeVoe of Navy. Wojik is a graduate of the school and has a great deal of Division I coaching experience.

• St. Joe’s survived two tests against Temple and Villanova, and now appears to have a strong chance to run the table the rest of the regular season. The toughest remaining game is next week against Dayton at home. If they shoot the ball the way they have been they can compete with anybody. If not, the lack of front court depth for the Hawks could be a factor.

• A tough loss for Florida last night at home against Kentucky, as the Gators let a late lead slip away. Despite slipping a bit in the polls, I still think they will be a team that can go on a nice run in March.

• My midseason awards are as follows:

     Coach of the Year: Mike Montgomery, Stanford
     Runners Up: Rick Stansbury, Mississippi State and Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh

     Player of the Year: Jameer Nelson, St. Joseph's
     Runner Up:  Emeka Okafor, Uconn

• In the spirit of this article on health here are the top five fast food orders: 1) Wendy’s #6 Value Meal, Biggie-sized with a Frosty; 2) A “Big Montana” at Arby’s; 3) A “Double-Double” at In and Out Burger (a treat for any East Coast coach that recruits on the West Coast. Makes the drives between gyms at the Vegas Big Time Tourney bearable; 4) A $1 Double Cheeseburger at McDonald’s; 5) A six pack of powdered donuts at any convenience store in the United States.

     

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