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Long hours, stress take toll on coaches

The date was Nov. 8, 1979 — the worst day of Dick Vitale's life.

He had just been fired as coach of the Pistons. He was only 40 years old. He would never coach basketball again.

"I thought it was the worst day,'' Vitale said. "Turns out, it was the best day of my life.''

Almost immediately, he started to sleep again. He could eat again. He didn't wake up in the middle of the night with Lakers and Celtics and Knicks dancing in his head. He didn't worry about running into angry fans at church or the grocery store.

He got his life back.

"If I hadn't been fired that day, I would have stayed in coaching,'' said Vitale, 74, who is about to begin his 35th year as a broadcaster. "And if I stayed in coaching, I know this: I would be dead today.''

Such is the life of a professional coach.

They go to work early and stay late. Sometimes, they don't go home at all, dozing on an office couch for a couple of hours and starting their work day all over again.

"Going into work as a coach is like going into a casino,'' former Chiefs and Jets coach Herm Edwards said. "There's no clock, and you're there all the time.''

They don't eat enough food, and they drink too much coffee. They miss dinners with their wives and bedtime stories with their children. Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays are just work days on the calendar.

Eventually, many find themselves in a doctor's office for ulcers and headaches or in an ambulance because of a heart attack or stroke.

Just this past week, two NFL coaches were befallen by serious incidents.

Broncos coach John Fox, 58, had surgery on an aortic valve, a procedure he had hoped to put off until after the season so he could remain with his team. During a Sunday Night Football game, Texans coach Gary Kubiak, 52, collapsed after suffering a ministroke. Both are recovering, and there is no timetable for their return, although you can bet both already are itching to get back on the sideline.

Who knows if it was the odd schedule, heavy overtime and overwhelming stress that led to their health issues? But the NFL is full of stories of coaches pushing their obsession beyond the limits.

"It's a stressful job,'' NFL Network analyst and former general manager Charley Casserly said. "Coaches have taken it from different angles.''

Some of the greatest NFL coaches ever — Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Tom Landry — kept reasonable hours, making sure they were home to have dinner with their families.

Former Bucs coach Tony Dungy was an assistant under Noll and took his cue from the Steelers coach, forcing his staff to clear the office by supper time. However, when Dungy was an assistant for Marty Schottenheimer in Kansas City, he was stunned to find out he was expected to stay well past midnight. On Dan Patrick's radio show, Dungy joked that his wife thought he was having an affair because he was getting home so late.

Dick Vermeil, Joe Gibbs and John Madden were known as workaholics. Look how they turned out.

Vermeil took a 15-year break in the middle of his career because he was "burned out.'' Gibbs, too, had to walk away for 12 years because of health problems and a desire to spend more time with his family. And Madden retired for good at age 42 after just 10 seasons as a head coach. He quit partly because of painful ulcers and stress despite the fact he never had a losing season.

In these parts, the most famous case of crazy hours belongs to former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who still sets his alarm each day at 3:17 a.m. so he can begin working by 3:45 — a habit first formed while he was a head coach.

By and large, today's NFL coaches believe in quantity as much as quality when it comes to working hours. You arrive early and leave late.

"You're talking about 100 hours a week, probably,'' Edwards, now an ESPN analyst, said. "There's just so much to be done.''

Recently, Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan made a crack, inviting fans who had any advice to show up at 5:20 in the morning and stay until 11 at night. What he wasn't joking about was the hours. That really is his typical work day.

Edwards said he used to arrive at work at 4:15 a.m., exercise for an hour, then get in some work before his assistants arrived a little after 6. When did he leave?

"When the work was done,'' Edwards said.

Casserly thinks the league should have seminars warning coaches about the dangers of working too much. He points out the big difference between now and 30 years ago is there no longer is a true offseason. Free agency, the draft and offseason workouts have turned NFL coaching into a year-round job with little time off. Edwards half-joked the only vacation days are Saturday nights.

"Liken to this: When you have a problem to solve or a test to study for,'' Casserly said, "some people take longer than others to arrive at the answer.''

These days, NFL coaches need to look at Fox and Kubiak and realize the test isn't about winning on Sunday, but being alive on Monday.

Long hours, stress take toll on coaches 11/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 10:11pm]
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