Seth Emerson, Dawg Nation (https://www.dawgnation.com/football/team-news/trail-of-tears-family-and-the-football-coaching-life)
ATHENS – Every year, Mike Ekeler asks himself the same question: Should I do this again? The long hours away from his wife. The moments he misses with his four children. The guilt.
Each year, the answer has ended up being yes. Ambition, love of football and yes, the paycheck, always win out. But the price is high.
“I’m missing volleyball games, I’m missing soccer games, I’m missing all kinds of stuff. And sometimes I feel like I’m missing my kid’s life,” said Ekeler, 43, whose career as a football coach has taken him to eight different places over the past 16 years. He’s entering his second year as Georgia’s inside linebackers coach, which pays him $275,000 a year, but is also an every-day, up-to-60 hours a week job.
“Each year I’ve got an anxiety going into the year, and it’s got nothing to do with the game. I love the competition, I love the scheming, I love that aspect of it. But each year my wife always gives me a hard time because I get a little bit aggravating, I guess she says, because right before we start I’ve got anxiety. I miss my family.”
It’s a common frustration in the coaching profession. None of those interviewed for this story asked the public to feel sorry for them. They realize the money, notoriety and ability to stay in the game they love outweighs the pressure and time constraints.
But being a college football assistant coach isn’t just going to practices and games and doing some recruiting. Especially not in this day and age, when a smart phone means constant access to recruits, and information. It leads to a mentality that if you’re not working then you’re falling behind.
It can be hazardous to a family, and this time of year – with the preseason practices leading up to the season – is the worst. But the rest of the year is increasingly filled as well, thanks to recruiting.
Georgia coach Mark Richt has a term for the toll it can take: The trail of tears.
“You can go chase a dream, but then sometimes you look back and there’s a trail of tears behind you. And the tears are usually your wife and your kids,” Richt said. “I didn’t want that in my life, and I think there’s a lot of coaches that didn’t want that in their life as well.”
The hours have always been long in this profession, but they’re longer now, Richt thinks.
“We out-scheme each other. When somebody finds an answer then somebody else has gotta find another answer,” Richt said. “If you just said: Hey everybody’s gotta play base defense and everybody can only play base offense and then let’s go home after practice. But that’s just not the way it is.”
Technology is also partly to blame. You’re always connected, and feel pressure to keep it that way. So when the phone rings, you usually answer it.
“I’m not saying this so anybody feels sorry for me,” said Lilly, who has a reputation as a strong recruiter, and whose tight ends are usually among the deepest and best units on the team. “It’s what we’ve chosen in this profession that goes along with the territory. There’s a lot of people that would like to be in our positions.”
“But you might be sitting there reading a story to your kids and your phone rings, and it’s the top player you’re recruiting. Well, you know what, you feel obligated. I gotta answer this. And we’ve all been there.There’s a point where it breaks your heart a little bit. You know at times it breaks your kid’s heart.”
“We make sure that there’s an atmosphere for family in our program. And I grew up with that with coach (Bobby) Bowden,” said Richt, who spent a decade at Florida State. “I just inherited that by being fortunate enough to coach with that man. And I liked enough of the things that he did to the point where I want to make sure that we’re going to do the same thing. For my family and the rest of the coaches’ families.”
“I could walk out this door again and never coach again; I wouldn’t bat an eye,” Ekeler said. “I wouldn’t think twice. I love what I do, but it’s not who I am. I’m a father, I’m a husband, that’s No. 1, ultimately. This game will be here long after I’m gone, and I’m fine with or without it.”
When Brown entered the coaching business four years ago he sat down with his wife and warned her: This is a different profession. She understood.
Brown’s boys started playing flag football, and Brown knows he won’t be able to see their practices. They coincide with Georgia’s practices. He did go with them to boxing practice three days a week over the summer. And he cherishes those FaceTime chats.
Growing up, Brown was very close to his own parents, so he vowed to be close with his boys, too. Coaching is a grind, but he would remain a good father. As Brown put it:
“It’s my most important job.”