Coaching Resource: The Coaching Grind

David Fleming, ESPN (

Seated in a black leather chair in his spacious office, Brian Billick is deep into a second hour of ruminating on a single topic: the bizarre culture of NFL coaches and the havoc their high-profile, high-pressure jobs can wreak on their families.

After earnest and exhaustive attempts to make sense of it all, Billick walks to the wood book-shelf behind his desk. He grabs the Ravens’ six-inch-thick playbook and drops it onto a marble coffee table, producing a startling thud. “Ridiculous,” he says, pointing a finger at the black binder with colored tabs. “You couldn’t possibly teach all that. But coaches can’t get past the idea that if we work enough hours, if we watch enough film, if we write enough plays, then we must be working hard enough to win.”

Staring down at the morbidly obese playbook, the holy grail for all coaches, Billick looks to have made the breakthrough he’s been chasing. “This profession glorifies the workaholic,” he says. “Fans, owners, they want that coach sleeping in the office. You know, the Jon Gruden I’m-in-at-4-a.m.-every-day bull. But at the same time, those same people are out there going, ‘Well, what kind of father are you that you’re never with your kids?’ So, really, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

“We have more information and more technology, and we spend more and more time at the office,” says Tony Dungy. “But are we coaching better? I’m not sure.”

Not too long ago, zombified coaches who slept in their offices and logged 90-hour weeks were either canonized or excused with a laugh. At last March’s owners meetings in Phoenix, Joe Gibbs joked about how once, during the 1980s, he completely forgot that his 8-year-old son Coy was visiting Redskins camp.

“How do coaches balance their lives?” asks Dick Vermeil, the godfather of all grinders who, at 62, set himself an office curfew … of 1 a.m. “Simple. They don’t. The job requires too much time. It just can’t be done any other way.”

More public incidents followed. Last October, Bill Belichick’s son Stephen,
19, was placed on probation for six months after he was arrested for marijuana possession. In early January, Bill Cowher walked away after 15 years
of coaching the Steelers to spend more time with his family. Then, on Jan. 30, while Andy Reid and his wife were on vacation, two of their sons — Garrett, then 23, and Britt, then 21 — were in separate traffic incidents, Garrett’s involving drugs and Britt’s involving both drugs and guns. Less than two weeks later Reid took a five-week leave of
absence from the Eagles. It’s easy to condemn coaches as wealthy control freaks who can make 300-pound men whimper but can’t handle their own children.

But it’s the profession that’s become sick, not the men. “Some coaches work hard to give off that image of being unrelenting, and young coaches see that and think that’s what they have to do,” says Texans owner Bob McNair. “You deprive yourself of sleep and time with your family and that will eventually take a big toll in productivity
and success.”

Mike Nolan, who has moved his family nine times in the past 22 years, swears he would quit coaching the 49ers tomorrow if his wife asked him to. But in the next breath, he says, “Would I work myself to exhaustion, stay another hour or so to get even a little more chance to win? Heck yeah, I’d do that.” Catching himself, Nolan adds, “That’s what happens: The job, the pressure, it all just creeps up on you. We justify it by the money we make, by the life we provide our families. But we get so wrapped up in what we’re doing, we forget what our families face.”

Even for coaches determined to maintain balance, the number of hours required by the job has become staggering. It doesn’t matter if you’re an assistant trying to become a head coach or a head coach trying not to become an assistant again — the workload is monstrous. From July to January, coaches work without a day off, putting in 12- to 16-hour days at least five times a week. Typically, six or more days pass without quality contact with their families. When their team
is playing on the road, coaches leave their homes Saturday morning, attend a walk-through practice, head straight for the airport and return to town late Sunday evening.

But while their players go home, the coaching staff heads to the office and pulls the first of many all-nighters. They need to cut and grade game film by the time the players arrive for treatment Monday morning.

The rest of the week, coaches struggle to keep up with their jobs so players can do theirs. On Mondays, after reviewing yesterday’s game with players, coaches frantically study the next opponent and prepare for an early meeting Tuesday (players have the day off). That’s when the next game plan is debated and put into motion. Which means the night before is spent culling dozens of plays, formations and personnel, organizing film, writing the plan and scheduling the week’s practices down to the minute.

Wednesday is actually worse. It’s the longest day of the week, as the game plan is refined, communicated, inserted into playbooks and practiced. That night, coaches stay late again, to prepare their lessons for Thursday, when specialty plays like red zone and third-and-long are inserted into the game plan.

“I think coaches overdo it. I don’t believe in the sleep-in-your-office plan or getting two hours of sleep at night or the way some coaches, like Joe Gibbs, work themselves into a frenzy until they’re ready to drop,” says McNair. “If you are efficient and organized there is no reason to stay at the stadium 22 hours a day.”

And yet, most do. It’s only on Thursday evenings, if everything goes smoothly — no injuries, new players, arrests or other fires — that coaches finally get to leave the office in time to see their children before bed. “But there were many times I only went home because of pressure I was feeling from the people there,” says Vermeil. “And my wife would say, ‘Dick, what you have left by the time you get to us isn’t all that pleasant.’ She was right. I’d be sitting there going, ‘Why am I home? I should be working.'”

The tension between the two coaching camps — the grinders and the lifestylers — has ratcheted up steadily over the years within what is an otherwise close, if highly competitive, fraternity. Ask Billick when he gets to work, and he’ll joke that he arrives a half hour earlier than the time Gruden is lying about as the start of his day.

Most coaches look for solutions to their time crunch in the margins of their lives. Many teams, for example, have family dinners on Tuesday at their training facility. Dungy has been bringing his kids to the office — and allowing them to roam the sideline on game day — since his first season in Tampa.

Nolan’s wife, Kathy, drives him to and from work every day so they can have an hour of alone time. And when he was the Vikings head coach, Mike Tice lived seven minutes from the office; his son Nate’s school was so close that he often could leave work to coach the boy’s teams. But even the most empathetic Vikings fans are probably wondering: Why didn’t he spend more time coaching his adults? Now you understand the pressure facing these fathers and husbands.

Thursday night family dinners are sacred to Billick and his wife, Kim. The Billick daughters — Keegan, 18, a high school senior, and Aubree, 23, a merchandiser for Abercrombie & Fitch — save up tales of new boyfriends, school problems and fender benders for that dinner, which could stretch for hours. Yes, Aubree says, her dad missed her first steps and her first words, and watching her open her acceptance letter to college. But Aubree has always considered her family blessed and her father lucky to have found a job he loves so much. “As a child, you see the pain on his face because he can’t be around,” she says. “My dad hurt. Somehow, that keeps things real and makes it okay.”

Young coaches too often advance because of how long they work instead of how well they work. Reid, a masterful
motivator and tactician, earned his stripes as a Green Bay assistant from 1992 to 1998. He was known for arriving at Lambeau at 4:30 a.m., often racing the Pack’s wide receivers coach, Gruden, to see who could get there first.

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