Married to the game: A look at the lives of wives of college coaches
Karen Seumalo wouldn't change her mind, so the Corvallis, Ore., fire chief relented.
“We don’t need to call him,” Seumalo insisted, shooing away the idea of phoning her husband, Oregon State defensive line coach Joe Seumalo.
It was September 2012 and minutes earlier Karen had grabbed her 2-year-old son, Levi, and sprinted out of the house, where a small grease fire had escalated and engulfed the Seumalos’ kitchen in flames. With the kitchen destroyed and smoke damage creeping in other rooms, the Seumalos wouldn’t sleep at home for weeks.
In many families, this would call for all hands on deck. But for a coach’s wife, handling an emergency alone is business as usual.
“I told the guys who were there, ‘My husband is in the middle of an important meeting planning for a big game at Arizona,’” Karen recalled. “It’s not like I expected him to drop everything. There’s nothing he could have done at that point anyway.”
When she did call Joe, assuring him the family was safe and informing him that they’d be sleeping in a hotel for a while, the nine-year Beavers assistant asked a question the only way he knew how: In coachspeak. “So, what’s the gameplan?”
Big-time college football officially kicks off this week, a return to the chaos that coaches, players and fans look forward to every fall. It also marks the time of year when football wives across the country kiss their husbands goodbye and jokingly say they’ll see them in six months. Being the wife of a coach can come with perks: Big jobs, big money and big bowl trips, often to warm-weather destinations. It also can include a lot of solo parenting, some lonely nights and a few hilarious stories of what happens when a husband returns home.
“You’ve gotta have a wife and mother that’s supportive,” Joe Seumalo said. “Her day can go haywire, and she always figures it out. We [coaches] talk about it sometimes, how hard their days are, and how appreciative we are.”
Wives are the ultimate team moms, doling out phone numbers to worried parents and hugs to homesick freshmen. They run the household, coordinate activities and, in the early years of a coach’s career, often pay the bills. Along the way, they form a special sorority that only other football wives can truly understand.
“I heard someone say once you’re either a coach’s wife or an ex-wife,” Karen Seumalo laughed. “You’re either independent and strong willed coming into the marriage, where you just roll with things on your own, or you can’t handle it.”
This arrangement, Shelley Meyer said, isn’t for everyone.
When Shelley and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer started dating 30 years ago, she didn’t know exactly what to expect. As Urban disappeared to the office for 14- and 15-hours days -- then as a grad assistant for the Buckeyes -- she caught on.
“It’s not a conventional marriage, for sure,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
Building a life with a coach means adjusting for major situations -- like childbirth, for instance. Nicki Meyer, Shelley and Urban’s oldest, arrived right on her due date, a Thursday in 1990. Forty-eight hours later, she attended her first college football game, where three elderly women scolded Shelley for having the audacity to bring a newborn into a germ-fest.
In 1998, Nate Meyer was due late in the week that Notre Dame was scheduled to play at USC. Urban was a Fighting Irish assistant at the time, and missing the birth of his son wasn’t an option. Shelley persuaded her doctor to induce labor -- much less common 16 years ago than it is now -- and when she was ready to push, Urban met her at the hospital.
“Thirty minutes after Nate was born, he went back to the office -- and that was just fine with me!” Shelley laughed.
Coaches wives trade stories about husbands with phones pressed to their ear in the delivery room, on vacations and during parent-teacher conferences. While juggling responsibilities as a husband and father, they’ll be sweet-talking a big recruit.
“It’s hilarious, some of the things that coaches will go through for the sake of a game, a recruit, a team,” Shelley said. “But we’re all on board, including our kids.”
Pregnant with her first child and nauseous from morning sickness, Carol Stoops hammered a “For Sale by Owner” sign into her front yard in Manhattan, Kan. It was 1996, and her husband, Bob Stoops, had just left his position as a Kansas State assistant to become Florida's defensive coordinator under coach Steve Spurrier.
“Why hire a realtor?” Carol said, looking back. “You have to be independent in this role, and that was just my independent streak coming out.”
When coaches leave for another job, it’s the often the wives who are left to pack up, paint and sell the house. That Carol would decide to do that last item without the help of a professional comes as no surprise.
Lest anyone get the impression that being married to a coach is some sort of hark back to the 1950s, when many women played the role of doting housewife, keep Carol Stoops in mind. As a national director for Mary Kay cosmetics, she has found a way to run the ship at home -- Carol and Bob have three teenagers -- and create a life outside of football.
“I didn’t want to have any regrets about giving up this or that, and I knew I needed my own identity in my little corner of the world,” Carol said. “It’s easy to get sucked into the coaching world, or even lose your identity as a mom. This was an amazing company because allowed me to do as much or as little as I want, succeed at every level and still keep my life in balance.”
At the Dallas Omni Hotel during Big 12 media days in July, reporters swirled around Bob to ask whether Oklahoma -- where he is entering his 16th season as head coach -- had the pieces to contend for a national title. Carol, there to attend a Mary Kay convention, might have been the busiest member of the family that day. She posed for pictures with Bob, exchanged hugs with players and then dashed off to speak at a workshop as her husband leisurely chatted.
“She earned her first [free] car before I did -- and they pay the insurance,” Bob said. “Absolutely, I admire her. Not many people outside our world understand our schedules; how it’s seven days a week, how we still have to work late at night after a long trip. It takes a special woman to fit in and enjoy it.”
Carol, Bob gushes, is popular with recruits’ mom and other wives. She naturally strikes up conversation with strangers and makes them feel at home. As for who is the best salesperson in their house, it’s not even a contest: Carol can sell any product, he says, from Mary Kay eyeliner to Oklahoma football.
After 32 years of marriage, there’s not much Mike Leach can say that catches his wife off guard. There is still plenty that can make her laugh, though.
Considered by many to be the most interesting man in college football, Mike hadn’t decided if he wanted to be a coach or a lawyer when he met Sharon while they were students at BYU. Regardless of profession, Sharon believed Mike was destined to succeed, attracted to his drive and ambition. However, she said, “I'm probably not the only coach’s wife to know coaches should stick to what they do best, and that's coaching.”
Years ago, one of the Leach children complained to her mom about slow water flow from the upstairs bathtub. Sharon assured her daughter that a plumber would swing by to fix it the following week. But before he arrived, Mike decided he could figure it out on his own.
Soon enough, water began pouring from the bathroom floor into the Leaches’ kitchen, resulting in severe water damage. Mike had forgotten to turn off the water before deciding to play Mr. Fix-It. Because no one in the family knew where the water shut-off was, most of the kitchen floor, along with some of the living room carpet, had to be replaced. Now, when she moves into a new home, finding the water shut-off is one of the first things Sharon does.
Coaches’ wives play many roles, including plumber, nurse and, occasionally, chief counselor. Mike says Sharon has served as his “kind of filter” on two of the books he has written, Swing Your Sword, which chronicles his path into coaching, and Geronimo, an examination of leadership skills displayed by the former Apache leader. Sharon calls December 2009, when Mike was controversially fired from Texas Tech, "one of the most difficult times for our family.” It was reminder, Sharon says, that job security is as big an issue in coaching as in any other profession.
As young coaches chase the football dream, it’s often wives who carry the financial load. After Mike attended Pepperdine School of Law and decided he would rather coach, the Leaches were in significant debt. While he climbed the coaching ladder, Sharon worked full-time for almost 14 years as an administrative assistant and legal secretary. It wasn’t until 1996, when Mike got his first Division I job as the offensive coordinator at Kentucky, that she quit to care for their children. Mike is now the head coach at Washington State, and the Leaches welcomed their first grandchild this summer.
“I don't think many people understand just how many hours are spent coaching and recruiting a college football team,” Sharon said. “Long ago I realized that Mike's job was coaching, and my job was everything else. I was OK with that. I loved college football as much as he loved coaching it. We're a good team.”
Hiring, firing and retirement all come with the territory -- sometimes sooner than anticipated. Following the 2010 season, after a six-year run that included two BCS national championships, Urban Meyer stepped down at Florida, admitting publicly that the job was taking its toll on his health.
Shelley felt relief that Urban was making a choice to put his health and family first. But she also wondered what he would do with so much time on his hands.
“This man can barely sit still on vacation,” she said. “The very first day that he’s not coaching, he sleeps in till 7:30 or 8. He had never done that. Then he comes downstairs, and I’m already up and dressed, and he goes, ‘OK, what are we going to do today?’
“I told him, ‘Well my life is gonna stay the same: I’ve gotta carpool and volunteer in the kids’ class and go to lunch with some friends.’”
Crestfallen, Urban told her in a hopeful voice that he thought they would hang out together all day. “Absolutely hilarious,” Shelley said.
After a two-year break, Meyer returned to coaching at Ohio State, where his Buckeyes went 24-2 over the last two seasons. Last week, when quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Braxton Miller suffered what turned out to be a season-ending shoulder injury, Urban called Shelly as he walked off the practice field.
“We talk a lot, but I could tell right away that this call was different,” she said. “In that situation, I don’t call, I don’t ask questions, I just try to console and listen.”
Injuries are part of life, coaches say. Perspective from an outsider -- or as much of an outsider as a wife can be -- can help.
“This is a huge business, yes, and we have to win but it isn’t cancer or suicide or soldiers coming back from war without a leg -- there are so many more important, bigger things,” Shelley said. “He gets that. We get that. And he’s handled this better than he ever would have before.”
Of course, there are benefits that come with being a coach’s wife, too.
Kids get access to some of the best athletic facilities in the country, which can pay off down the road; the Meyers’ middle child, GiGi, is a senior volleyball player at Florida Gulf Coast. Isaac (Oregon State football) and Jessi Seumalo (College of Southern Idaho volleyball) are both collegiate athletes as well.
Built-in playmates for the children come with every new job, and wives find an instant support group with other women who understand their lifestyle. There is always someone who can suggest a good dentist, or offer a ride home from the mechanic. For wives like Paqui Kelly, who is married to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and runs the Kelly Cares Foundation, it provides a platform to bring awareness to causes she’s passionate about.
And it comes with tickets to one of the biggest games in town.
Shelley can be picky about who sits next to her during Ohio State games. She gives fair warning that there will be minimal chatting, and plenty of screaming at the referees. “There’s a reason I can’t sit in the box,” she said. “The atmosphere in a stadium is awesome and unbelievable and, yes, I yell. I have to. It’s cathartic. And I believe I am heard, that the players can feel my encouragement.”
The three-plus hours she sits in a stadium during the season are some of the most nerve-wracking of the year. She gets so stressed that she’ll often ask people to switch seats, hoping that a change in energy leads to a change in play.
“You know,” Shelley mused, “if it weren’t for the darn games, this job would be great.”