Why is bachelorhood so uncommon among college football head coaches?

Publish date:

Months before his intemperate behavior at the "Salute to Troy" event on Aug. 22—when he slurred his way though a series of embarrassing and profane comments in front of his program's boosters—Steve Sarkisian had already distinguished himself this off-season. In April, reports surfaced that the USC head football coach and his wife of 18 years were filing for divorce, making Sarkisian … a bachelor.

In society at large, there would be nothing remarkable about this status change. In fact, per the Bureau of Labor statistics, for the first time in American history unmarried adults now outnumber their married counterparts. And the dissolution of a marriage is, of course, hardly uncommon. While the divorce rate is in slight decline since the 1980s, nearly 30% of all marriages in America still don't survive the first 15 years.

But just as they do the comfort of cotton pants, big-time college football coaches have thoroughly resisted these trends. Among the head coaches in the five power conferences, 61 of the 64 are currently listed as married, a conversion rate of more than 95%. (The bachelors: Sarkisian, Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury and West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen. In June, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and his wife announced their separation.) Add in the coaches of bowl-eligible independent programs such as Notre Dame, BYU and the service academies, and the married coach rate climbs even further.

It's an astonishing statistical outlier. But all the more so, considering the nature of the job. Tick off the conventional triggers for divorce—stress, an occupation with brutal hours and uncertainty, the possibility of relocation—and you have pretty much described the underside of coaching college football. One year you're in Baton Rouge, the next you're in Bloomington. Even with access to a university private plane written into their contract, coaches can spend 100 nights a year away from home. Anything less than an 8-4 season, and job security is often nonexistent.

Why, in this demanding line of work, is bachelorhood so uncommon? Explanations are all over the field. One former coach (married) suggests that couples tend to marry early, often when a future head coach is but a lowly graduate assistant, and the rhythms and rigors of the football life quickly become the only life they know. "It's not like I was ever home for dinner more than few nights a week," he says. "You get used to it." Oliver Luck, an NCAA executive and the former athletic director at West Virginia, offers a variation: "It would be really hard to go out recruiting, have kids at home and not have an understanding spouse."

After pausing to consider other explanations, Luck brings up the appearance of a leader. "A head coach, it's a leadership position and it's a social position. You press the flesh and shake the trees and slap the backs. I could see how—even subconsciously—you would have this traditional picture of someone who is married."

Luck—who, ironically, was one of the few ADs to hire an unmarried coach in Holgorsen—might be on to something. The marriage rate among coaches mirrors the rate among U.S. presidents. Of the 43 men to inhabit the Oval Office, only two were elected as bachelors. (James Buchanan's niece served as First Lady; Grover Cleveland married while in office.) Not only is the marriage rate among Fortune 500 CEOs disproportionately high, but a 2013 research paper authored by two Wharton School professors makes the case it can predict performance. Nikolai Roussanov and Pavel Savor found that companies run by unmarried CEOs "exhibit higher stock return volatility, pursue more aggressive investment policies and do not respond to changes in idiosyncratic risk."

There's little doubt that we have expectations of what leaders are supposed to look like. For politicians, this inevitably includes being married—a notion Lindsey Graham's current presidential campaign wrestles with, much as the fictitious Rep. Jackie Sharp does in weighing her House of Cards aspirations.

And we also certainly stereotype based on marital status. According to psychologists Bella DePaulo and Wendy Morris, married people are thought of as happy, stable, caring and loyal—a nice image to paint in the family room of the blue-chip recruit. Descriptors more often used to depict singles? Lonely, insecure and inflexible. (Also fun and sociable, though these may not be the most helpful tropes for Sarkisian's new perception problem.)

Regardless, the next time you hear a college football coach claim that he's married to his job, he may not be lying. But, odds are good, this makes him a practicing bigamist.

Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers are authors of This is Your Brain on Sports, which will be published in February 2016 by Random House. They also host a podcast, which you can subscribe to here.