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College football head coach: the most dangerous job in sports

Andy Talley led Villanova to an FCS title this past season, but his tips had nothing to do with coverages or hot routes. Talley, the Wildcats' coach for the past 25 years, saw in Alabama's Nick Saban a bit of his old self, so Talley told Saban a tale of a coach so obsessed with winning that he took everything else for granted. Until one excruciating day in 2002.

For Talley, then 58, the pain began under his sternum. He'd never felt anything like it, like something trying to gnaw its way out. Football coaches aren't supposed to show weakness, so Talley rode out the stabbing in his chest for a few hours. Finally, he told his wife they should go to the hospital.

The triage nurse didn't hesitate. As soon as the magic words -- chest pain -- passed Talley's lips, the doors opened. Before long, Talley lay on his back. A cardiologist hovered over him.

"You're having a heart attack, and you have a blood clot," Talley remembers the cardiologist saying. "This is very serious."

Despite the pain from his failing heart, Talley remembers precisely the thoughts that raced through his mind. "I'm really not interested in one more offensive play," he said. "I'm really not thinking about whether we're playing man or two-deep zone. I wasn't interested in one more hour in the office. What I was interested in at that point in time was my kids, my wife, my family, if I would ever see them again -- and where I was going to go if I died."

Saban, 58, said he left the luncheon with a little more perspective. But Talley knows Saban isn't the only grinder who might be working himself into an early grave in a job that grows more demanding with each passing year. Talley wants all the hard-driving coaches to hear his message so they won't need a near-death experience to understand there is more to life than the next play or the next recruit.

Most Division I head coaches reached this level because they're Type-A workaholics, but the ever-increasing demands on them have forced some to push themselves so hard that their health suffers. With 100-plus-hour workweeks, a recruiting cycle that covers the entire calendar and more media scrutiny than ever, college football head coach has become the most stressful job in sports. It also might be the most dangerous.

The grind isn't limited to the gridiron. Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun, 67, announced Tuesday that he would take a leave of absence to resolve an undisclosed medical condition. In 2007, Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser died of a heart attack at 56 shortly after returning from a recruiting trip. In 1998, Miami (Ohio) basketball coach Charlie Coles' heart stopped during a Mid-American Conference tournament game. Ten years later, Coles underwent a quadruple bypass at age 66. It's probably not a coincidence that Calhoun and Prosser's schools treat basketball the way most schools treat football.

At most schools, football is king, so the pressure on the football coach far outweighs the pressure on the basketball coach. The dynamics of the season only add to the stress. A basketball coach can lose a few games and still make the NCAA tournament. A football coach, especially at the highest level, is expected to win every game. And while basketball coaches spend more time on the road recruiting than their football counterparts, they only sign a handful of players a year. Football coaches must fight for 20-30 signees a year, and the recruitment of those players is covered almost as obsessively as the actual games.

Like most coaches, Talley has followed the case of Florida coach Urban Meyer, who nearly walked away from his program after chest pains put him in the hospital the night after the Gators lost to Alabama in the SEC title game. The stress of the season had caused Meyer, 45, to drop considerable weight, and he had suffered from periodic chest pain for years. Less than 24 hours after the stunning Dec. 26 announcement that Meyer would resign following the Sugar Bowl, Meyer coached the Gators in a practice and changed his mind. Instead, he would take an indefinite leave of absence. It's unclear whether that leave has actually begun; several recruits have reported multiple conversations with Meyer, who has been quite active in the assembly of Florida's class of 2010.

"He needs to be very careful," Talley said. "It's like the person who can't stay away from candy. I'm not going to do it anymore. And the next thing you know, they've got a Hershey bar in their hand." Last week, Talley said he has not reached out to Meyer personally, but he would welcome a conversation. Connecting the two men wouldn't be difficult. Florida running backs coach Stan Drayton is one of Talley's former assistants.

Meyer isn't the only coach whose work habits put him at risk. Nearly every Division I head coach puts in more than 100-hour weeks during the season and heavy recruiting periods. If anything, it's amazing more coaches haven't suffered heart attacks or more serious ailments as a result of stress and brutal work schedules. Northwestern's Randy Walker, a friend of Meyer's, died in June 2006 from a heart attack. (Walker had been diagnosed in 2004 with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart usually caused by a viral infection.)

After he was fired by Ole Miss following the 2004 season, current Duke coach David Cutcliffe had taken the offensive coordinator job at Notre Dame, but he resigned after undergoing triple-bypass surgery in March 2005. Cutcliffe returned to work in 2006 as Tennessee's offensive coordinator, but with a daily workout regimen to help keep him healthy. Also in 2005, Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey suffered a heart attack. He resumed coaching that same year. In October 2006, North Texas coach Darrell Dickey had a heart attack -- less than a year after he was diagnosed with diabetes. Dickey's suffering didn't end with his heart attack. He returned to the sideline after missing one game, and, less than a month after his trip to the emergency room, he was fired for a poor won-loss record.

That's the cutthroat world in which head coaches live. Even in the Sun Belt Conference, a school will jettison a coach who went into cardiac arrest weeks earlier. No wonder so many coaches sleep in their offices and either forget to eat or binge on fast foods and sugary snacks because it's all they can squeeze into their schedules.

Division I head football coaches aren't that different from CEOs in other industries. They govern dozens of employees and more than 100 unpaid employees, referred to by the NCAA as "student-athletes." In Meyer's case, he leads an organization that generated $66.l million in revenue during the 2008-09 school year, according to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Education. For comparison, consider another high-stress management position: CEO of a medical center. In 2007, a Philadelphia Business Journal survey of 71 area hospitals and health systems found the average tenure of a medical center CEO was 6.3 years and the median was five. For the 120 sitting head coaches in the FBS, the average tenure of the current head coach at his school is 3.9 seasons, while the median is two.

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Coaches are paid as well as big-time CEOs, and they receive equally heavy golden parachutes when they don't produce to their shareholders' liking. But in any other business, a CEO of a company that size wouldn't have to answer to as many shareholders (fans, boosters) and wouldn't face around-the-clock media coverage and analysis of every decision. In fact, most Fortune 500 CEOs don't get scrutinized nearly as much as Michigan's Rich Rodriguez or Florida's Meyer. Imagine if the CEO of Ford was taken to task in the media because one of the managers on an assembly line was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Also, because coaches typically promise players' parents that they'll take care of Johnny Superstar during his time on campus, the head coach often feels personally responsible when a player goes astray. Anyone with children can sympathize, but they can't empathize unless they have more than 100 children. "That's the thing I'm sure Urban felt a little bit," Rodriguez said. "It's not just your family home you worry about. You worry about every kid on your team and every staff member. If he gets a parking ticket or he skips a class, no matter what position he plays, he's yours. It's a different dynamic."

That stress builds further because, like CEOs, head coaches have few they can turn to for advice who truly understand their situation. "Head coach is a lonely job. You've got to have been on that side of the desk," said Lou Holtz, who coached at Arkansas, Notre Dame and South Carolina. "Instead of making suggestions, you're making decisions. And once you've reached the top, the pinnacle, you're supposed to be perfect. You lose one game in 23, and it's like, my goodness gracious, they're going to give up the sport."

So why do some coaches manage better than others? Some make time for exercise and family life. South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, 64, insists on a daily workout and often finds time for golf in the offseason. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, 48, tries to squeeze in at least 25 minutes on the elliptical machine in his office to "declutter." How important is that machine to Kelly? When he arrived in South Bend last month, he mentioned to director of football operations Chad Klunder that he enjoyed having a machine in his office at Cincinnati. At the time, Kelly had yet to decide which Fighting Irish staffers he intended to keep. "He had that in my office in 48 hours," Kelly said. "The next day, I rehired him."

Others had good professional role models. For former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, that was Steelers coach Chuck Noll, Dungy's first boss. "He flew planes," Dungy said. "He cooked. He traveled. He drove boats. And he still won."

Some coaches cope by believing they have the world's best jobs. Wisconsin's Bret Bielema recalled the Badgers' 2008 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. He called it his lowest moment as a coach. "But even the worst day of my job is the best day that I can imagine working," Bielema said.

Even Saban, who comes off as one of the sport's true grinders, sets limits. Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who worked for Saban from 2001-05, said his boss kept strict hours during the season. Saban would arrive at work every morning at 7:29, and he would leave every night at 10:31. While a 15-hour, 2-minute workday may sound brutal, some coaches work even longer hours. "It doesn't matter if you're in the middle of a sentence, talking and getting ready for the national championship, he's walking out at 10:31," Muschamp said. "He has a set parameter for what he wants to do in his schedule. When he gets off that schedule, he's not a whole lot of fun to be around."

Of course, after the Crimson Tide won the BCS title earlier this month, Saban's wife, Terry, told SI that her husband was "burning the candle at both ends" during the run-up to the title game. Later, she said: "I really feel for Urban Meyer and understand and empathize with him and his family. Because I see what happens."

So what is Meyer to do when the misery from the losses outweighs the joy from the wins and the time on the practice field? He must re-examine his priorities, Talley said. He must change the way he coaches.

"It's surrounding yourself with good people and then mentally letting go and trusting the people around you," Talley said. "In his particular case, if he doesn't get to that point, it's not going to matter, because he's going to kill himself."

The easiest way to learn to delegate, Talley said, is to stop overthinking the job. "I got my wake-up call," Talley said. "Stopped calling plays. Started delegating everything. Recognize that football is not brain surgery. It really isn't. For me, this was the only way to take a type of personality and defeat the kind of impending doom that's going to fall upon you if you continue to put yourself under that kind of stress."

Talley understands FBS coaches face more external pressure to win than their FCS counterparts, but at the end of the day, most head coaches exert the same internal pressure on themselves. What Talley learned was that he must accept either of the game's two potential outcomes and move on. "You're either going to win, or you're going to lose," Talley said. "And that's it."

But can a coach succeed after changing his management style? Talley never won a national title coaching in the manner that gave him a heart attack. He has won one since.

So how much have Talley's priorities changed? He wasn't sure he would make it to Chattanooga, Tenn., last month for the national title game. The day the Wildcats left, Talley felt a familiar stab just below his sternum. "What Urban would have done is got on the plane," said Talley, noting that he went to see his cardiologist. "What I did was have a nuclear stress test." The test revealed no structural damage to Talley's heart, allowing him to race to the plane. But before he learned the results, Talley called his athletic director and warned that he might not coach the biggest game of his career.

A few minutes after hearing the tale of Talley's heart attack and the chest pain that nearly kept Talley from the title game, Saban couldn't help but marvel. "That has put things into perspective for me," Saban said. "I think we all have to, sometimes, remember who we are. Who we are is so much more important than what we did. ... That's what we'll all get judged by someday."

When Talley left that luncheon, he said goodbye to Saban with two brief pieces of advice every FBS coach should heed. "Stay well," Talley said. "And take care of yourself."