Pressure, stress make coaching hazardous to your health

Friday November 15th, 2013

Titans coach Gary Kubiak collapsed after suffering a mini-stroke at halftime of a game on Nov. 3.

When Denver Broncos coach John Fox suffered pains symptomatic of a heart attack during a round of golf recently, the only surprise was that Fox found his way to a golf course. It is autumn, after all, and even on an off week, there is film to be studied.

Thankfully, the Broncos announced that Fox did not have a heart attack, but he does need a valve in his heart fixed. The next night, Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who seemed like a model of fitness, dropped to his knees on his way to the locker room before halftime. Kubiak had a "mini-stroke."

Fox is 58 and Kubiak is 52, and fiftysomething men in any profession can have health problems. But football coaches seem especially prone, especially during the season, when they fret about their players' health and ignore their own. The job is a web of self-inflicted stress. Most jobs are only as serious as we take them, and football coaches tend to take their jobs very, very seriously.

When the Broncos announced that Fox would be fine, they included this revealing sentence: "Coach Fox was advised by doctors months ago that his defective aortic valve would require this procedure following the 2013 season." Months ago? Fox's health is more important to him than to anybody else, of course, and he does not need to be second-guessed right now. He did consult with his doctor, and anyway, putting off off a serious medical procedure until after football season is not surprising. This is what coaches do.

It is fair to worry that someday soon, a prominent coach will have more than an "episode" or a "scare" and actually die during a game. That is a frightening thought, and just as frightening is that some coaches probably just read it and worried it will happen ... to somebody else.

Fox and Kubiak are hardly alone. University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill, an epileptic, has suffered six seizure-related episodes on game days since taking the Golden Gophers' job before the 2011 season. A few weeks ago, He finally took a leave of absence to focus on managing his epilepsy, but he hopes to return to coaching.

In 1998, Urban Meyer was diagnosed with an arachnoid cyst on his brain. It gets inflamed by stress. After his Florida team lost the 2009 SEC championship game, Meyer was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. He resigned a few weeks later, at age 45, then changed his mind after his team held a "spirited practice." A year later, he resigned again. A year after that, he took the Ohio State job, and promised to take it easier.

Ohio State is not paying him millions per year to take it easier, though. The Buckeyes expect wins, and so does Meyer, who is undefeated in a year and a half in Columbus. Only he and his family really know if he is sticking to his pledge to have balance in his life.

The problem is as old as professional coaching. Consider: Meyer's chief competition for Big Ten Coach of the Year is Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, who once watched his team beat Notre Dame on a fake field goal in overtime, then had a heart attack. The coach of the year gets the Hayes-Schembechler trophy, named after legends Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. On the eve of the 1970 Rose Bowl, Michigan's Schembechler had a heart attack. Four years later, in the middle of an angry rant, Ohio State's Hayes caught himself and said, "If I don't watch out, I'll end up like Bo Schembechler." He was correct. Seven months later, Hayes had a heart attack.

Big Ten coaches' meetings ought to be moderated by a cardiologist.

For the very best, coaching is not just a profession; it is a compulsion. Sometimes they can manage the compulsion, but they can't really defeat it. In 1983, Dick Vermeil resigned from the Philadelphia Eagles at age 46, citing burnout. He stayed out of coaching for 14 years. Then the St. Louis Rams called.

"I left because I had to, and I'm not embarrassed to say it,'' Vermeil said when he took the Rams job. "Fourteen years later, I'm coming back because I have to, and I'm excited to say that.''

In his third season in St. Louis, Vermeil's Rams won the Super Bowl. He then "retired" on top, a trick that coaches sometimes try to play on themselves: Write a storybook ending, and keep reading it back to yourself until it makes you happy. A year after leaving the Rams, Vermeil took the Kansas City Chiefs' job. Five coaches have stepped down immediately after winning a Super Bowl, and all five (Vermeil, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh, and Vince Lombardi) went back to coaching.

Today's coaches do have a few health advantages over their predecessors. They are less likely to smoke, or to eat bacon-donut-cheeseburgers for breakfast. They are more likely to use a treadmill, even if they watch film while they do it.

But people saying NFL teams should impose limits on work hours are fooling themselves. You can change a policy, and you can even change the locks, but you can't change coaches unless they want to change themselves. Kubiak will be back on the sideline on Sunday, and Fox hopes to be back by the end of the season. Good for them. They love what they do. I hope they have long careers, and long lives, and that they don't confuse the two.

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