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Posted: Wednesday January 20, 2010 11:46AM; Updated: Wednesday January 20, 2010 4:41PM
Andy Staples

College football head coach: the most dangerous job in sports

Story Highlights

As Florida's Urban Meyer showed, the stress, pressure for coaches overwhelming

Villanova's Andy Tally had a heart attack before changing his entire approach

Football coaches are paid a lot and are expected to win and recruit well every year

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Florida coach Urban Meyer announced in December that he planned to take an indefinite leave of absence after suffering from chest pains.

Two national championship coaches sat together at a luncheon last week. One dispensed advice. The other listened.

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.

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