College football head coach is most dangerous job in sports (cont.)
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.
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."
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