It has taken some 30 years, but I've finally found a use for an image planted in my brain by the insidious song MacArthur Park: A whole lot of NFL coaches look like cakes that somebody left out in the rain. Pale and lumpy, or wan and withered, from their grinding, 100hour workweeks, they hunker on the sideline exuding fatigue and misery. Bill Parcells, who not long ago had seemed rejuvenated by his return to coaching at age 62, wound up so deep into the Land Beyond Anger that several of his former players called to ask if he was all right. "I'm not gonna die," he sighed.
Parcells's Cowboys went 6--10--but it is not just the losers who seem defeated: Bill Belichick, coach of the 14--2, Super Bowl--champion Patriots, looks drawn and haunted beneath his homeless-person's hoodie. If you're seeking joy in the workplace, you'll probably find more at McDonald's, where you might also run into an assistant coordinator picking up yet another dinner for the staff. The only NFL coach who smiles regularly is Herman Edwards, but his is a sarcastic grin, flashed when his Jets are flailing and failing, all that sweet green icing flowing down.
How did we get from the dapper, snap-brimmed dignity of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry to a culture of workaholism in which the supreme commanders are often glassy-eyed guys whose faces bear the imprint of the office upholstery? Coaches, of course, have always tried to outprepare each other. Dick Vermeil took the Eagles job in 1976 and pretty much didn't go home until 1982, when he was, he says, "an emotional wreck," unable to continue. Jon Gruden sets his alarm for 3:17 a.m. But the trend seems to have accelerated this season, in part because Vermeil, at age 68, still puts in 17hour days with the Chiefs. And 64year-old Joe Gibbs, back with the Redskins after a 17year hiatus, resumed his habit of sleeping at the stadium. Slugabeds like Dave Wannstedt, who got to his Dolphins office at 6:30 a.m., obviously just don't cut it in the NFL these days.
The all-consuming nature of the job transforms coaches into empty time capsules, fascinating for what they don't contain. Vermeil once sent an assistant to investigate the source of what sounded like explosions around Veterans Stadium; the messenger returned with the news: Those are fireworks; it is the Fourth of July. John Madden recalls that when he was coaching the Raiders, his wife talked to him about buying their son a car. "Oh, there's plenty of time," he told her. "They don't let little boys drive." Their child was 16.
More than ever the job seems to be working the man. Butch Davis suffered panic attacks in December before he resigned as the Browns' coach. Mike Tice had some scary physical symptoms (page 48) after his Vikings backed into a wild-card berth. Says Larry Kennan, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, "We are killing ourselves."
Can anybody help them? Just as the owners need a salary cap and the players need a drug program to protect them from themselves, coaches could use rules limiting office hours and forbidding them from sketching plays on their wives' cocktail napkins. There is, after all, no hard evidence that all this endless watching of film and X-ing and O-ing actually makes teams better. Reggie Herring, former linebackers coach with the Texans, says that when he worked under Pat Dye at Auburn, "we went home after dinner and saw our kids, and we won three straight conference championships."
Unfortunately, there is nothing to stop coaches from wearing themselves to a frazzle--and at least two incentives for them to keep bearing down. One is they make a couple million a year in their insecure jobs. But perhaps more important than the owners' money, they have the nation's esteem: Millions of grown men enact a fantasy version of their jobs. We might wonder why so many fans decry the example set by end-zone celebrators while idolizing men who often put health, family and basic human happiness aside to focus grimly on the game. Or we might just accept that Americans, perhaps out of jealousy, like to see coaches suffer and sweat for the privilege of holding down their dream jobs.
No one understands the latter point better than the NFL's newest coach, the still tan and fit-looking Nick Saban. When Saban left LSU for the Dolphins last week, he held a press conference at which he told Miami fans exactly what they wanted to hear: The team would rededicate itself to excellence--and his assistants would eat lunch and dinner at their desks.
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