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A relatively tough job

NFL coaches must deal with increased scrutiny, extended work hours and uncertain futures. A few have endured tragic and painful family situations.

July 11, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Some of the most challenging coaching assignments of Jim Mora's career didn't take place anywhere near the sidelines during Atlanta Falcons football games. They came when he walked through the front door of his home afterward.

It was then -- particularly after a bitter loss -- that Mora and his wife would counsel their 12-year-old son, Cole, on how to best handle the day-after-defeat barbs he would inevitably encounter the next morning at school.

"If we didn't do well, we thought about how it was going to affect him," said Mora, who became Seattle's assistant head coach after being fired by the Falcons in January. "We had many Sunday night talks after losses about going to school the next day, and how he was going to deal with it if kids teased him."

So it goes in the NFL, where the coaching jobs pay millions but the toll can be taken on a family.

The first games of the regular season won't be played until September, but preparations are already revving into high gear for the start of training camps later this month. And, operating under a win-now-or-you're-fired specter, even now coaches are driven to around-the-clock work hours while increasingly being judged by more than just their win-loss record.

Owners, fans and league representatives want not only winners, but also leaders whose private lives are able to survive public scrutiny.

Sometimes that's asking a little too much. A few of the league's most successful coaches recently have endured family situations both tragic and painful. In December 2005, there was the suicide of James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy. Then, in a three-month span last fall and winter, there was the drug arrest of Stephen Belichick, son of the New England Patriots' three-time Super Bowl-winning Coach Bill Belichick, and, in separate incidents on the same day in January, Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid's sons Garrett and Britt were arrested on multiple violations.

After each case, the fathers faced questions with a similar undercurrent: Had their seemingly single-minded focus on football adversely affected their children?

Dungy took a week off after his son died, handing his duties to assistant coach Jim Caldwell for a game before returning. Belichick did not take a break from coaching. Reid took off five weeks, skipping the scouting combine in February and contemplating retirement before returning to work after a news conference during which he said his family was "the most important thing" in his life.

As those dramas played out -- to much debate and judgment over the airwaves -- several other coaches throughout the league say they found cause for self-analysis, examining their work habits and priorities.

New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton, who has a 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, said Reid's situation "made me think about my job as a father, husband and coach. We're all searching for that balance. I think it's impacted all of us to a degree as to how we regard our role in the family."

With salaries and expectations constantly on the rise, the pressure for coaches to pour every available hour into their jobs is intense even though the staff sizes are increasingly large and improved technology allows coaches to do more in less time.

Regardless, it's not unusual for a coach to sleep in his office during the week on a pull-out couch. Steve Spurrier scoffed at that when he became coach of the Washington Redskins, leaving his workaholic peers feeling vindicated when Spurrier resigned after 7-9 and 5-11 seasons.

"There's huge pressure to put in the hours, not just from other teams but from within the staff," said Larry Kennan, who coached for 32 years and is now executive director of the NFL Coaches Assn. "Guys worry, 'Who's coming in earlier than me? Who's leaving later?' A lot of us have that fear built into us that if I'm not carrying my load, people are going to write me off as a slacker."

The late George Allen, who coached the Rams when they were in Los Angeles and the Redskins, once said, "I always called the opposing coach at 10 o'clock Wednesday night, and if nobody answered, I knew we would win on Sunday."

Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden famously sets his alarm for 3:17 a.m. Nick Saban, the former Miami Dolphins coach, turned down an invitation last year to dine with President Bush because it conflicted with the Dolphins' practice schedule.

Typically, it's the coaches' wives who keep the households together. They're the ones who move the family from city to city, maintain the finances, befriend the neighbors. Their husbands simply aren't around.

"The demands we put on our family are extensive," said Brian Billick, coach of the Baltimore Ravens. "You always ask your family to recognize, 'No, I don't love my job more than I love you. But you're more forgiving. So, naturally, you're going to get the brunt of it because the job is unforgiving and relentless.' "

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