Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The football coaching business

I received a comment here on an entry on the Syracuse football coaching situation. I offhandedly made a remark about coaching being a tough business. The visitor pointed out that Greg Robinson made plenty of money from Syracuse University, and that he'll probably get another job. All true enough, and fair enough.

The subject deserves a few more paragraphs, though. Football coaches do lead, by most standards, ridiculous lives. They start out at the bottom as graduate assistants, making virtually no money. They slowly work their way up the ladder, and that usually means moving time after time after time. Sometimes it's because there is a better opportunity, sometimes it's because a losing season means a cleaned house. It's life as a gypsy.

By any definition, the hours are miserable. Football coaches seem to take some sort of perverse pride into working as many hours as possible. They miss most of their family events, especially if they happen in season. When they aren't breaking down video or running practice, they are looking at recruits.

If these coaches are really, really lucky, they get to be a head coach somewhere -- usually not at a school with a good team, because those jobs are taken by success stories. They have to be essentially a CEO of a start-up company, touching on a variety of issues. Their most important skill is finding 18-year-olds who they think will become great football players over a five-year span and begging them to come to their college.

If the coaches succeed, they move up, but there are only about 120 major college coaching jobs out there and some of those aren't exactly prime assignments. Many head coaches fall by the wayside. Yes, they are well compensated. They also can be abused by fans if the team isn't winning, can be the subject of Web sites called, or hear about their kids harassed in school.

In order to have any shot at success, they have to approach the business with an incredible single-mindedness. Skip Bayless once said that he could only think of one football coach who could give an intelligent answer to the question, "Who is your favorite Beatle?" We salute you, Paul Hackett. During a strike year, then-Eagles coach Dick Vermeil was touring the fall foliage in Pennsylvania and started snapping photos like crazy. His wife said, "Honey, it's like this every year."

Yes, Greg Robinson earned a few million dollars at Syracuse, and he'll coach again somewhere. During the last four years, he also hasn't been able to turn on a sports talk show, or pick up a local newspaper, or go on line without afraid of being savaged. Robinson no doubt knew for the last three years that he had little chance of winning regularly, and for the last two years probably had to answer almost weekly questions about his job status. That all can get rather tiring, no matter how big the paycheck.

For Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, football coaching has been a great profession. But those are the exceptions. For everyone else, it's a tough business.

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