June 12, 2006

Fatherhood a priority for college coaches

The demands for Georgia football coach Mark Richt's time never seem to cease.

The speaking engagements. The media requests. Recruiting.

And, of course, there are the games: softball, soccer, baseball and maybe even some hide-and-seek.

What? Did you think Richt spent all of his time coaching the Bulldogs?

Richt is also the father of four including two children he and his wife, Katharyn, adopted from the Ukraine seven years ago. He makes it a point to drop by their schools from time to time for lunch or just to give reassuring hugs. He is also a fixture at the many and varied games the kids play.

Jon, Richt's oldest son, will quarterback his high school team this fall.

"We've got kids in softball, soccer, karate and baseball," Richt said. "Even if I got home at 5 every day I'd miss something because we have so many different things going on."

Perhaps the most difficult task facing Richt and other big-time college coaches such as Arizona's Mike Stoops and Texas Tech's Mike Leach maybe even more difficult than winning games and appeasing fans is balancing the time demands of football and those of fatherhood without neglecting either.

It's not an easy task, but it's a high-wire act all coaches with families must master to be successful professionally and parentally.

Priorities in order
Mike Stoops
Occupation: University of Arizona head football coach
Wife: Nicole
Children: Daughter, Payton; Son, Colton
On fatherhood: "I'm always happy when I go home. They're good kids. I don't think there is a more important job than parenting. My job here at the University of Arizona is important, but nothing is more important than being a parent."
Mike Leach
Occupation: Texas Tech University head football coach
Wife: Sharon
Children: Daughters, Janeen, Kim and Kiersten; Son, Cody
Comparing children's success to professional success: "It's different, but I don't know how to describe how it's different. It's more long term with your children. You appreciate their success for a longer period of time. In sports you're always looking on to the next game."
Mark Richt
Occupation: University of Georgia head football coach
Wife: Katharyn
Children: Sons, Jon, David and Zach; Daughter, Anya
On families visiting fathers at work: "On any given practice we've got 20 or 30 kids running around. That's part of the day for us. I have no problem with the kids running around the office. We can get our work done. If our offensive or defensive staff is working and one of the wives come by with the kids to pop in and say hi, I say go give them a hug. We welcome that. I get fired up to see that."
If he's not careful, the job demands can be so overwhelming a coach may miss a family event that he'll regret forever.

Leach did.

"As a matter of fact I've probably missed a lot of them," said Leach, also a father of four. "You might miss the one baseball game where he hits the grand slam. But, honestly, I make it to about two-thirds or three-fourths of my son's baseball games.

"I've missed a dance recital. One of my biggest regrets where I just flat out blew it was when my daughter, Janeen, graduated from high school. I'm not a ceremony guy and mine (graduation ceremony) didn't mean that much to me and I blindly thought she felt perhaps the same as I did and that it wasn't a big deal. It turns out that wasn't the case and I hurt her feelings on that. I let the work stuff come first."

Rearranging those priorities isn't as easy as it sounds. Booster groups around the country request public appearances and speaking engagements from the head coach in the offseason, and rejecting a request may leave members feeling slighted or angry. Deciding each year which requests to grant and which to reject is a difficult and delicate process, but one that has to be done for coaches to spend time with family.

"You have to pick and choose, I think, some priorities so you're not gone 24-7," said Stoops, who has a 7-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. "You have to learn how to say no. My family will never become a secondary thing with me. I will always have them as my priority, but I certainly understand my obligations as football coach. I need to be out there exposing the program to alumni and fans. But when I'm not I try to make myself very available. Out of season I try to be home by 4:30 or 5 every night."

Defining "out of season" can be a problem, however.

Coaching obligations certainly aren't limited to the actual season, which demands 12- to 16-hour days beginning with preseason practices in August and, for most teams, extends into December or January. The crucial recruiting period heats up in December and continues into early February. Spring football typically begins in March and continues until late April.

The following three months are packed with speaking engagements, golf tournaments and public appearances that are vital in maintaining fan interest and raising funds that pay for facility upgrades. Conventions, summer camps and press conferences also take big chunks out of the calendar.

When Stoops' daughter Payton was younger she reacted to the luggage he packed.

"She understands the job a little better now and she's starting to understand the position we have, but it wasn't always like that," he said. "She would cling to me and didn't want to see me leave ever. She could tell what kind of trip it was by the size of my bag. She knew if it was the big suitcase it would be a long trip and it was very, very hard."

Richt said the greatest asset a coach can have in dealing with those heart-aching situations is a supportive wife.

"If your wife is at home and complaining about how much time dad is away and the kids hear that they can certainly start to think they're getting neglected," he said. "If she's with you completely and understands the demands of the job it's much better. My kids don't know anything different. They don't know it's unusual or strange. The one thing is most important is that your wife and children know what you're doing with the time you do have.

"That's why it's so important to be with them every minute you can. They need to know they're being loved, disciplined and taken care of by dad."

Sometimes, that requires a certain degree of creativity.

Richt has breakfast and a devotional with his family every morning. During spring football he doesn't schedule practice on consecutive days. In season, he has a family night in which the wives and children of the coaches have dinner with the team.

In past years Richt has allowed assistant coaches with sons or daughters participating in high school athletics to skip Friday night meetings or travel to games on Saturday mornings so they can watch their children play. He plans to do that this season with Jon playing football. He usually speaks to his players following the team dinner on Friday night. This year, he'll speak before the team dinner and after the meal will leave for Jon's games.

Family night in Tucson is every Sunday during the season. While the coaches are preparing for next week's games, the wives order a dinner and the kids play on the practice field.

During the week, Stoops and his wife, Nicole, allow their children to come to football practice as a reward for good behavior.

"During the season my family comes to practice every day," Stoops said. "It's fun and exciting for them. They love to see the players and the team and they come out the last 15 minutes of practice to see me and hang around. That's their thing. If they're good they get to come to practice. They're blackmailed by my wife."

Neither Leach nor his wife, Sharon, has resorted to blackmail, but they have found creative and exciting ways to spend quality time with the family.

Each summer Leach's daughters, Janeen, Kim and Kiersten, get to choose the destination for a family trip. Two years ago Leach missed the annual Big 12 media conference because he was on a family vacation in Hawaii.

He also takes advantage of one his job's greatest perks to send extra time with his 10-year-old son Cody, who loves baseball.

As head coach, Leach has access to Texas Tech's athletic facilities. So, the residents of Lubbock need not wonder why the lights of Dan Law Field are sometimes shining even though the Red Raiders baseball team isn't playing.

That's just Leach throwing batting practice.


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