High Stress Levels Just Another Problem For Coaches

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Gary Kubiak

There's no question coaching football is a stressful job. Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, pictured during a game Sept. 2, collapsed on the field Sunday as his team played the Colts. (RICHARD CLEMENT / REUTERS / November 4, 2013)

STORRS — There is no official injury list for coaches. There is no probable, questionable or doubtful. Yet make no mistake, what happened to John Fox and Gary Kubiak are the perils of modern football, every bit as real as the concussions and ACL tears players suffer.

Fox had a valve in his heart replaced Monday. The Denver Broncos coach grew dizzy playing golf Saturday near his offseason North Carolina home, and hospital tests determined surgery could no longer wait.

On Sunday, in a harrowing sight, Kubiak collapsed during halftime at Reliant Field. The Houston Texans coach later was treated with tissue plasminogen activator to break up blood clots. Tests were still being taken to determine if Kubiak had a stroke.

NFL and major college coaches are handsomely paid in dollars. Yet with the stress, the pressure, the disappointment, the rage, the worry, the media torment, the exhaustion, the game has a cruel way of exacting every cent in return.

"It's a very stressful job, no question," said UConn interim coach T.J. Weist, who is not only trying to get his first win, but also trying to save his job. "For us it's a 24-hour job. You hate to say it, but it is. Some guys work twice as much as other guys. Does hard work always mean that you win? No. You always look back and say I hope [something awful] doesn't happen. You have your wife to help you out and say you've got to eat right. You've got to get your sleep. You've got to lower your stress level.

"But we're all so competitive. It's not just the stress and the pressure. It's the competitiveness to win. I can't stand losing. I'm going to do everything I can to not lose. If that means staying up late, coming in early, trying to outwork everybody, whatever it takes, and try to develop that mentality with our team that we're no going to accept losing. We are not going to accept it!"

Wanting something too badly can be dangerous to a man's health. Living and dying with every tick of the scoreboard can break a man's body long before it breaks his spirit, can break a coach's heart literally before it ever does figuratively.

When Kubiak went down Sunday, I thought back to the 2001 season when the UConn football team was enduring its most difficult time in building a major college program. The Huskies had lost seven in a row — matching their current losing streak — and 10 of 11.

Randy Edsall, ordinarily a composed man on the sideline, had turned into a beast during a 37-20 home loss to Buffalo. He was seething, ripping into everyone, even ripping off his headset and throwing it to the ground. Eileen Edsall said later she barely recognized her husband.

"I saw more frustration out of Randy than I've ever seen in a game," said Eileen Edsall, a two-sport athlete at Syracuse. "The stress, the pressure … I told him, 'You can't be like that or I'm not going to let you coach anymore.'"

Edsall always looks like a million bucks, but he hadn't felt right physically on the sideline that day. I think it scared him straight to a degree. He did some soul-searching afterward. He knew he had to be more patient for his own well-being. I don't remember seeing Edsall in such a fit until nine years later, again against Buffalo. The Huskies had played horribly in the first half, without passion, with many blunders. When asked afterward if his voice had peeled the paint off the walls at halftime, Edsall, his face still beet-red, said, "More than paint." There were unprintable words. There were unidentified flying objects. The players said it was mayhem. Yet Edsall also said something foreboding in victory: He won't live long if he has to do that every game.

The Denver Post did its best to put together a lengthy list of coaches who have endured heart problems. Some were fatal. Some were not. Some were able to continue on the job. Bo Schembechler, Don McCafferty, Lou Saban, Bear Bryant, Mike Ditka, Joe Morrison, Dan Reeves, Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, Chan Gailey, Mark Dantonio, Urban Meyer [although his chest pains, he said, had to do with his esophagus]. The Post began listing basketball coaches, too. Rick Majerus, Don Haskins, Charlie Coles, Bob Huggins, Skip Prosser. And when the list was put online, someone quickly added Dave McClain, 48, who suffered fatal heart attack as football coach at Wisconsin in 1986, and Northwestern coach Randy Walker, 52, who died of an apparent heart attack in 2006.

The real message, of course, is it doesn't end.

The pressure to win is real. The pressure to survive might be greater. Kermit Buggs, the first-year UConn running backs coach, walked out of the locker room following the game at Cincinnati a few weeks ago and found a place to be alone. Tears rolled down his face. Was it the 41-16 loss? Sure. But you've got to think the uncertainty of an assistant's life, worries about his job security and his family had to weigh heavy.

As far as the next UConn head coach, I have no idea who it will be. I only know it won't be Turner Gill or Lane Kiffin and, sources insist, there's no tangible interest on UConn's end in Houston Nutt.

"It's not hard to understand the situation we're in," Weist said a couple of weeks ago. "We're fighting for our lives, our careers. Our careers, our families, are in the hands of 18- to 23-year-olds. It's not just a job for us. It's not just a game for us. It's a game for the players. They go to school and they play the game. For [coaches] this is, get to work every day, I get a paycheck and I pay bills, and if I'm somewhere else I've got to move my family. Coaches have to move their families. ... Our [coaches] are motivated. They're motivated to stay here. I think that's their biggest motivation."

During the weekly media conference Monday, Weist was faced with a question about how the program deals with a player accused of sexual misconduct. That one, tied to the federal lawsuit filed by four former and current UConn students, he was advised not to answer by associate athletic director of communications Mike Enright. Weist did say his team is "embarrassed" to be 0-7: "Our team needs to learn how to win. This team does not know how to win. We've got to keep fighting. We've got to keep pushing."

The pressure, as you see, can come from many different angles on and off the field.

"It's easy to be over-intense on the football field. It's a very high-strung game. But you also have to step back and it helps to have other people say, 'Slow down a little bit. Slow down before something like [Kubiak and Fox] happens.' Don't be as intense. Sometimes you've got to kick it back a notch."

Jack Del Rio stepped in as interim coach for Fox, 58. Wade Phillips stepped in as interim coach for Kubiak, 52. The football show must go on.

"Coach Fox knew about his situation and was trying to wait until the end of the season [for surgery]," Weist said. "You never know how it all correlates. We all have a heart that pumps all our intensity in our life. That's what it comes down to. You look at Jerry Kill [the Minnesota coach had epileptic seizures], Bo Schembechler with his heart attack. You've just got to be careful how intense you are all the time.

"It's something you always think about."

The sight of Kubiak dropping to his knees in pain, the sight of him taken off the field on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, well, it is something you cannot forget.

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