March Madness highlights the dominance of coaches in intercollegiate athletics. They prowl the sidelines celebrated and victimized by the media. Commentators remind us how their salaries dwarf college presidents and state governors. Football or basketball coach are usually the most recognized names in a state. This celebrity exposure carrries another side. Last week the widely respected Texas women’s basketball coach Gail Goestenkors resigned after five years citing that she was “tired” and needed to “step back” from basketball.
She joins honorable company. This season the fine Arizona State basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne took a nine-month unpaid leave from basketball. For two years we watched the physical and mental torment of Florida football coach Urban Meyer before he took a year off to recover his health and family. In 1994 Mike Krzyzewski took off a season off from exhaustion.
Their actions identify a core truth about the college coaching, the profession never lets up. College coaching wears people down and exhausts them. I believe colleges should offer college coaches sabbaticals just as they offer sabbaticals to faculty and administrators.
The sabbatical grows from the Hebrew idea of setting aside the Sabbath as a day of rest. It expanded into the sabbatical year occurring every seventh year to let the field lie fallow to renew and nourish the land Universities adapted the idea to permit scholars to take time away from administration and teaching to pursue intellectual and spiritual renewal. Modern progressive corporations such as Microsoft and Google encourage the same approach.
I believe our colleges should expand this to our college coaches. While many are appalled at the high salaries made by high profile coaches, the profession has very little job security. Universities regularly fire winning coaches because they have not won enough. Colleges permit boosters to have inordinate influence in hiring and firing coaches while undervaluing the graduation rates and academic successes of coaches. Coaches are no longer given the 3-5 years needed to build a program. They took tenure away from coaches long ago, but still pretend coaches are teachers. Well coaches are teachers and perform yeoman service for the university.
The job inflicts continuous stress with its attendant impact upon the mind, body and emotions of coaches. The stakes are high with daily or weekly wins and losses as well as incessant media and fan scrutiny. Everyone wants a piece of the coach for clinics, charity or fundraising. Yet administrators will jettison them on a dime. The job demands make raising families and keeping marriages intact very hard given the moving and insecurity of the position as well as the consuming time and stress commitments.
Successful coaches’ profile as driven competitors who love winning but hate losing even more. I watched an interview with the great Tennessee coach Pat Summit where the interviewer asked her to remember her first victories that anchored her identity as a coach. Instead she remembered, like most coaches, her first losses that motivated and taught her as a coach. They can gently be described as control freaks consumed with details, planning, technique and tape. Yet their lives depend upon 18 year olds, and the endless year around recruiting permits no down time.
It never steps. I remember a joyful banquet after a great basketball season. The celebration was filled with warmth, memories and mutual pride and satisfaction. At the end I said to the coach, “you must be feeling good.” He winked and said “tomorrow it starts all over.”
This life style can destroy lives. Mike Krzyzewski’s wife detailed the ultimatum she had to give her husband to get him to the doctor, “I’m telling you right now, it’s me or basketball. If you are not at the doctor’s at 2:30, I’ll know what you chose.” He went to the doctor, earlier Krzyzewski admitted he knew something had to give when his 83 year old mother called and apologized saying "Mike, I don't want to take much of your time.” He spent his enforced time like a sabbatical with his family and working to “re-envision himself as a coach.” He would watch tape of himself and ask “do I still believe that.”
I believe that universities should offer, even require, that their senior coaches take sabbaticals just like their faculty do. Our coaches teach and learn constantly and that is what universities claim they do. If a coach has been at a college for more than seven years, he or she should be eligible to apply for a leave--it would be paid for a term and then paid on a sliding scale for longer sabbaticals, just as they do for faculty. In fact I think senior administrators should actively encourage long term coaches to take advantage of this. The universities should honor that claim by treating them to the same opportunity to continue to learn and renew that they give other teachers and administrators.
Good sabbaticals give people the opportunity to take emotional and intellectual risks. They can explore, learn, and create. They can reconnect with family and friends and renew themselves and their passions. As an administrators returning faculty would often say “I rediscovered why I entered academia.”
The funny part is most coaches would be reluctant to take a sabbatical on their own. Usually they have to wait until their body breaks down, or they face what Goestenkors faced where they lose their passion and engagement in the game. A good coach would fear that they would lose out on recruiting. Other coachers would counter-recruit them telling potential athletes the sabbatical bound coach might be “losing it” Coaches’ competitive fear would deter them unless the administrators pushed and reassured them that coming back they would have two years to get back.
Returning from a sabbatical a coach would be better prepared. She or he would have more emotional energy a renewed commitment to the game and to students. They would remember and renew why they took the job to begin with. Like us, so many coaches forget or wistfully try to remember why they became coaches—to help kids grow and to do something they loved.
Charli Turner Thorne returned to coaching this month and answered the endless questions, "It's like people didn't hear what I said." Turner Thorne said "I stepped back and I looked what do I need to do with this program to help make the final step. I needed time to evaluate everything we were doing and myself first and foremost. I feel fantastic about my game plan coming back to hopefully make that push for the (NCAA) Final Four." She celebrated at home with a “regular Thanksgiving dinner” and took her three sons to the Grand Canyon Polar Express. She spent time studying learning and how modern multi-tasking kids need to be coached—now that is a sabbatical no matter what field you work in.