Coaching can be hazardous to health

By John Feinstein John Feinstein
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; D1

Like millions of others, Syracuse basketball Coach Jim Boeheim watched the extraordinary finish of the Michigan State-Notre Dame game Saturday night. After the Spartans had won 34-31 in overtime on an audacious fake field goal attempt that they turned into a touchdown, Boeheim kept his TV on to watch the postgame interview with Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio.

"I remember thinking as I watched, 'For a guy who just won an unbelievable game, he doesn't look too good,' " Boeheim said on Monday afternoon. "He almost looked a little bit sick."

As it turned out, Dantonio was sick. Several hours later, he was in the hospital, having surgery after suffering a heart attack. Michigan State is describing it as a "mild" heart attack. There is no such thing as a mild heart attack. Dantonio, 54, was very lucky.

"Sometimes you can be fit and in shape, and it happens to you anyway," South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier said. "There are no guarantees in coaching except if you don't take care of yourself, you're almost guaranteed to have something happen. That's why I work out five days a week all year round. I've done it for as long as I've been coaching."

Coaching, especially on the so-called big-time level, is one of the more stressful jobs going, in part because there are limited opportunities each year to succeed (or fail) and in part because you are being judged by an unforgiving public every time your team goes out to compete. Coaches tend to keep crazy hours in-season. They often eat late at night, and they don't eat a lot of salads.

Fifteen years ago Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams missed four games late in the season after being rushed to the hospital with pneumonia. As sick as he felt, he might not have gone if his trainer, J.J. Bush hadn't insisted on it.

"You're thinking about getting ready for the next game," Williams said. "You're thinking you have to fight through it. I ended up spending my 50th birthday in the hospital, which will make you stop and think.

"I made changes after that. No more McDonald's. That had been where I ate on the road for years. I began eating more fish and vegetables, especially once the season started. I realized there's some hypocrisy in coaching because we're always on our players to take care of themselves, get their rest, be fresh. Then we don't do it ourselves."

Duke basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski was even sicker than Williams during that same season. He missed his team's last 19 games after a stint in the hospital brought on by coming back too soon after back surgery and exhaustion. He was so convinced he had let his team down that he offered to resign.

"I wasn't surprised when I heard what happened" to Dantonio, Krzyzewski said. "We're in an extreme profession. We're almost like race cars. We need to be checked out before a race - or, in this case, a season. We're going to push ourselves to the limit and sometimes beyond because we don't know our limits sometimes. Then afterwards we need to be checked again to see if we've done any damage pushing that hard."

Spurrier is 65 - the same age as Williams and two years older than Krzyzewski - making him one of college football's older coaches.

He and his staff work late three nights a week, and as he put it, "We go pretty hard on Sundays." On Monday, he was fighting a bad head cold. Did the thought of taking a day off to get better cross his mind? "No," he said. "I did go to bed earlier than usual last night, though, because I'm aware of what can happen. I know coaches who think they have to stay late every single night to get ready for Saturday. I don't do that. I read once that it isn't so much what you know but what you can get your players to know. So I've never wanted my staff pulling all-nighters. I think all that does is make you tired."

Most college football staffs put in longer hours on Sundays than any day of the week. They come in early to grade tape; they meet at length to discuss Saturday's game and to plan for the game the following Saturday. They make decisions about personnel and practice plans for the week.

One staff that does none of that is Ken Niumatalolo's staff at Navy.

"One of the first things I told my coaches after I got promoted [three years ago] was we would never meet as a staff on Sunday," Niumatalolo said. "I remember some of the guys looking at me like, 'whaa?' When I was an assistant, I did what the boss told me to do: If we were meeting as a staff Sunday morning at 8, I was there, ready to go.

"But when I became head coach, I told the guys that if they wanted to come in, it was fine, but I wouldn't be there. I knew - and I know - that I need that day to go to church with my family and to clear my head. It isn't about religion so much as it is about me knowing I need that chance to step back and be reminded what's important."

Most coaches have food brought in for their staff on weekdays so they can work through lunch. Niumatalolo doesn't.

"I want everyone to get out of the building," he said. "If you never leave, it starts to feel like a dungeon. You need to get outside, get something to eat, go to work out - something. I think long-term we do a better job because we stay fresh and we stay healthy - mentally and physically."

Dantonio will apparently be back on the sideline in a few weeks. No doubt his world and his lifestyle will be different as a result of what happened Sunday. But he won't be the only one.

"It definitely gets your attention," Spurrier said. "This isn't an easy profession. And when you get older, I guarantee you it doesn't get any easier. It only gets harder."

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