On the day after the NFL regular season ended, Gary Kubiak, the now former head coach of the Denver Broncos, made the most valuable play of the 2016 season. The teary-eyed winner of three Super Bowl’s publicly admitted that coaching is a demanding business that can take a toll on your health:
“It’s a tough business. I’ve been a head coach for 10 years…We all have a routine. I’ve always taken a lot of pride in coaching a football team, being there for the players, being there for the coaches, being there for the organization, doing a game plan and calling some plays on Sunday. This year I haven’t been able to do that. It’s been tough. For the first time, I’ve had to tell myself, ‘Hey, you can’t do that anymore.’ ”
Kubiak’s vulnerability stood on full display for the world, and after briefly acknowledging the move, the media quickly turned back to playoff coverage.
So, what provoked a man who is one year removed from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy as the Super Bowl 50 winning coach to walk away from the game?
The short answer is: “the grind.” That grind is taking its toll on NFL head coaches.
Just this past season, four head coaches were hospitalized. As Dick Vermeil, a coach who retired from the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999 because he felt emotionally and physically ill told ESPN, “[A head coach is] like an engine. You can blow up a Porsche if you drive it too hard, and a football coach is no different.”
As a former NFL assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, I “paid my dues” for five years in order to maintain the respect of my peers. The first purchase I made as an NFL coaching intern was a twin blowup mattress to put in my office. Although I rented an apartment in Kansas City, I spent most nights sleeping at Arrowhead Stadium. Why? So I could be the first one in the office. Most days would start at 4:30 a.m. and conclude around midnight. I chose to walk away from the world of coaching after my last stint with the Browns because my 3-year-old son told me that he had never seen me eat breakfast.
This practice of negotiating a gauntlet of 20-hour workdays is a hereditary condition that gets passed from branch to branch of coaching trees. Former coach Bill Parcells begat New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
The Belichick system, which is really a remastered version of the Parcells system, calls for long hours spent in the office. Assistant coaches, completely dependent on the recommendation of the head coach for upward mobility, have no choice other than to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid.
The result? Coaching tree descendants transmit the “grinding disease” to their offspring once they become head coaches. In this boiling pot of machismo, one need not show any signs of weakness. Thus, the system lives on.
But this deadly alloy of late nights at the office, infrequent breaks and unrealistic expectations does not have to survive. Kubiak’s bold move should prompt teams and league offices to rethink the systems that support coaches. Head coaches should take full responsibility for the work environments of their assistants.
The NBA might be a good example. Luke Walton, head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, hired a trainer who is solely dedicated to the coaching staff. The trainer does not split time between players and coaches.
For Walton – the youngest head coach in the NBA – to make the wellness of his coaching staff a priority speaks to his foresight. Other coaches, team and league executives should follow suit by dedicating meaningful capital, both human and monetary, to helping deflate the stressful environment of the coaching world.
We have to find a way to infuse more compassion, vulnerability and empathy into the world of Bill Belichick. Otherwise, we may lose more coaches to the ramifications of the grind.
Daron K. Roberts is the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at The University of Texas and is the author of the Amazon bestselling book “Call an Audible: Let My Pivot from Harvard Law to NFL Coach Inspire Your Transition.”
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