‘Trail of Tears’: Family and the football coaching life

Georgia coach Mark Richt has tried to balance his job and football, and help his assistants do the same.

ATHENS – Every year, Mike Ekeler asks himself the same question: Should I do this again? The long hours away from his wife. The moments he misses with his four children. The guilt.

Each year, the answer has ended up being yes. Ambition, love of football and yes, the paycheck, always win out. But the price is high.

“I’m missing volleyball games, I’m missing soccer games, I’m missing all kinds of stuff. And sometimes I feel like I’m missing my kid’s life,” said Ekeler, 43, whose career as a football coach has taken him to eight different places over the past 16 years. He’s entering his second year as Georgia’s inside linebackers coach, which pays him $275,000 a year, but is also an every-day, up-to-60 hours a week job.

“Each year I’ve got an anxiety going into the year, and it’s got nothing to do with the game. I love the competition, I love the scheming, I love that aspect of it. But each year my wife always gives me a hard time because I get a little bit aggravating, I guess she says, because right before we start I’ve got anxiety. I miss my family.”

It’s a common frustration in the coaching profession. None of those interviewed for this story asked the public to feel sorry for them. They realize the money, notoriety and ability to stay in the game they love outweighs the pressure and time constraints.

But being a college football assistant coach isn’t just going to practices and games and doing some recruiting. Especially not in this day and age, when a smart phone means constant access to recruits, and information. It leads to a mentality that if you’re not working then you’re falling behind.

It can be hazardous to a family, and this time of year – with the preseason practices leading up to the season – is the worst. But the rest of the year is increasingly filled as well, thanks to recruiting.

Georgia coach Mark Richt has a term for the toll it can take: The trail of tears.

“You can go chase a dream, but then sometimes you look back and there’s a trail of tears behind you. And the tears are usually your wife and your kids,” Richt said. “I didn’t want that in my life, and I think there’s a lot of coaches that didn’t want that in their life as well.”

Avoiding it, however, is exceedingly difficult.

Late night FaceTime chats

Each one of Richt’s nine assistants is married, eight of them with at least two kids. (Tracy Rocker has one.) While they coach, watch film and recruit, their wives take care of the family, seeing the children much more than the husbands.

“It’s what you sign up for when you get into this,” said John Lilly, the tight ends coach and a 47-year-old father of three young children.

This past Father’s Day, which was also Lilly’s birthday, his kids were excited to mark the double-occasion, planning several little activities. But “two or three recruiting things popped up,” Lilly said, and finally his daughter had enough of it.

“ ‘Daddy can you just put the phone down for a minute and concentrate on us?’” Lilly remembers her saying. “And I mean, I was ready to throw the phone out the window at that point.”

Thomas Brown and his wife Jessica, with children Orlando and Tyson.

Thomas Brown, Georgia’s running backs coach, has two sons in elementary school. Most mornings they’re still asleep when Brown heads to work, and asleep again by the time their father gets home. But during the day Brown uses FaceTime to chat with them, and before his oldest son goes to sleep he gets in one last FaceTime chat with his father, who is back at the office.

“Those are obviously special moments that I can’t get back,” Brown said.

The preseason may be the toughest time, but the season isn’t much better: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the coaches leave before their kids have gotten up, and the coach doesn’t return home until the kids are already in bed. A coach is never home on Friday night or Saturday.

The offseason isn’t too open either: December, January and May are the most heated recruiting months, which means constant travel. March and April are dominated by spring practice. That leaves June and July for vacation, but the pressure of the job doesn’t leave much time for relaxing.

The hours have always been long in this profession, but they’re longer now, Richt thinks.

“We out-scheme each other. When somebody finds an answer then somebody else has gotta find another answer,” Richt said. “If you just said: Hey everybody’s gotta play base defense and everybody can only play base offense and then let’s go home after practice. But that’s just not the way it is.”

‘It breaks your heart’

Technology is also partly to blame. You’re always connected, and feel pressure to keep it that way. So when the phone rings, you usually answer it.

“I’m not saying this so anybody feels sorry for me,” said Lilly, who has a reputation as a strong recruiter, and whose tight ends are usually among the deepest and best units on the team. “It’s what we’ve chosen in this profession that goes along with the territory. There’s a lot of people that would like to be in our positions.”

“But you might be sitting there reading a story to your kids and your phone rings, and it’s the top player you’re recruiting. Well, you know what, you feel obligated. I gotta answer this. And we’ve all been there.There’s a point where it breaks your heart a little bit. You know at times it breaks your kid’s heart.”

John Lilly, Georgia’s tight ends coach since 2008, has three children: Allison, 6, Caleb, 4, and Abigail, born this past April.

 

But technology can also make some things easier. It used to be that you could only watch film – from practice, games or on a recruit – in the office. Richt would get up early on Sundays and drive to work, watching film there before meeting his family at church.

Now the coaches have almost all of it on their tablets.

“I’ll still watch the scrimmage, but I might watch it in my TV room, or while everybody’s still in bed I might get up at 6 a.m. and watch my video at home, and still be able to go to church and not leave the house,” Richt said.

Social media and smart phones haven’t made it worse, it’s just changed things, according to Lainie Bobo. Her husband Mike is now Colorado State’s head coach and was a Georgia assistant the previous 14 years. Bobo said she understands her husband’s need to be “on call” most of the year, especially during recruiting season.

“But when it is vacation time and there shouldn’t be emergencies, it should be family time,” Lainie Bobo said. “Or if we’re having a family dinner, we try to do that. And he’s good about that.”

Richt tells his coaches that it’s okay if, for instance, they want to go watch their kid’s soccer match and then come back later to watch film. And in this day and age, Richt reminds them, you can do your job from home late at night, after the kids have gone to bed.

“I try to tell our coordinators, Look don’t stay a certain amount of time just to impress me, or to say I was the first one in and the last one to leave. Stay until the work’s done and then go,” Richt said.

Family is also encouraged to come to the building, when possible.

“We make sure that there’s an atmosphere for family in our program. And I grew up with that with coach (Bobby) Bowden,” said Richt, who spent a decade at Florida State. “I just inherited that by being fortunate enough to coach with that man. And I liked enough of the things that he did to the point where I want to make sure that we’re going to do the same thing. For my family and the rest of the coaches’ families.”

Georgia has had a pretty good retention rate with assistant coaches, and its current coordinators made surprising moves: Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt after winning the national championship in the same job at Florida State, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer from the same job in the NFL.

“You can go to Georgia … but you still have time for your family,” Richt said. “I think a lot of guys like that.”

“I don’t know if it’s like that everywhere,” Lilly said. “I think sometimes they’ve gotta wait to get permission to leave (the office).”

‘It’s not who I am’

Birthday parties can become a real problem in coaching families.

Both of Browns’ boys were born in September, in the heat of the football season. Their birthday parties are almost always held without their father, but they schedule a “side celebration” on a Sunday or a Thursday afternoon, which qualify as the best downtime during the season.

The birthday of Lilly’s oldest daughter  is Aug. 9. This year’s party wasn’t until a week later, when they could block out time for Daddy.

There are some weeks that Lilly doesn’t see his kids except for Sunday morning. When he gets home late at night, he secretly roots for them to wake up so he can see them awake.

There are stories of coaches missing the birth of their children. But Lilly was able to make all three of his: He skipped a practice for his first daughter’s birth, then left a recruiting visit when he got the call that his son was coming. Then this April his daughter was born hours before the afternoon practice.

Of course, then the harder part comes. But Lilly is trying. He still laughs about the first time the family watched “Frozen.” It was a Sunday, the end of yet another long work week, and Lilly fell asleep.

His daughter has since ordered that any family movies not be watched on Sunday.

“I don’t want to look up when a lot of those early, formative years are totally gone, and then all of a sudden be like, I missed it,” Lilly said. “Whether they’re in high school or going away to college or whatever the case may be, you don’t ever want to put yourself or your family in that position. I do believe a father has a really important role in a kid’s life.”

There are plenty of examples of coaches staying active. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, as driven as his reputation may be, was spotted attending an OBGYN appointment with his wife this spring, patiently hanging out in the waiting room for a couple hours. His son Ridge was born in July.

The Ekeler family: Bella, Abigail, Cameryn, J.J., Barbie and Mike. (UGA)

Ekeler has a 13-year-old son and three daughters, ages 12, 10 and six.

“I could walk out this door again and never coach again; I wouldn’t bat an eye,” Ekeler said. “I wouldn’t think twice. I love what I do, but it’s not who I am. I’m a father, I’m a husband, that’s No. 1, ultimately. This game will be here long after I’m gone, and I’m fine with or without it.”

When Brown entered the coaching business four years ago he sat down with his wife and warned her: This is a different profession. She understood.

Brown’s boys started playing flag football, and Brown knows he won’t be able to see their practices. They coincide with Georgia’s practices. He did go with them to boxing practice three days a week over the summer. And he cherishes those FaceTime chats.

Growing up, Brown was very close to his own parents, so he vowed to be close with his boys, too. Coaching is a grind, but he would remain a good father. As Brown put it:

“It’s my most important job.”

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