MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — How do you explain it? How do you explain the evolution in football coaches, not necessarily in a football sense, but in their approach to life and the world in which they live?
It wasn’t that long ago that it was not unusual to hear of coaches who would often sleep the night on the couch in their office rather than returning home to their families, just so they could watch film late into the night and be up early to make recruiting calls or meet with other coaches or players.
Football wasn’t a job. It was a religion to them.
Consider West Virginia’s own Nick Saban, who is coaching at Alabama.
Back in 2006, when he was coaching the Miami Dolphins, there was a story written by Justin Peters of Slate.com that pointed out Saban’s dedication to the job:
“Earlier this year, Saban turned down an invitation to dine with George W. Bush because it would have conflicted with practice time. Skipping out on dinner with the president is one thing—but Saban also turned down a chance to play golf at Augusta National. ‘Where I come from, there is no fun-loving,’ the coach once said. ‘You work. You work hard. And good things happen.’ Or, as the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi once wrote, ‘He’s a single-minded workaholic control freak who always looks perpetually constipated.’”
The philosophy was a product of his generation. He was brought up under coaches and parents that way and he was dealing with players who expected that from their coaches.
That was then, though, and this is now. Coaching has changed because our culture has changed, and with it the kids being coached.
Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic that has kept old school coaches from sleeping on their couch in their office because they were working from home and you had a different approach, a different feeling.
Families have become a big part of coaching, especially since rules changes have cut down on the time spent on the field with players. Two-a-day contact practices have been outlawed, and the intensity of those practices have been cut back.
On Monday it came to light that we still have in our midst a touch of the old school mixing in with the new approach.
Mike Gundy, despite his mullet, has been at it a long time now. He coaches Oklahoma State and on Monday someone asked him on a media call if this Sunday he had tuned into the U.S. Open on television, where Cowboy alum Matthew Wolff was leading going into the final round.
Gundy quickly admitted that not only wasn’t he tuned in but that “I’m ashamed to say, don’t even know who won the Open. Who won?”
It was, of course, Bryson DeChambeau, with Wolff finishing second.
But with Gundy it was football first, folks. He was buried into his getting ready for this week’s game with West Virginia, especially after a lackluster opening 17-6 victory over Tulsa on Saturday.
“I thought it was pretty cool that he was where he was,” Gundy said. “I really should have known that, though.”
On the other hand, you had his opposite, a more laid-back Neal Brown here at West Virginia.
For example, Brown was asked if he had spent his Saturday afternoon rooting for Oklahoma State while the game on television so they wouldn’t be quite so motivated and determined against WVU than if they lost.
“I was chasing my five-year-old daughter through most of the game,” Brown answered. “I didn’t have a chance to root either way.”
This is not to say there was a dereliction of duty there, simply a different emphasis on priorities. Brown, like so many modern coaches, compartmentalizes his life and finds a way to divvy up his time and concentration from recruiting, film watching, game planning, coaching, but also having dinner at home with the family.
He has spent as much time as he can to involve himself in his children’s development and also has made time to work on the development of his athletes as people as well as football players.
This approach has actually made it somewhat easier for him to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic and its effect upon the routine that college coaches usually follow.
To Brown, it created a blessing to be able to work out of his home.
“I do think there’s going to be some positives in each of our lives that comes from this,” he said in April as pandemic life began to take shape. “We were forced to hit pause. It wasn’t like we voluntarily did this. We were forced to hit pause, and there’s going to be positives that come from this. I think it’s positive in every bit of your life. Your personal, your spiritual, your professional. I think you’re going to have real growth during this.
“I think being able to spend this time with my family is something I’ve really enjoyed; I wish it didn’t happen under these circumstances but it’s something I’ve really enjoyed,” Brown continued. “Whether it’s being able to go in the yard and teach Dax how to throw and play tee-ball, which is definitely harder to do than teaching a quarterback who to throw it to when they’re open, you know what I mean? Basically, what I do is I teach the technique and my wife translates it to the five-year-old. But being able to do things like that.”
The result is a more normal atmosphere for everyone to work within, Brown and his players and his assistant coaches and the office staff. It creates a family atmosphere, and given the turmoil of 2020 that is exactly what everyone needs. In a year where we have come to realize that football is not life and death but that the life in which we are living is, this is a necessity to understand winning isn’t always defined on a scoreboard.