Published November 20, 2014
Imagine if every decision you made at work was scrutinized by millions of people and your livelihood was essentially tied to the performance of a bunch of college students.
That's the life of big-time college football head coaches such as Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, who had a heart attack after his team's thrilling 34-31 victory against Notre Dame on Saturday night.
It's a 24/7 job that once a week requires a major presentation. Except for a coach, the conference room is a stadium packed with crazy fans and television cameras.
While it'd be a stretch to say coaching is hazardous to one's health, the fact is the lifestyle is not conducive to staying fit. Late nights in the film room, meals grabbed here and there, hours away from family and precious little down time — all of it contributes to stress.
"There is nothing healthy about it," former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said Sunday.
The 54-year-old Dantonio is expected to make a full recovery after having surgery early Sunday to put a stent in a blocked blood vessel leading to his heart. He's expected to remain in the hospital a few more days, but when he returns to the sideline is unclear.
He definitely won't be back to work when Michigan State plays Northern Colorado on Saturday.
And to be sure, the news of Dantonio's condition caused more than a few coaches to take notice Sunday.
"Obviously, it hits you right away, not only for the individual and the person Mark Dantonio, but as a coach in the profession," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "You go through the emotions of the game and obviously you think about your own self in terms of are you taking care of yourself, are you getting the right checkups and those kinds of things?"
Dantonio's heart attack comes less than a year after Florida's Urban Meyer was hospitalized with chest pains after the Southeastern Conference championship game. Meyer went so far as to resign, though that lasted only 24 hours and he instead he took a leave of absence after being diagnosed with esophageal spams. He is taking medication to fight the problem.
Doctors say the type of work-related stress that can lead to medical problems is often caused by lack of time and lack of control — two items football coaches deal with every day.
Leach was the coach at Texas Tech for 10 years before being fired after last season.
He said eating right and getting regular exercise was almost impossible for him during the football season. It wasn't just the practices, meetings and game planning that consumed his day. Being the football coach at a major university is a lot like being the CEO of a huge company, multimillion-dollar salary included.
"There's the stress of dealing with the day-to-day and the ups and downs of 120 different people, most of them ages 18-22," said Leach, who is working as a television analyst for CBS College Sports this season and hopes to be back in coaching next year. "There is also the politics that go into a university and some of the bureaucracy."
Add to that media obligations and the time it takes to act as an ambassador for the program with fans and alumni, and it's no surprise Leach says he would generally sleep 4-6 hours a night.
"Then I'd throw in a 10-hour (night)," he said. "I'm living proof that you can cram for sleep."
The 49-year-old Leach said after years of poor eating habits — unhealthy foods and not eating frequently enough — he assigned a graduate assistant the job of making sure the head coach would stop what he was doing a few times a day and eat a proper meal.
Joker Phillips is 47 and in his first season as Kentucky's head coach after 20 years as an assistant. He said he has made sure to keep good habits despite the demands of the job.
"I still work out every day. I still get the same amount of sleep. I just think this game is important to me, but my family and personal health is more important," he said. "I am a competitor and I do want to win, but I'm not going to let this game ruin my life."
Reading the sports pages the day after a loss does nothing to relieve the stress of a job that by its nature attracts ultra-competitive people who tend to put plenty of pressure on themselves.
"No. 1, you feel such a responsibility to the fans, to the program to do a good job and do your part, and that can weigh on you," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "You feel such a responsibility to the kids that you coach. Those two things alone, the responsibility you feel is enough. Then add to it the day-to-day scrutiny that you get publicly, and that certainly weighs on you. Then add to it the patience or lack thereof of universities with their coaches."
When coaches have a bad day, every couch potato thinks they could have done better.
Leach said he learned to not beat himself up when he had a bad game. The goal was to prepare as best he could during the week and learn from mistakes.
"If you do the best you can," he said, "you have to be satisfied with it."
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Louisville, Ky., Rick Gano in Chicago, Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., and Noah Trister in Detroit contributed to this report.