Column: Paying the Price

College coaches earn big-time salaries – for big-time stress
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Just a few hours after Michigan State beat Notre Dame with a gutsy fake field goal in overtime, Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio suffered a heart attack.

Granted, Dantonio is probably wired a little tighter than most. If you see a picture of him laughing, the photo was probably taken with a quick-reflex camera. But the fact is, every college coach is wired tight – simply because they have to be.

Anyone who’s coached their kids’ soccer team knows how nerve-wracking even that can be. But for my money nothing beats college football for pure, mind-frying stress.

First, you’ve got to schmooze a few hundred teenagers, their families and their coaches, in the hopes that a couple dozen of them might come to your school. Then you have to persuade them to go to class, to study, to stay out of the bars and off drugs – and then go out on Saturday and beat the hell out of the guy across the line, or else the first four virtues won’t save your job.

And your players, of course, have got problems of their own. Just take the offensive line, for example. The first guy’s worried about getting benched, the next guy’s worried about playing in the pros, the guy next to him is worried about flunking out, and the guy next to him is worried his girlfriend might be pregnant.

Meanwhile, the coach is worried they might jump offside or miss their blocks. If they do, they’ll jeopardize the efforts of the skinny 19-year-old kid behind them, who’s supposed to kick a pointy ball some 40 yards over gargantuan defenders, straight between two posts 18.5 feet wide – all into a 20 mile-per-hour cross wind, with 80,000 drunken fans yelling at him to miss it.

If any of these guys screw up, the coach will lose his job and have to move his family. So will his assistants. And so will the coaches of the school’s two dozen other sports, who depend on football revenues to fund their programs and salaries, too.

No wonder they go crazy. Years before Woody Hayes ended his career by punching a Clemson player on the sideline, on more than one occasion, during practice, he became so angry that he punched himself – in the face.

Hayes’s most famous protégé, Bo Schembechler, suffered his first heart attack at age 40, right before his first Rose Bowl. He had another heart attack and two open-heart surgeries before he retired – at age 60. Even his critics had to concede, the man gave his all for Michigan.

Dantonio’s colleague, Spartan basketball coach Tom Izzo, told me, “When I’m coaching, I feel guilty that I’m not recruiting. When I’m recruiting, I feel guilty that I’m not coaching. And when I’m coaching or recruiting, I feel guilty that I’m not spending more time with my family. You can’t win.”

Yes, today’s big-time coaches make big-time money. In 1969, Schembechler came to Michigan for a grand total of 21,000 dollars. Those aren’t even digits in coaches’ contracts today, which now have periods, not commas.

But with bigger money comes bigger pressure. When Michigan builds a $226 million addition to its stadium, they have to pay for it – and you can’t pay for it without winning games. And if you don’t win games, you get ripped every day on cable TV, talk radio and the internet, not to mention good old-fashioned newspapers – usually by people who criticize you for not meeting standards of excellence they could never achieve themselves. And, your kids will get insulted in school – by their teachers.

Yes, the money’s better. But having seen college coaches up close, I can tell you this: I wouldn’t take it. And if you saw the price they pay, you might not, either.

So, Coach Dantonio: Get well soon. Your job will be waiting for you.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By JR Roberts
    September 25, 2010 at 9:44 am | permalink

    Lots of jobs are stressful. Lots of jobs are 24/7. Lots of jobs are more meaningful than coaching college football. College coaches make unreasonable amounts of money because there are unreasonable amounts of money in college football. Isn’t that about all there is to it?

  2. By Steve Bean
    September 25, 2010 at 3:53 pm | permalink

    John, to all of your contentions (including the “80,000 drunken fans” line), I would ask, “Is that true?” and then, “Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”

    None of us need to live with the negative feelings (and physical impacts) that stem from stressful thoughts. We can question those thoughts and learn that we can see reality for what it is, perfection, and that we don’t need fear or desire to motivate us to act. When we’re clear in our thinking we act out of love. After all, coaches love coaching, right?

    You might give Byron Katie’s book, Loving What Is, a read and then pass it on to Coach Dantonio and any other coaches you know. Katie does The Work (four simple questions, including the two above, plus turnarounds) all over the world with everyone from parents to prisoners. Coaches and athletes will likely find out about it sometime soon and take full advantage of it.

  3. By Stephen Cain
    September 25, 2010 at 10:56 pm | permalink

    Hell of a column. Of course all 80,000 aren’t drunk, but you know what John’s saying, and it rings true. You or I or John might not trade places with a Bo or a Woody, but the people who go into coaching and stick with it have to be stress/adrenaline junkies. How many actually walk away without being forced out by failing health or too many losses?