Home-life advantage

The unspoken truth among programs looking for a new coach: the man needs a wife

Originally Published: December 14, 2012
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Home-Life AdvantageIllustration by Mark MatchoAn unspoken truth among programs looking for a new coach: The man needs a wife.

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IN EARLY DECEMBER, a college football coach's wife is in an all-too-familiar scene, surrounded by empty boxes. Her husband has recently been let go by a BCS program, and once again she awaits word on where the family will be headed next. "Until then, I set everything up," she says by phone, having just hung up with a real estate agent. "That way, when the moving truck gets here, I can tell them where to go."

For now she has told her kids to stay off the Internet and ignore taunting at school. "But teasing isn't your biggest fear," she says, quickly reiterating not to ID her in this story. She wants anonymity for the same reason most wives declined to comment on the stress of being married to a marquee college coach: "Your biggest fear is doing or saying something that costs him his dream job."

For as long as anyone in the coaching biz can recall, an unwritten qualification to being a perfect hire is portraying a perfect home life. Even in this win-at-all-costs era, the 2012 season started with only four single head coaches among 124 FBS programs. To reinforce the status quo, 112 of those 120 had at least two kids.

"That photo in the media guide says a lot to people," says NC State AD Debbie Yow, referring to Olan Mills-style family portraits. "To fans and parents, family shows stability. It says, Here's an anchored man we can trust with our program or with my child."

No surprise then that when Yow introduced Northern Illinois' Dave Doeren as the Pack's head coach on Dec. 2, a tweeted family photo created warm fuzzies with the fans. It was a shot of Doeren's young red-and-white-clad sons, clearly bored by Dad's big moment, as wife Sara sat intently.

Two days later, Arkansas made a splash by hiring Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, who tied the knot in March. His wife, Jen, has already said they want kids "sooner than later." Soothing words for a program still smarting from ex-coach Bobby Petrino's motorcycle wreck last April. His passenger was Jessica Dorrell, a 25-year-old school employee with whom he had an affair.

[+] EnlargeGene & Jonna Chizik
Mike Blake/ReutersChizik's wife, Jonna, has made waves while "living in a fishbowl."

This is a world in which message boards and Twitter never sleep, allowing fans to buzz about affairs and things as juvenile as the attractiveness of their coach's wife. When Lane Kiffin was hired by Tennessee on Dec. 1, 2008, images of his wife, Layla, were all over the Internet, inspiring sites such as the Facebook page Our Coach's Wife Is Hotter Than Your Coach's Wife. When Kiffin skipped town for USC at season's end, those sites became staging grounds for venomous attacks.

But fanaticism often turns from trivial matters to those that affect a coach's career. There is still chatter over Louisville coach Charlie Strong's 2009 comments about being passed over by a Southern school's selection committee because of his interracial marriage. "Everybody always said I didn't get that job because my wife is white," said Strong, who was then Florida's D-coordinator. "If you think about it, a coach is standing up there representing the university. If you're not strong enough to look through that, then you have an issue."

Yet even an archetypal coach's wife has to account for the increased attention. Barbara Dooley is married to legendary former Georgia coach Vince and is the mother of fired Tennessee coach Derek. Last fall she quit her weekly unfiltered guest spot on the Alabama-based Paul Finebaum radio show at the request of Derek amid speculation that Mom was inadvertently damaging the perception of the Vols on the notoriously polarizing SEC-centric show.

The critical mass of unwitting influence was reached later in the 2011 season when a video surfaced of Kristi Malzahn, wife of then-Auburn O-coordinator Gus -- the mind behind Cam Newton and the Tigers' BCS title run. Speaking at a church in Rogers, Ark., Kristi offered insight on members of that title-winning team and freely made jokes, saying she'd write a book about football fans titled You People Are Freaking Nuts. Even after it was revealed that the video had been edited and posted by sports agent John Phillips, a Bama grad, the damage had been done. Among those not amused were members of a search committee at UNC; some speculate they dropped Gus from their short list of coaching candidates because of it. Instead, he landed at Arkansas State.

"You're in a high-profile position, and people manipulate things," said Gus after the video fallout. That's very unfortunate. She's a godly woman and a great support for me. We'll be better for it in the long run." On Dec. 4, Auburn proved it had forgiven his wife's now-infamous rant and hired him to replace Gene Chizik, whose wife, Jonna, remains a close friend of Kristi's. Jonna created a firestorm herself this fall on Facebook, imploring fans of struggling Auburn to "RISE UP and snatch back what Satan himself has stolen." When bloggers listed what Satan had stolen, including good defense and QB play, she tried to clarify, saying she only wanted the fan base to come together.

As a result, both women keep a lower profile. Kristi dialed back a once-prolific Twitter feed to avoid the scrutiny of what she described in the video as "life in a fishbowl."

That phrase is also a chapter title in an upcoming book by retired sociologist Janet Hope, stepmother of Danny Hope, who was fired as Purdue's coach on Nov. 25. His wife, Sally, is a co-author. They surveyed 285 coaches' wives and did in-depth interviews with 16 more. What they found were old themes underlined by modern problems.

"In 1948 Mary Stuhldreher, wife of Wisconsin coach [Harry], wrote a story titled, 'Football Fans Aren't Human,' " Janet Hope says. "Her kids were bullied. Sales clerks wouldn't serve her. All because of losses. Sixty years later, so many wives say the same to me. Managing criticism while keeping up appearances. But now there are so many more chances to make a damaging misstep."

College football, like the media, isn't what it was in '48. And who knows how it will change by 2018, let alone by 2048. Maybe raised stakes on the field will open minds and render the home front less important to people who do the hiring. After Charlie Strong turned a losing program into a BCS bowl team, his marriage didn't keep him off the wish lists of SEC schools. Even Petrino, who led Arkansas to three straight bowls, heard his name connected to top jobs and was eventually hired by Western Kentucky.

"To me, it's not really relevant," said West Virginia AD Oliver Luck after hiring divorce Dana Holgorsen. Oregon's Chip Kelly, the only current FBS coach who has never married, continues to succeed, garnering interest from the NFL, where 30 of 32 coaches have wives. "Part of the attraction to Chip was he had nothing to concentrate on but football," says ESPN analyst and former Ducks AD Mike Bellotti. "But it has to be a solid person, one who can handle not having that anchor of the home. Chip is that, without question. Some aren't."

So does an apparent shift in hiring philosophy signify a new line of thinking or just an exception to an old rule? "I really believe that being married, especially for a long time, says a lot about a coach, and that will always be important to a school," says South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, father of four and husband to Jerri since 1966. "But this is about winning. If a guy wins ballgames, there will always be someone out there who doesn't care who's standing next to Coach on his Christmas card. Even if he's by himself."

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Ryan McGee | email

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