Last week Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, a 59-year-old with no health issues, walked away from coaching just three weeks before the start of practice. "I've decided to retire," he said at a hastily called news conference on July 14, "not resign."
Johnson said that he and his wife, Catherine, had discussed the move for several years, and while there was no magic moment that led to his decision, the 34-year coaching veteran made up his mind earlier this month that he needed to explore the world beyond football. "[Football] consumes your life," he says. "You only have so many years to live, and you want to see a different way." He added, "Some guys will coach [with] one foot in the coffin. I want to do some other things."
His explanation was refreshing, and it's amazing that more big-time college coaches haven't made the same decision. Despite the lucrative pay, the job has turned into a 24/7/365 stress-inducing beast. Coaches are de facto CEOs of multimillion-dollar operations with dozens of employees and more than 100 players. They must win. They must recruit. They must make sure their players don't start bar brawls. They must schmooze with boosters and raise money. They must make sure their players graduate. They must win.
Yet so many can't walk away. "It's like the person who can't stay away from candy," says Andy Talley, who coached Villanova to the Division I-AA national title in 2009. " 'I'm not going to do it anymore....' And the next thing you know, they've got a Hershey bar in their hand." Talley, who suffered a heart attack in '02, remained in coaching only after he revamped the way his staff operated, delegating more responsibilities to his assistants, and reduced his stress level.
Florida coach Urban Meyer was hospitalized with chest pains on the morning of last Dec. 6, hours after losing in the SEC championship game to Alabama. He resigned on Dec. 26, only to change his mind the next day. Meyer says the issues that led to his hospitalization and resignation were purely physical, but he still has tried to reduce the mental rigors of his job by giving up his duties as special teams coach and taking more days off (he traveled to Hawaii and Rome on vacation this spring), among other things.
Though the timing of his decision suggests he wanted to ensure that longtime assistant Robbie Caldwell would get a full season at the helm on an interim basis, Johnson insists that there was no motive behind the announcement; he'd simply had enough 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls. At a small private school with rigorous academic standards that make it difficult to compete in the SEC, Johnson was just 29--66 over eight years, but he worked wonders for the traditionally irrelevant program. Two seasons ago he led the Commodores to their first bowl game since 1982 and first bowl win since '55. But he also lost 26 games by seven or fewer points. "I would be lying if I said [the close losses] didn't have an effect," Johnson says.
So he chose to walk away. And as the job demands more from coaches with each passing year, don't be surprised if several of his peers follow his footsteps.
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Bobby Johnson wasn't on the hot seat, but these coaches are, and like Johnson, they could be watching football from their sofas soon. Rich Rodriguez, Michigan Lawsuits. Alleged NCAA rules violations. For a coach who goes 10--2, these are annoyances. For one who has gone 8--16 in Ann Arbor, they're grounds for dismissal. Les Miles, LSU Fair or not, the coach at a traditional SEC powerhouse is supposed to win every game. Miles has eight conference losses in the past two years. Dan Hawkins, Colorado Hawk (below) would have been fired after 2009 if the athletic department had had the $2.5million to buy him out. Barring a miracle turnaround (he's 16--33 in Boulder), he's gone after this season.
FRANKIE CREEL/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM (JOHNSON)
OUT THE 'DORE Though he energized a moribund program, Johnson grew tired from all the narrow losses.
DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP (HAWKINS)