Desperate for serenity, for stillness in his whirring brain and roiling gut, Bill Parcells would wake up, choking on his own vomit.
“The bile regurgitates into your mouth, and it burns so badly,” Parcells said. “You almost choke to death.”
The misery of being a football coach manifested itself as an actual taste. Defeat, apparently, is not bitter. It’s acidic. And it gurgled only when Parcells was coaching, never during the offseason and never when he worked in the front office.
The losses torment Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone, too. Guilt washes over him when he encounters team employees the next morning in the office. He’s haunted by the image of a dejected Bills fan “going home, not feeling good, going to work the next day, taking all the crap, people making fun of him.”
Marrone scowled and shook his head.
“I can never really explain that pain,” Marrone said. “It’s a physical pain that you feel, that you let these people down.”
The lifestyle of a head football coach is grueling and inherently unhealthy. Stress, sleep deprivation, depression, shame over subpar performances and family neglect, loneliness and outside obligations can grind a man to the nub.
“It’s not glamorous,” Parcells said. “It’s a very lonely job, and people don’t understand that.”
Two NFL head coaches were hospitalized last week. Denver Broncos coach John Fox, 58, underwent an aortic valve transplant. Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, 52, suffered a mini-stroke on the sideline Sunday night.
They joined a long list of head coaches who’ve been stricken at relatively young ages.
Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka had a massive, in-season heart attack when he was 49, the same age Marrone is now. Parcells, after two angioplasties failed, had bypass surgery at 50. Dan Reeves had heart procedures at 46 and 54.
The stress isn’t restricted to NFL coaches. University of Michigan legend Bo Schembechler was 40 and about to coach in the Rose Bowl when he had his first heart attack. Former Bills coaches Lou Saban and Chan Gailey suffered heart attacks while coaching in college at 55 and 53.
Urban Meyer was 45 when he took a medical leave from the University of Florida with what he described as “waking up every morning with a toothache in your chest for the last three years.” University of Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has had at least five epileptic seizures on game days.
In 1988, high school coach Ron Stoops Sr., father of four future college coaches, had a heart attack on the sideline and died in the ambulance. He was 54.
“Coaching is an unbelievably demanding occupation,” sports psychologist Dr. Cal Botterill said. “Half the time, they’re working 24/7. They hardly get any breaks.”
Botterill, father of former Buffalo Sabres forward Jason Botterill, has been a consultant for several NHL clubs and the Canadian Olympic team. Dr. Botterill retired from the University of Winnipeg but still works with athletes and surgeons.
“Medical doctors are just about as bad as coaches with overload and exhaustion and long shifts,” Botterill said. “But coaches’ work weeks are up there and maybe higher.”
A coach’s week consists of breaking down an opponent’s game film, self scouting, drawing up a game plan, conducting practices, meeting with players in groups and individually, conferring with medical personnel and speaking to the media.
That’s when the program is running smoothly.
“There are going to be five things that happen every day in the business that you wish would not happen,” Parcells said. “The only problem is you don’t know what they’re going to be.
“Someone’s late. Someone’s hurt. Someone beat up his wife. You thought this guy was going to play, but now he can’t. It’s just one thing after another.”
Time becomes precious in the crucible, ratcheting the pressure and robbing a coach of meaningful moments away from football, whether with his family or by himself.
Marrone arrives at One Bills Drive each day around 4:45 a.m. so he may have a half hour or so of tranquility before the machine starts churning again.
In his 26 years as an NFL head coach, Marty Schottenheimer sometimes would curl up on his office floor around 3:30 a.m. and get about three hours of sleep.
“You had to get done what had to get done,” said Schottenheimer, who took the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers to the playoffs.
One Super Bowl-winning coach, who shall not be identified here, was known to eat while on the toilet, so as to squeeze every possible bit of efficiency out of his workday.
“It’s a funny profession,” Marrone said. “I don’t expect anyone on the outside to really know exactly what goes on.”
Own worst enemy
Kubiak’s Texans, a Super Bowl contender entering the season, had two victories when he collapsed. Fox went into the hospital with a 7-1 record and was on his bye week.
Until a serious condition is revealed, few fans realize — or care — what a coach must cope with throughout a season.
In interviews for this story, coaches measured their words while trying to explain the hazards of a profession most outsiders would consider exhilarating and give an appendage to try for a day.
“We all pretty much understand what it entails when we step into it,” Schottenheimer said. “I wouldn’t say there was anything I experienced as a head coach that wasn’t my expectation.”
Marrone wanted to emphasize one particular point. When it comes to anxiety and chaos, perspective is important.
“For us, it’s the pressure we put on ourselves,” Marrone said. “But it’s nowhere near what the men and women in the military or people battling the economy face.”
Those frazzled people rely on their sports teams to provide a much-needed diversion from their everyday problems. Coaches want to win for them, too.
As for the ungodly hours, Marrone added, “If I were to ask, ‘What do you love doing the most? OK, can you do that for 12 or 15 hours a day?’ Most people would probably say, ‘Yes.’ ”
In such a hypercompetitive environment populated with Type-A personalities, keeping the needle pegged in the red is normal.
Unlike players or officials, coaches don’t have a union to protect them from the grind or – more importantly – themselves. Nobody can tell a head coach to slow down, to go home a couple hours early and have dinner with his wife and kids.
“They’re their own worst enemies,” Botterill said. “They get the job, and they’re so excited about it that they start to work 24/7. Before you know it, they’re doing things that might not be in the best interests of the organization long-term. A lot of times, these guys are on the verge of burnout. Sometimes it shows emotionally.
“It’s a crazy business. They’re all trying to keep up with the other guy. And when you’re going up against a Bill Belichick, you’ve got to be more thorough to compete. It just escalates the effort all the time.”
One might assume Schottenheimer was the quintessential tortured soul of a coach. He ranks sixth all-time with 200 regular-season victories. He won eight division titles.
Schottenheimer, however, failed to reach a Super Bowl, let alone hoist the Lombardi Trophy. He was fired twice and resigned from the Browns over a coaching-staff dispute with owner Art Modell.
Even so, Schottenheimer rejected the idea stress was a problem for him.
“I never thought that it brought undue pressure,” Schottenheimer said. “It was a challenge certainly from week to week, but you put together a plan and try to execute it.
“It was a terrific, terrific experience to be a part of the development of these young men not only as individuals, but as teammates. That’s the most gratifying part of coaching.”
Victories are sweet. There’s no denying that.
“When you put together a plan, execute it and experience victory, there’s nothing like it,” Schottenheimer said. “Outside of maybe the birth of my children, I don’t think I’ve experienced anything greater than a week-to-week process of bringing young men together, working on the plan and implementing the plan.”
How long does the triumphant elation last?
“It lasts until the end of the game,” Schottenheimer said.
That’s the most significant problem.
Although winning is what teams strive for, perhaps the truer objective is to avoid losing.
A universal construct for coaches is that defeat hurts worse than a victory provides pleasure.
“Now, the rewards are pretty great if you’re successful,” said Parcells, winner of two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. “But success really is never final in this business. Failure can be.”
A key starter was injured. A unit played poorly. A player said something reckless in the newspaper. A position was depleted, and the scouting department couldn’t fill the need. A division opponent kept pace in the standings.
“Something negative always happened,” Parcells said. “That’s what beats you down.
“Winning doesn’t relax you. Wins you put away in two seconds. Losses you can’t get rid of them. You always think back, ‘What could I have done? What mistake did I make? How could I have helped my team more?’”
Schottenheimer tried to forget the losses as quickly as he could.
“Once it’s over, it’s gone,” Schottenheimer said. “And the worst thing you can do is sit around in self-pity. That’s all a part of the process on Monday, but you just need to find a way to move on.”
Marrone still is working to develop that skill. He hasn’t learned an effective way to forget losing yet.
The Bills are 3-6. They’ve had a few nauseating defeats. Recurring injuries to important players have escalated frustrations. For Marrone, walking around One Bills Drive with an encouraging smile plastered on his face can be difficult.
“I see the people who work here and feel so guilty, like I let everyone down,” Marrone said. “So I feel that way inside, but yet when I walk into the building I have to make sure they know, ‘Hey, I’m ready to go. We’re going to get this right.’ ”
Head coaches cannot scurry for cover. That’s why Parcells calls it “the loneliest profession in the world.”
NFL coaching staffs are enormous. Marrone has 21 assistants, the AFC East’s largest support group. But they don’t face nearly as much scrutiny as him. Few would be recognized at the gas pump or deli counter. Only Marrone faces reporters six times a week and multiple times throughout each day.
The head coach cannot avoid questions from the media, his staff or the front office about what happened on the field and what will happen next.
“When I was an assistant coach or a coordinator, I was allowed to some extent to hide in my office,” Marrone said. “You’re not around the media, not around the building as much. I didn’t feel as much pressure on me.”
The head coach can lean on his assistants only to a point.
When it comes time to address those myriad concerns, the head coach needs to make the final call. He must have credible solutions ready.
“When you step up in front of those young men and they’re looking at you,” Schottenheimer said, “they’ve got the same anxiety and concerns that you do, and you better have answers for them.”
A family toll
Wives essentially become widows during the season and are left to raise the kids, maintain the household. Chances are they’ve already sacrificed careers of their own.
Parcells and his wife, Judy, had three daughters. After 40 years of marriage, they divorced in 2002.
“I don’t think it destroyed my family,” Parcells said, “but I think my ambition overrode some parental duties. I was neglectful in that way, and I was regretful of that. The pain of that regret also wears on you.
“The Bobby Knights, the Tony LaRussas, the Sean Paytons, the Tom Coughlins and Bill Belichicks and D. Wayne Lukases ... This is it, man. This is it for us.
“My family suffered. I was married to something else. Can different people balance it and coexist with family life? Absolutely. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them.”
Three NFL coaches have lost troubled sons within the past eight years, leading many to wonder if absenteeism was a common thread.
Tony Dungy was Indianapolis Colts coach in 2005 when his son committed suicide. Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin was Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator when his son, previously convicted of two sex offenses, fell through some ice while drunk and drowned in 2009. One of Andy Reid’s sons died of a heroin overdose last year at Philadelphia Eagles training camp.
Schottenheimer was lucky when it came to being around his family. Maybe that helps to temper his opinions about professional tensions. He was able to coach for several years with a brother, Kurt Schottenheimer, and a son, Brian Schottenheimer, on his staffs.
“All of us in coaching have that struggle of time and family and how to spend it,” Marrone said. “You miss so much.”
Marrone knew he wanted to be a coach when his days as a professional offensive lineman were over. He was keenly aware that to have a family he would need to find a wife who understood the football lifestyle.
It’s not a coincidence Marrone’s wife, Helen, is the daughter of a football coach. Her dad is Boots Donnelly, a Middle Tennessee State institution.
But Helen Donnelly Marrone wasn’t a housewife-in-waiting. She has a law degree and was a practicing attorney for a few years after they married.
One day, when Marrone was a college assistant, the partners from Helen’s law firm took him to lunch. They wanted to know what Marrone’s long-term career plans were, aware that football coaches are nomads. The law firm wanted him and Helen to stay put so they could make her a partner.
“That’s when I started thinking, ‘Whoa! She’s worked just as hard as I have, if not harder.’ She went to school longer,” Marrone said. “I still wonder, ‘Am I being selfish?’
“I get to do what I truly love to do. I put a lot of time in it, and I’m not there for those things like watching my kids play sports. I think about what kind of regrets I’m going to have down the road, when my children are grown up.”
Marrone can break down his offseason into three family phases.
The first he calls “transition week,” where he finds himself asking questions like, “Where do we put the forks?” and expects his family to spend time with him as he’d like.
“Then they remind me, ‘Hey, you haven’t been a part of this family for a while. We’re on a schedule. Don’t come in and screw things up,’ ” Marrone said.
The week after, Marrone said, “is really, really incredible because it’s all the things you missed and you’re able to appreciate with your family.”
That glorious middle phase doesn’t last two weeks.
“Then you start getting concerned about the next season and you start to worry again,” Marrone said with a grimace.
“If people think there’s a lot of pressure on us, it’s much harder on the people we have at home.”
Marrone delivered passionate comments in his postgame news conference. In describing his one-track mindset to coaching up his Bills, he off-handedly mentioned he wouldn’t even pet his dog when he went home.
The next day, Marrone fielded several inquiries from reporters about the dog. The bewildered look on Marrone’s face was priceless. He was an NFL head coach, getting questioned about his master-dog relationship.
For the record, the dog’s name is Boudreaux. He’s a labradoodle with two parody Twitter accounts.
“The scrutiny is worse than ever. The understanding is less,” Parcells said. “It’s very much in the public eye, and with that goes things that are difficult to explain.
“But, hey, it beats working for a living.”