There were, for a while and not so long ago, NFL coaches who seemed as if they might also have functional human lives. This doesn't necessarily mean that, say, Steve Mariucci was taking cooking classes with his wife at the local YMCA or building whimsical birdhouses in his basement workshop or whatever. But there was the sense that there might have been something in his life beyond film study, unhealthy food and anxiety-gnawed couch-naps marred by miniature night terrors having to do with special teams. This could've been something as simple as golf, or reading a novel every now and then, or even mild but regular interactions with family members. The bar is not terribly high, here.
And yet, for various reasons, most NFL coaches have not cleared it very often. This owes a lot to the various types of strange person who self-select as NFL coaches — barking amphetamized Grudens; steely obsessive maestros a la Bill Walsh; Type A super-sourpusses in the Bill Parcells mold who leveraged their vast and unrelenting personal nastiness into success. There are some frank sociopaths in the game, too, although with all due respect to Greg Schiano these guys seem mostly to stick to big-time college gigs, where the perceived stakes better match their personal grandiosity.
But this is a difficult job that would naturally attract difficult people, and those difficult people, and the impossible people they work for — the hard-driving, no-excuses swells in the owner's boxes and us — have made it more difficult in turn. The hours and stressors, both self-inflicted and exogenous, have spiraled; what was merely crazy once is now insane.
In recent years, we've seen the steady phasing out of possibly-also-have-a-life types and the rise of new, stranger hybrid strains of ultra-competitive, ultra-driven Coaching Weirdos. There are exceptions to this trend, but they are exceptions to it. There are far more Andy Reid Film Room Vampires, pale and doughy as a manatee's belly after untold underground hours alone in the dark with All 22 footage; more of the Sons Of Belichick, joyless and abrupt in their tattered sweats. And there are the Harbaughs, literal and figurative, shrieking at the old norms and everything else in between grim early morning treadmill sessions.
It is difficult, at times, to imagine what those people and their lives must be like, at least beyond the 18-hour days spent power-watching the Arizona Cardinals (or whichever team is next) in great, grim detail. We see what that does to a person in the set of Bill Belichick's mouth and the weird fervor in Jim Harbaugh's eyes and the weary perma-exasperation of Tom Coughlin. We see it, more alarmingly, in the recent health problems of John Fox and Gary Kubiak.
And thanks to the schedule that Ravens coach John Harbaugh recently shared with ESPN The Magazine's Kevin Van Valkenburg, we don't even really need to imagine how strange this life is. Here, for instance, is how Harbaugh began the work week that ended with a Week 11's overtime win in Chicago:
5:50am Wake up on office couch
6-8 Review opponent game tape
8-8:15 Call Ingrid (wife)
8:30-8:45 Meet with team president Dick Cass
8:45-9:15 Meet with assistant GM Eric DeCosta
9:15-9:45 Prep for team meeting
Which is fairly intense even before you notice that it means Harbaugh either didn't go home after the team's home win the previous Sunday or went home and then went back to the office to sleep so that he could get an earlier start on tape review on Monday. "Sleeping at the office is about maximizing my time," Harbaugh told Van Valkenburg. "I can get more done if I eliminate time I'd spend driving home." The drive, Harbaugh reveals in his personal schedule, takes about 25 minutes. His personal schedule also shows that he does not sleep in his own bed until Wednesday night, and works somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 hours every day. We can only assume that Harbaugh woke up on that couch again this Monday morning.
We also can assume that Harbaugh wouldn't be doing this if he didn't think it was necessary; he does seem aware that it's probably not good for him, and he sneaks in miniature workouts and poignantly brief Bible study sessions throughout the week as a concession to his broader well-being. But a 17-hour day that begins and ends on a couch and whose interaction with family is limited to say the very least — in that Week 11 schedule, Harbaugh had no contact with his wife or 10-year-old daughter at all on Tuesday — is finally just that. Whether it is helpful or not for coaching purposes — and surely there's a point of diminishing returns on 15-minute breakfast meetings with bleary special teamers — it just does not seem like a very good way to be alive.
With that in mind, and I hasten to mention without the approval of any scientific professionals, I've devised a life-changing innovation specially designed for NFL coaches that I think offers a better way to live than sneaking in 15-minute phone calls with the wife between 5:30 and 5:45pm (Wednesday, for Harbaugh). I present to you: Greatly Reduced Undesirable Deficiencies Through Extended Napping, or GRUDEN. Here's how this revolutionary new program works:
During the months of March and April — unpopular and inefficient months, and not generally considered essential for NFL coach consciousness — coaches will be placed into a state of medically induced hibernation. How this can be done safely is something I'll leave up to team medical staffs — if they can help players recover fully from mild-to-moderate brain trauma in five days, surely putting Mike McCarthy into safe, sound slumber for two months with a Dilaudid-spiked chicken parm hero shouldn't be too difficult. During this "down time," coaches will receive biofeedback and intravenous Red Bull in order to keep their natural caffeine levels from crashing, and will be turned, bathed and changed as needed by a team of medical professionals or family members.
When their offseason begins in May, coaches will be eased back into their routines — first with seven hours of video study per day, then progressively more until they've reached their usual levels sometime in June. At this point in the season, there is really no need for coaches to be working more than 14-hour days. But with the approach of the NFL Draft, coaches can begin drawing down on the Strategic Accrued Sleep Reserve built up during their two months of GRUDEN sleep. They should do so, in fact, as cashing in those Accumulated Sleep Hours during the NFL season is not as easy as "just staying awake and alert and as angry as necessary given team circumstances for the entire duration of the NFL season."
Of course, the entire purpose of GRUDEN is to allow coaches to stay awake for those months — during the team's bye week, coaches can either enter GRUDEN Sleep or spend time with their families or coaching/video staff as needed. But this is a question of training one's body, not simply drawing down on the additional 1,464 hours of Strategic Accrued Sleep Reserve to cancel out the five or so hours of sleep per night that coaches presently get during the NFL season.
Learning to do that will require discipline and dedication, like anything else worth doing, as well as thoughtful, carefully monitored self-denial in order to accustom the body these new and unreasonable norms. Our marketing team suggests we call this "learning to Live GRUDEN," although my argument, brand identity notwithstanding, is that we should encourage coaches to come up with their own names for their systems (The Arians Cycle, Tomlin Time, et cetera) in order to encourage buy-in and ownership.
Will it be easy? No, certainly not. Is it healthy? Forgive the rhetorical questions, but I should answer this one: it absolutely is not, and the health consequences for coaches who Go GRUDEN will be extremely severe in both the short and long term. Coaches who are signed up for GRUDEN by team management might be made aware of these risks, if team management decides to do so.
But, of course, the coaches will have known as much going in — football is a sport of extremes, physically and emotionally. Remember, please, that these men are warriors in their own ways, and that the GRUDEN system wouldn't exist if there were not a demand — more than that, an actual and acute need — for it. It may not be how we wish to live, but we owe it to these men to give them every chance to achieve the excellence they pursue.
If the health consequences will be severe — and, to reiterate, they will be extremely severe and multifaceted — let's remember the more extended pursuit of excellence GRUDEN makes possible alongside that chosen, self-inflicted damage. Longer, more in-depth Bible or film studies. Multiple family meals at home per week, or longer and more detailed meetings with assistant coaches and executives. In short, GRUDEN gives coaches a chance not merely to do this most demanding of jobs better, but to transform their lives around that job's demands. Again, because my attorneys have advised that this be a point of great emphasis for liability reasons, Going GRUDEN is not healthy. It is in fact basically the opposite of healthy. But this is football. All we can do is give these men the choice, and the chance to be great.