With 17 games left in the 2006-07 season, Milwaukee Bucks management called Larry Krystkowiak into the office to tell him they were firing the head coach and promoting him.
While he dealt with management meetings and press interviews, his wife, Jan, was trying to deliver some life-altering news of a different kind.
“My wife was calling and leaving messages, trying to let me know we were having twins,” he said. “I had a crazy afternoon.”
While many coaches dream of reaching that level, Krystkowiak said the demands of the NBA, coupled with the birth of his daughters Samantha and Finley, now 7, created one of the greatest challenges he’s faced as a coach and father. “That was probably the hardest year,” he said. “I missed the girls' first year and a half. I actually missed a game the night they were born. … It’s just really hard to be an NBA coach and try to have a family, especially a young family.” While collegiate coaching can be consuming both in time and energy, the NBA’s 82-game season — complete with 11- to 14-day road trips — was relentless.
“Professional basketball and a young family is not possible,” he said. “It’s a big reason I’m in college. It’s just too hard. Basically for eight or nine months, you’re kissing everybody goodbye, and it’s not worth the trade-off.”
Most parents struggle to find a balance between the commitments of parenthood with the demands of a career. But the balancing act undertaken by collegiate coaches is both complicated and unique because of the role sports play in our communities.
Coaches are leaders; they are celebrities. They are ambassadors. And they can be lightening rods for controversy striving to create stability in one of the most tumultuous and unpredictable professions available. To make that balancing act even more complicated, they have to find solutions to problems that most of their peers won’t understand, let alone be able to help them navigate.
Krystkowiak said he uses the same approach to managing the demands of fatherhood that he uses in his basketball program.
“There isn’t a manual,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s kind of like the same mission statement that we talk about with our basketball program. I’ve always said, ‘You wake up and every day is a jump ball.’ That’s been my pet saying. You just try to win the day and make the most of it. Things don’t always go as planned, and I’ve missed something that I’d really like to be at.”
But he said he tries to see opportunity in every moment, rather than regretting what he didn’t have.
“I don’t know that you need a graduation or a championship game in order to have a special moment,” he said. “Sometimes it can be an average day that you feel like you hit it out of the park with having fun. … You have to make more of normal days so that when you’re missing something, you feel like it’s easier to swallow for everybody.”
The good with the bad
Utah State head football coach Matt Wells gave himself five years to make a career in coaching a reality.
“I said if that doesn’t happen, then I’ll get out and use my marketing degree, get a job in business,” he said. The Naval Academy hired him first as a graduate assistant and then as the receivers coach. He was there until 2001, after which he went to Tulsa, then New Mexico, Louisville, New Mexico and then finally returned to his alma mater, Utah State, in 2011 first as the quarterbacks and receivers coach. He took over the program in 2013.
The oldest of his three children, Jadyn, now 12, attended five schools by third grade.
“That was hard,” Wells said. “It was really hard on her. Your kids have to make friends really quick, and then they may have to leave them. They don’t get to choose that."
Unpredictability is only one of the issues. The one constant is how the demands of the job can devour a life. All of the men said carving out time that is devoid of coaching duties can be difficult.
“You’re always on,” Wells said. “You’re out of town, you’re in the community, whether you’re wearing the logo or not,” he said. “It’s something I embrace, but it’s a tremendous responsibility.”
BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins said the pressure that comes with coaching is unique because sometimes the effort given and the outcome do not match.
“Coaching is a lot of pressure,” Judkins said. “You’re out there, and if you don’t perform or do a good job, no matter what kind of a person you are, you can be fired. I just try to give my best effort, work as hard as I can and not worry about it. … I’ve been really blessed. In 27 years of coaching, I’ve only had one losing season. And it was the hardest season of my life. I also thought I did the best job of coaching that year. It’s a crazy thing.”
Trying to balance the responsibilities of fatherhood with the demands of collegiate coaching can be emotionally exhausting and logistically impossible.
“It’s a moral dilemma, a real trade off,” BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Most of us see other people’s kids more than we see our own. All of our first Christmases were spend in Las Vegas. My kids didn’t know Christmas without Vegas.”
For all the coaches, securing a job as a head coach enabled them to do a better job at balancing the job with family life.
“When I became the head coach, it’s something I felt very strongly about,” Mendenhall said. “There has to be more than football.”
But there is also more than just practices and games. There are speaking engagements, community events, recruiting trips and meetings with staff and administrators. Mendenhall said his oldest son Cutter was upset that the game at Colorado State fell on Halloween and asked him why he couldn’t miss “just one game.” “You have to help them understand that there is a need to make a living, and that the job is unique and different,” he said. “And then, they do get a lot of really cool experiences.” From riding the bus to games with the players to locker room and sideline access. The children of coaches are enmeshed in the programs for which their parents work in ways that other fans can only dream about — and envy.
Still, at the end of the day, what they really want is what every kid wants.
“They get to be in these really cool stadiums, they have really unique player influences, but what they really wanted was me to be present and focused on them,” Mendenhall said. “And that really is difficult when you’re essentially on a business trip.”
The glare of the spotlight
The spotlight — or magnifying glass — that collegiate coaches deal with can be especially difficult for their families. It is unforgiving and often unkind, and each coach deals with life in the public eye a little differently.
“I’ll never forget the day I was hired,” Krystkowiak said of April 3, 2011. “My in-laws were here and we were all staying over at the Marriott. I’d finished a full day of the press conference and a bunch of interviews. I got back and was really excited to see my family.”
He did not get the celebration he expected.
“I walked into the hotel room, and it was like a funeral,” he said. In their excitement, family members spent much of the day reading stories, columns and comments about Utah’s decision to hire the Montana product.
“There were some columnists … saying what a terrible hire it was,” he said. “My kids picked up on it, and one of my boys was crying. He said, ‘How can they say this about you Dad when you really just started?’”
Krystkowiak looks at each issue that arises as an opportunity to learn something and to teach something. One thing he tells his children is that part of living in the spotlight means learning to ignore or shake off critics.
“If you’re going to get into it, you’d better have some pretty thick skin,” he said. “If you pick up (the paper) and you’re really excited about something good, then put your helmet on because it’s not going to be that long before it’s something bad.”
Wells said he tries to do the same.
“Teachers and parents may say things to them, and that’s not fair,” he said. “But I have to teach them that as coach’s kids, it comes with the job. I always say as head coach, you get too much credit when you win and you get too much grief when you lose.”
He added, “It’s about managing the good with the bad, the tough with the great. They’re aware of what’s being said in the community, and sometimes it hurts them. But we are teaching them balance in life, and that how we act, how we treat other people, our actions and or works, those are important.”
Judkins said he hasn’t suffered the kind of public criticism some of his colleagues have because people don’t tend to ruminate or complain about women’s sports as much. And when he was an assistant at Utah, there wasn’t much criticism because they were winning most of the time.
Still, there are issues, like when one of his daughters wrote a letter to a person who was critical when Judkins left Utah. “It is hard,” he said. “Especially on my wife. She hears what fans yell at the game. … They just feel bad. You have to kind of not listen to anything, just kind of push it away.”
His children, who range in age from 24 to 35, also grew up without social media for the most part.
Mendenhall’s solution came from a conversation he and his wife had about not losing their way as they tried to lead the Cougar program.
“When I was hired as the head coach 11 years ago, Holly and I made a pact to never read an article written about us or get on the Internet to read anything about BYU,” Mendenhall said. “We had a very genuine, clear and authentic view of what we needed to do.”
Mendenhall does try to prepare his children for what they might hear at school from friends, teachers or disgruntled fans.
“We do a little role play at home,” he said. “We wanted our kids to feel confident taking those questions head on so we armed them with responses. It wasn’t long before the kids were empowered by what they could.”
Judkins said it isn’t the pressure of winning or the demands of recruiting that cause him to lose sleep at night.
“There is no question that’s the hardest part of my job, time lost with my kids,” he said. “It’s not coaching or the stress of the job, it’s being away from your kids and missing out on all the things they’re doing.”
An assist from great wives
Judkins said he often relied on his wife, Mary Kay, to help him understand when and if activities involving their five children were critical.
“She was really good about letting me know what was really important and what the kids were doing,” Judkins said. “She was so supportive. She let my kids know if I wasn’t there that it wasn’t because I didn’t want to be there. … She did a great job of not letting me be the bad guy, and my kids were very good.”
All of the men said their wives are not just able to do almost anything on their own, they often ease any anxiety or sadness when coaching creeps into family time.
“I couldn’t run them to the doctor or anything like that,” Judkins said. “She had to grab the bull by the horns and do it. It made me realize my wife is just a special person. I think every coach’s wife is that way. You just doing know what your schedule is going to be a lot of the time.” Krystkowiak said his wife’s independence is what drew him to her. “The busier she is, the happier she is,” he said of Jan, who owns her own marketing and advertising company in addition to caring for their five children. “We’re both really independent and driven. She is the perfect coach’s wife. … She is first team all-American when it comes to pulling that off.”
While his wife of 15 years, Jen, married Wells when he was coaching at Navy, he’s not sure she knew what she was committing to when she agreed to be a coach’s wife.
“But she’s in with both feet,” he said. “She’s around our program as much as she can be."
Mendenhall lost his job at Oregon State just after he and Holly were engaged. They wed when he was unemployed and then spent what should have been their honeymoon moving to Ruston, Louisiana, after he landed a job at Louisiana Tech.
“Holly deserves all the credit,” Mendenhall said of how they’re raising their three boys. “She is a creative and compassionate problem solver. Without women like that, in the world of college coaching, your family just would not hold together. They are very strong, and they just create these wonderful families.”
Finding ways, staying focused
Mendenhall laughs when asked if fatherhood was anything like he expected.
“There was no strategy whatsoever,” he said. “We were so excited to be having a baby, we hadn’t put any real thought into the daily logistics. Holy cow, does that change the minute your child arrives! Just the daily coordination becomes a giant plan.”
All four coaches interviewed by the Deseret News said finding a way to involve their families in their programs is critical to finding success in both roles.
Wells said his children are as involved in the program in just about every way. He teaches them what recruiting is, why it matters, and they even know the key recruits their dad hopes to sign.
“It’s important for me that they understand where daddy is when he’s not there and why he’s doing it,” Wells said. “They’re a little bit more invested. Wyatt (6) gets to go in the locker room if we win. He’s been able to be in the locker room 16 of 18 home games, so that’s really important for him. Those kids hurt as much or more than any Aggie fan when we lose. And they all take it differently.”
Krystkowiak said his philosophy of coaching and his style of parenting complement each other. A lot of sports programs talk about family, and the term family is thrown around a lot,” Krystkowiak said. “I would challenge any program to tie it in more. Our players learn things from spending time with us around our kids, and our kids learn stuff from being around our players. I want our basketball team to look at us as parents too.”
Krystkowiak said coaching has helped him be a better father and being a father has improved his ability to teach the game of basketball.
Wells said he tries to never feel complacent — either as a coach or a father.
“I don’t think you ever feel like you’re OK as a coach,” he said. “If you ever stop learning, that’s when you’re in trouble. I don’t think being a dad is much different. It’s important for me to be there at bed time, to read Bible stories and put them to bed. It’s important for me to get to all their events. … But the biggest key is when you’re there, you’re there. The cellphone never stops buzzing, text never stops coming in.”
Judkins and Krystkowiak both said there is no getting around that sometimes work will trump family. It is a painful reality that they simply try to minimize or make up for in other ways.
“To be a good coach, you’ve got to do some of the extra things,” Judkins said. “That means sometimes your family goes back seat. Sometimes you come late to a birthday party or whatever it is. For 10 years in a row I didn’t have Christmas off, when I worked for former Utah coach Rick Majerus.”
Mendenhall said he simply tries to do better at both jobs each day. “I’m still trying to learn the skill of being completely off (work) when you’re with your family,” Mendenhall said. “I’m learning they didn’t want to watch the game or play catch before, they wanted, they craved my undivided attention. It’s natural and normal when you have a job that's so hard that it takes so much time and energy.”
He said he learns from just about everybody in his life, but especially his wife and children. “You kind of learn as you go,” he said. “The best thing I can say is just really try not to repeat the same mistakes. I think I’ve learned a lot.”
Has he learned to really take time off when he’s with his family? “My family would say no with one exception,” he said of the July trip out of the country. “That’s when I’m truly off. … You forget what it really is like to only be doing and focusing on your family.”
The men said they’ve learned from other coaches how to carve out family time, even when there is also a stigma attached to being the guy who wants to get home for dinner each night.
“You’re labeled as not working as hard,” Mendenhall said. “You’re usually viewed as a weaker link, someone who isn’t hard working or really isn’t committed."
On that issue, Krystkowiak takes a page from his self-employed wife’s book. “My wife said it years ago, ‘A lot of people confuse working hard with working smart,’” Krystkowiak said.
And regardless of the sport they coach or the philosophy they employ to raise their families and coach their players, they all agree that being a father is the great accomplishment — and joy — of their lives.
“The biggest thing for me,” Wells said, “is I can fail as a coach, and I can get fired as a coach. I can’t get fired as a dad or a husband, and that’s the bottom line.”