We’ve all read the stories before. A writer sits down with a big-time football coach and his wife to talk about how hard life inside that fishbowl is on the innocents — the wives and the kids. The pressure from boosters. The media calling for your head. The “Yep, he’s totally getting fired after this game” close-ups on national TV. The kids at school making life miserable after a loss.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of those stories. Life is hard for families of coaches at that level. But those stories tend to exclude one crucial detail. Most of us work because we need to make more money survive, and the equation changes when Dad brings home more in a year than most people earn in a lifetime.
For the wives of coaches at the lower levels — which is to say the vast majority of college football coaches’ wives; only 17 percent of four-year universities sponsoring football compete at the FBS level — life is different. Much different.
For starters, if Dad earns middle-class wages, it means that Mom probably has to work to help make ends meet. But good luck building a career when you move every two years. “I have a fashion marketing degree that I’ve never used because I married a football coach and I can’t live in a big city,” Kimberly Eck, wife of South Dakota State offensive line coach Jason Eck and mother to four boys aged between 15 and two, told FootballScoop.
When Stacey Hairston was fired from a coaching job in Canada, he, wife Johanne and their three children moved in with his mom in Ohio. Johanne found employment in the area, but the closest coaching job Stacey could find was in Virginia. Rather than uproot the kids again, the family lived apart for a year and a half. “We live on a yearly basis,” Johanne Hairston said. “You can’t make long-term financial plans, because you don’t know what’s coming.”
Dan Lemke was let go from his defensive coordinator job at Northwestern Oklahoma State when his wife Theresa was 17 weeks pregnant with their first child. Without a new job on the way, the Lemkes moved Theresa home to Michigan to have the baby while Dan stayed behind to sell the house in Oklahoma. He later found work as the defensive coordinator at Graceland University in Iowa, but by the time Mom and son could join him in Iowa, eight weeks had passed since CJ Lemke’s birth and football season was revving into gear. “After the season I remember Dan looking at him and saying, ‘I don’t think he knows who I am,'” Theresa Lemke said. “That was a shocking moment because, yeah, I guess you haven’t been around for the first five or six months of his life.”
Even when things are good, when Dad is employed and the whole family is under one roof, the coaching life is such that Mom and the kids construct their schedule without Dad’s involvement. Someone has to run the household when Dad works 80 hours a week for 48 weeks a year.
“If you expect him to be there, you’re going to be disappointed a lot of the time. When I first was a coach’s wife I was getting mad, ‘You said you would make it!’ But I realized, if he can, he will make it,” Hairston said. “But don’t expect that.”
“Honestly, he never disappoints me during football season because I don’t expect anything. On the one hand you end up doing everything, but I’m never disappointed,” Lisa Kolb, wife of Graceland University head coach Marc Kolb and mother of three, said. “My husband has a nice, comfy couch in his office so sometimes he doesn’t even come home and I’m okay with that because I don’t wake up at 2 a.m. to the dogs barking.”
The football that these families build their lives around isn’t on ESPN every weekend, but it still matters to those involved just as much as the most devoted Finebaum caller cares about the SEC. There are still message boards at the small college level. There are still social media haters. As Dan Hawkins once said, This ain’t intramurals, brother.
“You have that same shame throughout the town when you lose on Saturday. And then you win and it’s the exact opposite. It’s week-to-week at the small schools, like it is anywhere else,” Lemke said. “You hear the same rumors about your family, that your husband sucks.”
And in an industry that splits half of its workforce into winning and losing buckets every week, turnover and the threat therein is a constant. Once November rolls around, coaches put their heads down to finish the season and wives start doing their internal calculations — taking the temperature of the campus and the fan base and, yes, checking The Scoop, all while trying to remain a source of calm for the rest of the family. Oh, and most of this do-we-or-don’t-we-have-a-job song and dance plays out between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the happiest time of the year for everyone else in the country.
Stay in the game long enough and you’re bound to have your own horror story.
“When we were at a school in Indiana, I was actually pregnant with our third child and went into labor, literally, hearing that we weren’t going to be retained,” Eck said.
“We still own another house; we have a house in Tennessee and a house in Iowa,” Kolb said. “The first sale of our house in Tennessee fell through on the same day we got let go from Lindenwood in Missouri. I said, ‘Yes, we’ve lost our job but at least our house is going to sell.’ And then we got a call from our realtor.”
All of this begs the question — why do it? Why not go sell insurance or become an accountant or do anything except a job that will require you to pour heart and soul into it while in return regularly crushing your dreams in front of thousands of people — and then stop paying you the week before Christmas?
For starters, there is no life without football. Football is what these coaches know and, thus, it’s what the women who love them know, too. “It’s the love that we have for our husband and the love of the game,” Hairston said. “The moment my husband is not passionate about football anymore, we’re done. Love and understanding and the passion they have for the game makes it all worth it.”
But it goes deeper than that. The thing that coaches truly love about football, what first draws them into the game and then keeps them coming back time after time after time is that gravitational pull of being part of a team, of emptying yourself into your players’ lives and the players doing the same. That bug doesn’t just infect the coaches. Their wives and their kids catch it, too.
“Once you get the relationship with the players and you realize that they become your family and they need you as much as you need them, they just become a part of your life. Our players are having babies, they invite us to their weddings, they call us when they’re going through a hard time,” Lemke said. “They’ll say, ‘Coach, you’re the only dad I’ve ever known.’ Or I’m the only mom they’ve ever known. When we say we have hundreds of sons, none of us are saying it just to say it. We truly love these kids like they’re our own.”
“We all have stories,” Kolb said. “The players that call and share a burden. The players that text, ‘Hey Coach, just want to let you know I love you.’ And they’re not the ones that you thought.”
Life as a coach’s wife means that more often than not you’re raising the children by yourself, but it also means you raise your children among this village with dozens of aunts and uncles and more than a hundred big brothers. Being a coach’s kid means nights hanging out in Dad’s office and weekends on the team bus. It’s the type of benefit that doesn’t show up on a paycheck and one that definitely isn’t available to an accountant’s kids, and it’s something that the women of coaching believe benefit their children in ways both visible and not. “When we have our offensive line over for dinner, they’re playing basketball outside. It’s like a family thing,” Eck said. “The kids look forward to it. The games every weekend, it’s just a part of our life and they love it.
“I remember my oldest son Jonathan was born as football season started, and it felt like the whole school was a part of the pregnancy,” Hairston said. “So when my son was born, I brought him to the first game all bundled up and I didn’t see him. My stroller was gone. Every so often I would see someone passing him, holding him. Even diaper changing, I didn’t have to do it.”
There is no instruction manual to surviving life as a small college football coach’s wife. Or if there is, there’s just one instruction and it’s not terribly descriptive: “You just make it.” The best resource to surviving life as a coach’s wife is often other coaches’ wives. Just as coaches have the AFCA, their wives have the American Football Coaches’ Wives Association, a network of thousands of women all across the country in all stations of life that all live and die with the bounce of the same oblong-shaped ball. “No matter if you’ve never met, you feel connected immediately,” Eck said. “There’s nothing better than the support group of coaches wives.”
All say that, in the end, the tradeoffs are worth it in the long run — as long as you’re clear-eyed about what you’re getting into from the beginning. “I would never trade it, but I’m honest with young wives and girlfriends. You tell them what you’re getting into,” Lemke said. “But if you love him, you love football. You’re not going to take that away from him. Any wife I know who said choose me or the sport is no longer a wife.”
“I would definitely recommend it. I love our life,” Eck said. “But one of our sons thought, ‘I want to be a football coach.’ I was like, ‘Oh, no. I don’t want to worry about two teams now.’ You have to be tough to be a coach’s wife. Real tough.”
So when the game inevitably spits a coach out every year or two, Dad isn’t dragging the family back in to the tough, grueling but ultimately rewarding life of a small college football coach. The whole family dives in with him. “We went through a transition time where we looked at our kids and said, ‘In a perfect world, what would you want to do?’ They said, ‘We’re a football family.’ Even my daughter,” Kolb said. “They chose it.”
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