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'Coaching has a way of humbling us all': How HS football coaches find balance, wellness during grinding season

Richard Obert
Arizona Republic

They eat, sleep and devour football during the season. Even when it's over, there's work to do.

How do high school coaches manage without breaking down?

"The best way to do it is to incorporate the entire family into the program," Yuma Catholic coach Rhett Stallworth said. "Otherwise, you miss your time with them."

Yuma Catholic just came off its first loss of the year, falling to American Leadership Gilbert North 28-25 in a battle of the top two ranked teams in 3A. For Stallworth, a way to work out the stress is a good workout in the weight room.

Exercise is something he knew he couldn't take for granted after 2014, when, in the first month of the season, he suffered a heart attack and had to have bypass surgery. He returned that season to lead the Shamrocks.

He stepped down two years later to become the school's principal. But football is in his blood and it pulled him back in 2018 when he took over the program again, while remaining as principal.

"During the season, it’s easier being a principal than a head football coach," Stallworth said. "The preparation each week for games. It's longer hours. The good ones are going all weekend through Sunday, putting game plans together, making sure kids are prepared when we're hitting the field."

Yuma Catholic's head coach Rhett Stallworth (r) and his team appeal for a touchdown call to win the 3A State Championship Football game in its 2nd overtime at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, Ariz. on November 23, 2018. They would be short, fumble the next play and ultimately lose the title game. #azhsfb

Prescott coach Cody Collett got his wake-up call in the first quarter of his team's win against Phoenix Camelback on Sept. 10. He was suffering a heart attack, but he didn't know it until he arrived at the hospital after being ejected from the game in the first half.

He calls the referee's penalty that led to his ejection from the game a life saver. He took himself to the hospital afterwards and found out his heart rate was 240. He said doctors restarted his heart, and the next day, a stent was put in to help with the blood flow. He said a second stent will be put in later.

"I learned, at the end of the day, the important thing is going home to your family," said Collett, who doesn't plan on returning to coach until October, after receiving the second stent. "To be the best husband and father I can possibly be is more important than wins and losses."

Striving for balance

Lakeside Blue Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock married his junior high school sweetheart, Amy. She watched Jeremy blossom into an all-state running back at Blue Ridge, win a state championship as head coach at Show Low, lead Mesa Desert Ridge for 13 years, before coming home this summer. Their youngest son, Koby, is the long snapper on Iowa State's football team.

"Balance for a coach is what we all strive for," Hathcock said. "When I was younger coaching was everything and my family better get on board.

"Thankfully, my wife is a sports person like me, or I would have been divorced several years ago. However, the imbalance of it can lead to a number of problems, like depression, being transactional with players, like, 'What can you do for me?' Family issues and even divorce. The list goes on.

"A normal head football coach, and a lot of assistants, work 80 hours or more during the season. Throw on the parent complaints, and it can be overwhelming."

The average coaching stipend for an Arizona high school football coach is about $4,000. That's supplemental income from their teaching job. The coaching part can go non-stop, through the night, early in the morning, after the kids are asleep. There is always film to break down.

"I now tell coaches all the time, and I still need to remind myself, that our identity cannot be in football and how successful we are or are not," Hathcock said. "Coaching has a way of humbling us all.

"We are on top sometimes and we are on the bottom sometimes. It is what it is. Our value needs to come from having a passion to serve young men and help mold them into world changers. Winning takes care of itself."

Jeremy Hathcock, seen in a 2018 photo while coaching Desert Ridge. He now is head coach at Blue Ridge High School.

Hathcock is fortunate to have a wife who is all in on what he does, the long hours, the demands. They raised three sons and a daughter in their 25-plus years of marriage and learned when to back off on football and when to press forward.

Amy played sports in high school and was always making sure the kids got to youth practices when Jeremy couldn't do it. Jeremy made it a priority during his coaching career to be at his kids' events, finding ways to juggle his schedule.

She's been on the sidelines at all of her husband's games, and, as she calls it, pacing.

"It's year-round, 24-7," Amy said. "Jeremy is such a people person. He loves working with anyone and everyone. It's the way we raised our kids. It's been awesome. Family dinners sometimes are spent at the concession stand. It's not always easy."

There are times when Amy has to draw the line at home when Jeremy keeps talking about football.

"I tell Jeremy you've got them in practice, you have to have some down time," Amy said. "But it's worked out."

There are the emotional highs and lows of the games to deal with at home, as well.

"We always joke after a hard loss, like, 'What couch are we going to sleep on tonight?' " Amy said.

A good coaching staff is important, not just to delegate assignments, but to be able to lean on and talk about more than football.

"I met a lot of wives who begrudge their husbands being gone so long," Amy said. "If you have the love and support of a wife at home, it can work."

Life has a way of prioritizing

Gilbert Arete Prep football coach Cord Smith gained perspective 11 months ago when his wife informed him that the breast cancer that they thought was gone had returned and it was in metastatic stage 4.

"I automatically thought, 'How much time do we have together?' " Smith said. "We discussed the future, treatment plans, and, of course, if I should continue coaching football.

"We worked out a plan that involved my assistant coaches sharing the brunt of the summer offseason, while we took trips to Mexico, Boston and a two-week road trip to the Pacific Northwest. 

"Now that we are in the thick of the season, it's been challenging to take care of everything, But we are making it work. We decided together that I should keep coaching for specific reasons."

When Andy Litten took the head football coaching job at Horizon in northeast Phoenix after being offensive coordinator at Chandler Hamilton for three years, he sacrificed for his wife, who is a COVID-19 nurse at a Chandler hospital. Instead of moving, Litten takes the 35-minute drive each day to Horizon to coach.

And, with the Paradise Valley district heat rule that doesn't allow for padded practices before 6 p.m., Litten usually leaves his house at 5:45 a.m., and returns home at about 9 at night.

"I've had to find small ways to make it up to her, either during the season or after," Litten said. "Like our bye week this week will be consumed with family time with my wife and son from Friday evening till Sunday afternoon, and then Sunday night will be my game planning time. 

"There are a lot of IOU's that get handed out in my marriage.  For instance, we're going to Maui this February, and to Sedona over spring break.  Summer we make the most of my time off whenever possible. 

Head coach Andy Litten (center) works with players in the weight room, September 14, 2021, at Horizon High School, Scottsdale, Arizona.

"My health probably suffers the most with the long hours and lack of sleep, but I try to combat it by eating as relatively healthy when I can.  Meal prepping, and prioritizing my time is key.  Lunch time is an eat and work period.  Family time at night is usually working on the laptop at the same time.  Zoom meetings also help me spend more time with my family, and our staff limits actual meeting time for that purpose."

But every decision he makes on his football team, whether it's play calling of personnel, is scrutinized by those in the community, adding to stress.

He says he learned that he has to make decisions based on what is going to benefit his team, not a few disgruntled people.

"I've found that if I try to make everyone happy, everyone isn't," Litten said. "Winning is the best medicine most of the time, and I've been lucky to start (3-0).  So when tough decisions have to be made, I always side with what I think is best for the team and move on. 

"It helps me sleep at night.  It was a skill I had to learn at Marana."

When he was leading Marana in 2016, quarterback Connor Leavens' father died, and Connor had to miss most of the week to be with family. Litten made the decision to start sophomore Trenton Bourguet at quarterback. That caused some in the community to be angry with him, he said.

Litten felt Leavens was on an emotional week, heading into the region championship game. Bourguet started and did well and Leavens came in, playing the majority of the game.

"Luckily it worked," he said. "But even if it hadn't, I felt good about doing what was best, regardless of how people felt, as most didn't understand what truly was going on."

'Set the right example'

Mohave Valley River Valley coach Jonathan Clark balances not only teaching, coaching, family but his pursuit of a master's degree.

He learned through years of coaching that family has to come first.

Last weekend, his daughter had a out-of-town dance recital. In years past, as a younger coach, Clark said he would have stayed home and immersed himself into his football team.

But he turned last weekend into a mini-vacation, enjoying his daughter's dance, while still getting in work on his iPad to plan for his next opponent.

"When you keep first things first, it has a weird way of working out for you," Clark said. "Football is a great game, but it is a game. 

"How can I preach family first when I don't heed that advice myself? We, as coaches, are always being watched. It is imperative we set the right example."

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at richard.obert@arizonarepublic.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.