What a Life: Coaching in the NFL

For those of you who did not see the HBO reality show Hard Knocks last summer, be assured that the behind-the-scenes look at the Kansas City Chiefs training camp was indeed every bit as good as people say. It was insightful, authentic, and entertaining.

What stuck with me was the behavior and mindset of Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. To say the 26-year coach – who has had stints with five different teams, including a previous one with Kansas City in which he was the head coach from ’99-’00 – is a hardnosed throwback would be an understatement. Cunningham’s nose grades somewhere between Corundum and Diamond on the Mohs scale. His ass does too.

The screaming and F-bomb serenades that give Hard Knocks its unique character often derive from Coach Cunningham. He gets his point across and, in turn, receives the respect of his players. He makes sure he is personable and approachable away from the field, though his mind rarely – if ever – drifts from football.

That unwavering focus is the subject of this article. Cunningham at one point discusses his disdain for the team’s Family Fun Night because, to paraphrase his words, having players sign autographs, interact with the fans, and enjoy a lighthearted practice takes away from an opportunity to get more work done. Cunningham classifies himself as a “flying asshole” around Thanksgiving and Christmas due to his irritation with how the holidays compromise the players’ focus and the team’s game-planning routine. He also admits – willingly, it seems – that he regrets not being a better father or husband, particularly early in his career. The demands and rigors of his job have taken him away from his family time. He does say, however, that he has been a better family man in recent years.

I find this all very fascinating and, quite frankly, depressing. In short, who would want this kind of life? Who wants to scream and curse all day? Who wants to be in their early 60s doing a job where their bottom-line success is determined by how some athletic twentysomething-year-old does his job? Who wants to wake up disgusted with anything that takes away from their work? Who wants to regret not playing a bigger role in their children’s lives?

If Cunningham’s work clothes did not have the NFL shield stitched on them, we would recognize that his life seems to be the antithesis of happiness. It is one melodramatic collection of highs and lows, all centering around a game where failure seems far more prevalent than success. After all, Cunningham has been coaching in the NFL for 26 years and has zero Super Bowl rings to show for it. That’s 26 years that have not been wasted but have, nevertheless, still ended in disappointment.

And where does the concept of control fit in here? Anyone who invests this much time and energy strictly in one area while communicating by screaming and cursing (sometimes even when he’s happy) is a control freak. Yet this control freak has chosen a profession where his bottom line success is almost entirely out of his control. Think about it: Cunningham can get mad, coach his tail off and come up with the greatest game plan off all-time, but whether his team wins will be decided largely by the 106 players competing in the game (not to mention other factors like the referees and weather).

Of course, if you think about it, there really isn’t a profession out there that allows a person to have full control. Farmers can work 18 hours a day and still have their crops ruined by the weather. Doctors can treat a patient everyday and still see that patient incur new, unexpected health problems.

Teachers can teach and work with students relentlessly, and there can still be some kids who drop the ball on test day.

Thus, here’s what I took away from observing Gunther Cunningham: the value of balance. It is vital for an individual to have balance in life. Somewhere along the lines, it became unacceptable for a football coach to do this. The machismo of the sport and the continually rising stakes involved convinced coaches that if they weren’t tunnel-visioned and obsessively driven, they weren’t trying.

The reality is that what coaches like Cunningham are doing is hurting their own progress. Try and name one activity where, if you already knew how to do it and were to do it for 16 hours straight, you would be truly effective in the 14th, 15th, and 16th hour. Human beings need variety in their lives. This is one of the things that set us apart from animals.

True, I don’t know firsthand all that the NFL coaching profession entails. But I know that one NFL coach figured the importance of variety and balance. His name is Tony Dungy. He works extremely hard and still gets to experience the joy of going home to his wife, children, and Super Bowl ring.


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