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Coaching Stress: College Football Coaches Endure Intense Pressure

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Early in Houston Nutt's 28-year coaching career, he stayed at the office until the wee hours, rarely pulling himself away from a busy schedule.

These days the Mississippi coach makes a point of taking a break and requires his assistants to get a physical before every season.

"I try to leave the building for 45 minutes during the day," the 52-year-old Nutt said in a telephone interview. "I either go home and see my wife or get some fresh air and grab a sandwich. I don't stay up there 'til 1 o'clock (in the morning) anymore like in my younger days.

"I try to work smart, eat healthy, work out."

Florida coach Urban Meyer's career flip-flop over the weekend, brought on by chest pains and stress, have focused attention on a rarely discussed part of football – the physical toll that high-profile, high-paid, high-pressure coaching jobs exact on the people who run major college programs.

Interviews with athletic directors around the country the past few days indicate that coaches usually are not required by universities to take physicals before being handed contracts that often pay millions of dollars and demand huge hours.

A spokesman for the American Football Coaches Association says that even though the pressure on big-time football coaches has risen along with salaries over the last two decades, coaches are generally taking better care of themselves.

"This is a much healthier profession than it was 25 years ago," AFCA spokesman Todd Bell said. "The demands of the job almost force you to be in better shape. You are constantly on the go. You constantly have to be on, to be at your best."

Yet that lifestyle is exactly what makes being a football coach at a major university such a stressful job, according to Dr. James O'Keefe.

O'Keefe, the head of preventive cardiology at Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., said big demands on a person's time causes job stress. The other major factor in creating stress at work is control – or lack thereof.

Rare is the football coach who is not at least a bit of a control freak. But while they think they can control everything around them, O'Keefe said, ultimately their success is determined by the players.

O'Keefe said stress alone can cause an otherwise healthy person to have heart problems. Unlike many risk factors for heart disease, there's no good medication to treat stress.

"There are lots of unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress that people get into," O'Keefe said, mentioning drugs such as Valium and alcohol.

Xanax is a popular prescription drug used by people who are stressed out, but O'Keefe said that's not a good option either "because it dulls down your performance and makes you less energetic, less creative."

O'Keefe said the keys to treating stress are relatively simple: Get plenty of sleep, regular exercise and lead a balanced life, with time set aside for family, friends and fun.

Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone said he doesn't need to ask his $2.5 million-per year football coach how he's coping with the stress of trying to compete in the Southeastern Conference. He can tell just watching Nutt at practice.

"They do undergo a lot of stress and they put in long, hard hours," Boone said. "What I do is go watch them in a practice and see how they react to the simple things, like guys jumping offsides.

"When we talk, we talk about things that could be a little more comforting. Not games. Not who is starting. Not recruiting. We just talk about life."

College coaches also have the benefit of regularly being in close proximity to top-notch medical care, with doctors and trainers on staff and sometimes even hospitals on campus.

"They're going to run into a doctor close to everyday," Pittsburgh AD Steve Pederson said.

Still, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said that Meyer's situation has made him think about taking a more proactive role in monitoring the health of his coaches.

"I've never paid any attention, but these guys go 100 miles an hour," he said. "Like (new Louisville coach) Charlie (Strong), when he was here, he never slept. He went eight, nine days without any sleep, that's not an exaggeration. He might get an hour here an hour there. I've got to make sure (he stays healthy)."

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