Pro football pressure cooker causing coaching burnout

The pro football season that concluded with Super Bowl XVII Sunday focused public attention on a number of the game's problems, including the growing phenomenon of coaches voluntarily giving up their glamorous, well-paid, but overly pressurized jobs.

''Coaching burnout'' is the common description of this specter that hangs over the National Football League like smog in a California sky. It's something you can't bottle, taste, slice, package, bury, or take to the dump, but it has become an occupational hazard that has already driven some of the best minds in the game out of pro football.

History will probably trace the beginning of this trend to the statement commonly attributed to the late Vince Lombardi that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. With that attitude so prevalent, it's no wonder matches light so easily when scratched on the dispositions of most pro football coaches.

Coaching burnout is what happens when the man responsible for a team's game plan starts sleeping three or four nights of the week in his stadium office, so that he can study game films longer or dream up new plays.

The next thing you know he isn't breaking for lunch with his staff, but having everybody's meals sent in. He may drive a Cadillac or a Mercedes, but what he really rides is an emotional roller coaster.

Not all of the pressure coaches have to handle stems from what happens on the field either. Sometimes the press can be cruel when explaining a defeat that wasn't supposed to happen or profiling a personality who slept only two hours the previous night.

Neighbors who follow pro football will sometimes ask a coach's wife personal questions about her husband's job that they would never consider asking if he were in another business. Sometimes things are said to a coach's children at school by their playmates that trigger fistfights.

Right now coaching burnout seems to be everywhere.Bill Walsh, the winner of last year's Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers and also the team's general manager, no longer wants to coach.

Although he would like to remain as the team's GM, he told 49ers owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. he would appreciate DeBartolo finding another head coach.

The day-to-day pressures of trying to win while babysitting anywhere from 45 to 90 players from training camp in mid-July to as late as the end of January suddenly had become too taxing for Walsh. DeBartolo listened, even gave Bill permission to look for a successor, but later was able to talk Walsh into coming back for at least one more season.

Then there's the case of Philadelphia head coach Dick Vermeil. Two years ago when the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, his hand was wrung more often than the Liberty Bell. But after the team went 3-6 this season, Vermeil resigned, describing himself as ''emotionally burned out'' after seven years of self-imposed workdays of 18 and 20 hours.

Another former NFL coach who admits to burning himself out and has since opted for the world of sports television is John Madden, whose Oakland Raiders beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.

Madden is a gregarious man with an excellent sense of humor. He looks, on the surface, as if nothing would ever bother him. But ever since he traded his Xs and Os for a microphone he has left no doubt as to how he feels about getting rid of all that coaching pressure. Or, as he likes to put it these days during his TV appearances, ''I've learned to relax.''

Ray Malavasi isn't exactly in the same category as the above three cases - his departure from the Los Angeles Rams three years after taking them to the Super Bowl was by firing rather than of his own volition - but he, too, provided some good evidence of the ''burnout'' syndrome. Once, for instance, when he was being interviewed by phone on his own radio show (he was home; his interrogator back at the studio), there was suddenly a lot of dead air. It turned out that Ray wasn't upset by the questions, but simply hadn't heard them - which was hardly unusual for a man who had dozed off!

Some of the reasons that coaches reach such a point were pointed out last week by Washington Redskins' Coach Joe Gibbs in his daily sessions with the media leading up to Super Bowl Sunday.

''In football, a coach is always building his own monster,'' Gibbs said on one occasion. ''If you're not winning, people are on you to win. If you start to win, people expect even more. . . I know it sounds amazing, but in pro football you never hear anyone say that someone is doing an average job. You're either a success or a failure.''

Because Gibbs took a team that wasn't supposed to be that good and lost only once during the regular season, Joe was voted NFL Coach of the Year. To know how he got there, all you have to do is read a few stories that detail his hard work and long hours. The journalists who attended Gibbs's press conferences all week loved him because he was so available, answered questions openly, and even showed some humor. The same was true of Miami's Don Shula.

But if either Gibbs or Shula should somehow lose three games in a row next season, watch how quickly they lose favor in the press - probably overnight. And considering what has happened to so many of their colleagues lately, it might be a good idea to keep an eye on them for signs of coaching burnout too.

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