Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com After briefly stepping down at the end of last season, Joe Cattolico, right, returns to coach Pleasant Grove – now with his father, Butch, left, as an assistant.

Preps Plus: Football coaches game plan for how to avoid burning out

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 - 4:58 pm
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 4, 2013 - 8:50 am

High school football isn't a three-month, in-season obligation. That's old school.

This has become a year-round grind that takes up to a four-year commitment by student-athletes. But for head coaches who are loyal to their schools, programs and communities, it's a never-ending cycle. It can leave some buckling under the pressure to succeed.

Those presiding over perennial playoff programs work exhaustive hours as something of a CEO. They break down film at all hours. They develop schemes to beat opponents. They fund raise and supervise offseason programs. As mentors, they also offer life lessons to young adults.

Coaches on the opposite spectrum work just as hard - if not harder - sometimes in an effort just to win a single game. Their success might be measured in growth of a team or maturity of young men rather than number of victories.

By any measure, coaches are inherent competitors who pour themselves into this. Coaching offers a stipend of between $1,500 and $3,000 with immeasurable rewards otherwise, but at what cost?

"The demands (of coaching) are out of control, and it's a real concern," said Sac-Joaquin Section Commissioner Pete Saco, who oversees 197 schools in the second-largest region in the state. "We're losing good people. Coaches are getting divorced because of this profession. They get no rest. If we didn't have a three-week dead period over the summer, we'd lose more of them, because coaches would never slow down."

Saco knows the trend. The same coaches who start fall practices in August optimistic and rested emerge, sometimes the week of Christmas after a long playoff run, ashen and out of sorts. In between, many coaches struggle to find balance between family, football, teaching and everyday life.

Something has to give, and sometimes it's the coaches who throw up their hands and give in.

"For a lot of us, this is all we know," said Inderkum coach Terry Stark, in his 32nd year of coaching. "I don't know if I'm burned out or not. I always feel this way. I just know this is what I do, and I still love doing this. But I know it really wears a lot of us out."

Said Burbank coach John Heffernan: "I don't know if you can really avoid burning out, or feeling it. It's definitely a tougher job than it was before. If you want to be on top, do well for your players, you have to put the time in. But we've learned to work smarter and not harder. My wife and little kids keep me grounded, forcing me to stay away from football, and I need that. We all do."

Football is often the identifying sport on campus, an after-school event that generates the most interest and cash flow to sustain athletic programs. Parents and boosters from playoff programs demand excellence. Some pressure coaches to land their sons a scholarship, never mind that national studies have shown less than 1 percent of high school athletes receive a full ride.

Since the 2012 season, three high-profile coaches have stepped aside:

• Dave Humphers, who won 195 games and four section titles at Nevada Union.

• Ernie Cooper, who won five section titles and the CIF State Division I championship in 2012 with Granite Bay.

• Chris Jones, who won three section titles at Oak Ridge and then lifted Vista del Lago of Folsom to a championship level after opening just seven years ago.

Each coach cited a need to spend more time with family and vowed to return to the sideline again.

Humphers said he wasn't burned out, but rather: "I needed a break."

Cooper said when fatigue sets in, one becomes "a complainer" and sometimes time away from the game is needed.

Buddy system

Joe Cattolico stepped down at Pleasant Grove in Elk Grove after last season after another playoff run. At 38, he couldn't find balance.

Then the Princeton graduate solved his dilemma with help from his father, who can speak of the grind. Butch Cattolico was retired after 36 years of coaching and teaching at Los Gatos High School. He and his wife, Berit, moved to Elk Grove to live on the same street as their son.

Cattolico reclaimed the Pleasant Grove post within weeks, with his father in tow. Cattolico turned over the offensive coordinator duties to his father, lessening his own burden. Cattolico now has more time to spend with his family, including his two young sons.

"It's been an easy transition," Cattolico said. "We've had a great time. It's a special opportunity for us, and we're enjoying it."

Head coaches are delegating more responsibility to a top assistant to help manage the load. Top-ranked Folsom has co-head coaches in Kris Richardson and Troy Taylor. They're also best friends, teach the same physical education courses and have children the same age. Ego isn't a problem here.

Richardson said he felt "numb" after winning a state title in 2010, a 15-game, whirlwind marathon. He was so fatigued he would lose track of the day and time.

"Having Troy with me now the last two years like this has saved me," Richardson said. "I don't feel so worn down. You can't do this alone."

Casey Taylor delegates duties to his staff at Del Oro, though he remains clearly in charge. He said perspective is important, stressing that family time shouldn't be a goal but a priority.

"If it's all about winning, you're going to burn out," Taylor said. "The key is to keep it fresh. I'm in this for at least another 20 years, so I have to keep finding a way to make it work. I know every day I come here and I'm in a great mood. If you're not, then you're looking at a bad ending."

Said Roseville assistant Frank Negri, an area coach for 50 years, mostly at Foothill: "You've got to spread it out or it'll wipe you out. Look at me. I'm 78. I still have energy because I know you can't go 100 miles an hour anymore. What are we going to do? Stay extra at the office because others are? Has it become that competitive where you can't have a life at home? That's stupid. That's how you burn out."

Retired approach

Coaches who step down often return because they're hooked. But retirement from a primary job - usually teaching - has allowed some coaches more time to focus on football.

Max Miller, the section's winningest coach with 260 victories over 40 years, teaches one strength and conditioning class at Rio Americano, which streamlines into practice. For a man who was rushed to a hospital via ambulance from exhaustion twice while coaching at Cordova, Miller has learned to pace himself. That he shares duties with Ed Lombardi, another former head coach and 200-game winner, greatly eases his burden, too.

"I'm home every night by 6, and that really helps me balance," Miller said. "I know how coaching can really become a part of you. It can consume you, but it doesn't have to ruin you. I talked to Ernie Cooper after he left Granite Bay. I'm sure he'll be back. I told him, 'Don't be afraid to say, 'I changed my mind.' "

Steve DaPrato, a championship coach at Elk Grove in the mid-1980s, has retired from teaching and returned to high school coaching last year at River City. He lives blocks from the West Sacramento campus. Mike Dimino of Del Campo, a playoff regular, is in his second year of retirement from the California Highway Patrol and has grown kids.

"I have plenty of time now to spend with players, and it's a fun balance now," he said. "You can make it work."

Mike Alberghini is retired as a teacher at Grant, but he has no visions of stepping down as coach. He's been with the Pacers for 44 years, the past 23 as head coach.

"If it was just football games, I'd burn out for sure," Alberghini said. "Here, it's getting these kids through the system, into college, the friendships you develop. That makes you feel good and worthy."

And there are the relative newcomers. Antelope coach Matt Ray started his program from scratch six years ago. He has logged the 100-hour weeks. He'll be a first-time father in November, embracing a blueprint plan of how to balance it all.

"My father and grandfather coached for decades at Quincy High, and I grew up with that," Ray said. "I don't remember my family missing any of my games or events. That's how I was raised, making football part of your family, and that's why I do what I do, teaching and coaching.

"Hopefully, I can do the same. No one wants to burn out."

Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD and listen to his "Extra Point" every Wednesday on ESPN Radio 1320.

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