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Louisiana sports coaches open up on stresses on and off the field

"We do want to win, but at the end of the day, there's a lot more that goes into football and coaching kids and making them better at more than just football,”
Credit: AP
Northwestern State head coach Brad Laird reacts to a penalty call in the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Patrick Dennis)

BATON ROUGE, La. — Northwestern State had the Bears on their heels on Oct. 19, looking to erase an 0-6 start to the season. Just nine yards separated the Demons from potential overtime with No. 13 Central Arkansas. Demons quarterback Shelton Eppler took the snap, dropped back and found a receiver in the back of the end zone. Now the decision: Go for two and the win or play it safe and go to overtime? Easy choice for a coach who is trying to turn his program around – go for two.

At the 50-yard line, six rows up in the stands, Renee Laird, the wife of head coach Brad Laird, waits, hands clasped nervously around her face, for the most dramatic moment of the season to unfold. Eppler drops back again and sees his receiver with a step on his defender. But the pass gets knocked away, and Renee Laird collapses in disappointment, undoubtedly feeling the same raw emotion as her husband.

Coaches and their families go through many stresses, no matter the sport, and Renee Laird’s reaction illustrates how difficult it can be to weather the ups and downs. Whether it be the never-ending pressure of building a program or the time that coaches spend away from home, the impact is the same. And in recent interviews, Mrs. Laird and Northwestern State coaches described the emotional roller-coaster that they and their families are often on.

"It's very stressful because you see the preparation that goes in before the actual game day and the hours spent away from home, and that's all the coaches," Renee Laird said.

Her husband, 46, came back to Northwestern State to be the head coach in 2018, after being one of the best players to ever wear the purple and orange. Laird holds the Demon record for career passing yards from his time as the school’s gunslinger.

His goal was simple, to set a foundation and find success for a program that has not had a winning season since 2008, when the Demons finished 7-5 under Coach Scott Stoker. Dale Peveto followed Stoker with a 14-30 record, and the results were not much different under Jay Thomas. He was 21-36 in the five seasons leading up to Laird’s hiring and homecoming.

The Demons went 5-6 during the first season under Laird, leaving Demon fans hopeful for the future. However, the Demons seemed to be backtracking this year right through that loss to Central Arkansas. But they rebounded to win three of their next four games, including a big upset over Sam Houston State, before losing Thursday night to end the season 3-9.

Renee Laird said it’s crucial to stay positive and maintain a sense of perspective.

"We do want to win, but at the end of the day, there's a lot more that goes into football and coaching kids and making them better at more than just football,” she said. “We knew coming in that we were going to have to rebuild. Unfortunately, you can't see the leaps and bounds that they've made from game to game. All people see at the end is a score."

Laird is well-liked by his players and Demon fans, and he should have time to prove himself, even though everyone knows that the pressure to win more games is always there. Since 2015, at least 20 college football coaches have lost their jobs each year, and most of the other schools in Louisiana -- including the Demons’ Southland Conference rivals Southeastern Louisiana, McNeese State and Nicholls State – are enjoying winning seasons.

In fact, nine of the state’s 11 Division I-A teams have winning records, led by undefeated LSU, the top-ranked team in the country, and UL’s Ragin’ Cajuns at 9-2. UL-Monroe, at 5-6, is the only other team with a losing record.

“You can’t focus on the outside distractions,” Coach Laird said. “I am who I am and will continue to be who I am. The game of football brings highs and lows, but I hope I have done a good job of showing everyone involved in our program to stay focused no matter the situation.”

More-grizzled coaching veterans, like Northwestern State's defensive coordinator, Mike Lucas, 60, say that head coaches also face a lot of stress off the field.

"I like being a coordinator better than being a head coach,” said Lucas, who was the head coach at Southeastern Louisiana. “With being a head coach, you have to deal with administration, alumni, budget and all those other things. It takes away from the love of college football. It took me away from the game. I love the game part of it. It was difficult as a head coach to deal with those types of areas, and it was very stressful."

Under Lucas' leadership, Southeastern improved its record each season from 2006 through 2009 before two losing seasons led to his departure. "I was crushed," he said.

Lucas, who has made a series of coaching stops in his career, returned to Northwestern State after a three-year stint at UL in Lafayette.

"I only had to move once in 22 years," said Lucas. "After that, I moved five times in five years. So, it is difficult. It is a drain on your finances. I think it's harder on the family than it is on the coach."

Another stress on coaches and their families is the time spent away from each other.

"It can be tough for these families to try and find a balance between seeing and not seeing whoever in the family is coaching," said LaKeitha Poole, director of student-athlete health at LSU. "A lot of the times, especially during a season, the actual family has to become a part of the team family to spend time with the family member."

Poole said it is paramount that families get away for some time alone.

But as Renee Laird says, that's not as easy as it sounds.

"We get like two weeks, and that's it," said Laird. “We get two weeks in the summer.” Her husband travels to coach at camps and has other engagements then, “and I try to go and do those along with the kids whenever they do not have their things to do," she said.

Coach Laird agreed that “it’s all about the balance between work and home.”

 “You are trying to make sure you’re working hard but at the same time making sure you get out on the party barge, get on the lake, and put your kids on a tube,” he said.

Lucas said that in all the chaos of being a college football coach, Thursday nights with his family kept him going.

"Thursday nights were our family nights," he said. "It was the only night of the week where I went home directly after practice was over, and we did whatever those boys wanted to do. If they wanted to get in a batting cage until midnight, if they wanted to watch movies, or if they wanted to go out to dinner, we felt that it was important to be together."

Coaching often requires families to pack up everything and move to a new town or state. That can throw lives of their children, like the Laird’s high-school daughter Brianna and son Brock, for a loop.

"When we made the move, our daughter was going to be a freshman,” Renee Laird said. "That was extremely tough. My son was younger, so he wasn't as upset, but it was kind of a hard adjustment for my daughter. When you make a decision like that, you have to think about your kids and help them understand that it might not be easy, but it's something we have to do."

Mary Scott Dieterich has had the privilege of watching her dad, Scott, become a very successful high school football coach in the Baton Rouge area. Throughout her life, Mary Scott, now 18, heard every negative about her dad, and it left a toll.

"I think a big thing that people need to understand is behind every coach is a family and people that care about him," said Dieterich. "Negative things said don't just go to him. They go to a family that backs him up. Football is so much more than just a win. It is a family thing. He spends so much time in preparation for everything. We're sacrificing our time with him as well. Coaching isn't as easy of a job as people think it is. It takes a toll on your family and health and everything."

Dieterich went on to say: "I might have experienced a different childhood, but I think it was the best childhood."

That supportive attitude is exactly what it takes for families to endure the coaching lifestyle.

Dave Simmons, an assistant men's basketball coach at Northwestern State, eases his stress from coaching thanks to his wife.

"If you're married, that's probably the strongest part because your wives do a lot of things that you can't do, such as raising the kids," Simmons said.

"The biggest thing in coaching is you need to have some balance," he added. "Your home life needs to be balanced."

Simmons, 60, who was McNeese State’s head basketball coach for 12 years, lives in DeRidder, nearly 60 miles from McNeese in Lake Charles and 90 miles from Natchitoches.

Every day Simmons hops into his Toyota Camry and makes the 90-mile journey to work. Simmons uses the drive to collect his thoughts. He uses this time to breathe.

Through these drives, Simmons says, he has mastered the art of slowing things down and seeing the many blessings in his chaotic coaching life.  

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