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Penn State Football: Mental Health and Surviving in the High Profile Coaching World

by on August 03, 2019 10:59 PM

Standing in front of several coffee makers very early in the morning, I asked James Franklin if he ever gets tired.

A pause.

Franklin laughs, shaking his head in a gesture that means something between yes and no, all while motioning toward the coffee brewing in front of him.

“There is a race [to the coffee makers] when a staff meeting ends,” an office assistant mentions from afar.

The money, and there is a lot of it, makes up for some of the hours. Few would hesitate to take on a high-profile coaching salary if it meant long days. In reality though, few would be able to last their first week of work.

Coaching is not saving the world, and a difficult workload in exchange for high-end pay is fairly standard. So it is true that being a football coach may not produce the societal value of brain surgery, but the toll it can take on coaches is no less real to them or those around them.

And in the high-profile world of major college football, those long hours and stressful weeks can lead to burnout, self-destruction and various negative inclinations. The money may lead to more enjoyable summers, but it doesn’t buy mental health and it doesn’t create happy families.

So how do you survive?

“I think you have a system,” said Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry, a coach in some capacity since 1993. “You come off a little bit of vacation and you know what the next several months are going to look like and you get into a routine; your family knows the routine. There’s always things that need to be done. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it or how good your prospects are on the team or how talented you are as a team.

“There are always things that you’re going to have to do. You can try and take shortcuts because you’ve done it 20 times, [but] it doesn't work that way. We’ve always got to be on our Ps and Qs and the minute I stop doing that, I’ll have to do something else.”

As far as Penn State’s coaching staff, the array of experiences surviving the profession are varied. From the more tenured coaches like Franklin and Pry to tight end coach Tyler Bowen, only a few years on the job, they've all found a way to make it work.

For offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, his son is in Boy Scouts, both of them enjoying a chance to be in the outdoors. For defensive line coach Sean Spencer it’s his motorcycle, a way to let the wind fly and watch the land roll past his feet. A brief release in a stressful world.

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For cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, it’s dinner every Thursday with his daughter, a tradition some 16 years old. Some weeks it’s a trip to Outback, others a visit to Texas Roadhouse, but no matter what, it happens.

You simply have to live a life beyond the field if you want to succeed on it.

“You’ve also got to show the kids that you do something other than football,” Spencer said on Saturday. “You could legitimately work from six in the morning to midnight all related to football and give a justification why you should be doing that. However you do that and burn both ends of the candle and the results aren’t showing, it kind of makes it a little bit sour.”

Enter offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, about to begin his second year on the job in the biggest role of his career. After a 9-4 season of ups and downs, good and bad, Rahne spent some time reflecting on everything he did. His family drove around the country, visiting baseball stadiums and taking in games. His kids listened to music, his wife was at his side, and he thought. He read books and absorbed advice from fellow coaches — he was a sponge.

His first year as an offensive coordinator at Penn State was a cauldron of great games and things he would want back.

And surviving that is not easy.  

“[We think that] if you're struggling with anything, the answer immediately is I'm going to work harder, I'm going to work more, I'm going to stay later, I'm going to do that,” Rahne said.

“I've realized that that's not the better answer. It's working more efficiently. It's making sure that you're making decisions quickly and accurately and those sort of things, and I think that's something that's really going to help me in the future.

“You know, my natural instinct is just to work harder, and that can't always be the way, right. There's only so much blood in the stone. You have to make sure that you get your sleep and those sort of things and, quite frankly, I've made goals for myself on that this year.”

There was something about Rahne’s demeanor that reflected this on Saturday as he spoke to the media. Never a fan of the interrogation process earlier in his time in State College, Rahne was sharp during his Media Day press conference, confident in his delivery, strong with his message.

A product of the Colorado air, Rahne still gives off a casual vibe. Birkenstocks are his go-too footwear — he wore them every day in college, rain, snow or sun. He had a formal pair and a casual pair. None of this is indicative of how he approaches his job but are an indicator of a laid back personality that seemingly runs counter to the stereotype of a one-dimensional coordinator awake at all hours scheming for the next game. The watchful eye can find Rahne animated at his players, and his rise to Penn State’s offensive coordinator was not a promotion unearned, but Rahne fits his own mold.

This is not to say that the job is somehow easier, less stressful or less demanding. Rahne is simply getting better at all of it, both on and off the field. Finding sanity in an insane business.

“If you say you’re going to be home every Monday for dinner for an hour then you need to do it, and when you’re home you have to be where your feet are,” Rahne said, standing on the Beaver Stadium field. 

“When you’re younger you probably don’t recognize that because you think to yourself ‘Oh I’ll have years for that’ but then you realize every year there is something you might miss. Even when I’m with my players, maybe I’ll say something ridiculous and [Sean] Clifford will burst out laughing. Those are the things you’ll remember. You’re not going to remember every play but you’ll remember those things forever. So I’ve started to focus on those things because this is still a people-oriented game.

“It’s probably something I didn’t buy into enough in my career, but I absolutely think those relationships, they come into what’s going to happen on this field right here. And ultimately that’s my job, we can say it’s about a bunch of other things but it’s about scoring points and helping us win games. But I’m not going to sacrifice my soul in order to do that.”

So he goes home, his wife and kids there waiting for them, the baseball stadiums and rides on the calendar. Something normal in a life that frankly isn't.

A few weeks before Rahne and the Nittany Lions began their trek toward the 2019 season, he walked one of his sons to Pegula Ice Arena for hockey practice. Rahne hopes that one day that State College will produce a prospect that will play hockey for Penn State. Maybe it will be his kid, maybe it won’t.

He waves, because he is polite but immediately shifts his attention back to the moment he is in, a moment with his son.

In a profession that so often seems to lose its mind, Rahne seems sane, confident and growing into the biggest role of his life, just ahead of a year where Penn State will need him to be all three.

And maybe it’s only a small part of the puzzle, but as the Nittany Lions continue on in a post-Barkley, post-Moorhead, post-McSorley era, the happiness and mental health of its 39-year-old offensive coordinator is not a variable to be ignored.

In many ways it might be one of the most important.

"I think it’s probably the same for you guys," Rahne said about not burning out. "Reporters end up doing their jobs for a very long time and it’s a hard life, traveling all the time and doing things and depending on people not to say a cliche, finally for once, so you can actually write a story and those sorts of things.”

“But you love it, and that’s why you want to do it. You’re smart, you could do a lot of other things, so hopefully I can say that about myself, I love the game of football and I love coaching, so that’s why I don’t burn out. Are there moments when it’s hard, absolutely, but when you love something, it's a lot easier to do it over and over again."

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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