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Originally published May 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 12, 2009 at 1:12 AM

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Coaches struggle to find balance between work and family

Some, like Keith and Wendy Hennig at Kentwood, get out to spend more time with their kids. Those who stay — despite the long hours and low pay — love coaching too much to kick the habit.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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COVINGTON — Keith Hennig has a 3-year-old boy named Trevor and a 1-year-old named Brady. He wants to watch them grow up. Not in the brief moments between school and basketball practice. Not in the late-night hours when he would get home from a game or an open gym.

"I hate it during the winter season because I leave when it's dark out, and when I come home it's dark out," Hennig says. "It's almost depressing."

Long before he led the Kentwood High girls basketball team to the state championship in March, Hennig, only 32, had decided that it would be his last season. But Hennig discovered that, as with any addiction, it's one thing to decide to quit. It's quite another to go through with it.

For two weeks after the championship game, he walked past the state championship trophy every day and saw his girls in the halls at Kentwood, where he is a history teacher. He remembered all those moments that made the late nights and early mornings worth it. He was going through withdrawal.

And one night he turned to his wife, Wendy, who was also his assistant, and said, "Do you think we can do it another year?"

She asked him to remember some different moments. Three straight weeks they ate at McDonald's every night while she was pregnant because it was the only place open at 9:30 when they drove home from practice. The winter breaks spent at tournaments in California, or Arizona, or Oregon. The practices where he would have to turn his boys away because he was too busy coaching.

"It just kept coming back to our two smiling boys out in the yard," Wendy Hennig says.

"It took her about two seconds to quickly talk me out of it," Keith Hennig says.

When they came to Kentwood six years ago, the Hennigs imagined they would be lifetime coaches.

"But I quickly realized what it took," Keith Hennig says.

It took 70-hour weeks and 16-hour days. It took year-round devotion, from the exhausting summer leagues in June until the open-gym sessions in May. And that realization has hit many Seattle-area high-school coaches. The arduous demands of being a coach, with long hours often reserved for lawyers and emergency-room doctors, have caused many to struggle to balance coaching with a family life.

Those who stick around, despite low pay and parental pressure, are the ones who love it too much to kick the habit.


"For us, we don't even know how hard it's going to be to leave the game," Wendy Hennig says. "That's all we know."

"There's nothing like it"

Ross Johnson tried to quit. In 2006, after he led the Redmond volleyball team to a third-place state finish, Johnson quit coaching to focus on a family he barely got to see.

He coached year-round, with a high-school team in the fall, the junior-high team in the winter and seventh-graders in the spring. On a good day, he worked 12 hours. On the bad ones, he would be gone for 18.

"I once saw my kids on Sunday and then saw them again on Friday," Johnson says.

"My wife's a teacher, and she becomes like a single parent."

After almost two decades of coaching, the withdrawal period wasn't easy. For the year after he quit, his wife would tell him, living with him would be harder than ever. He missed volleyball dearly — the games, the kids, even the officials. He followed area box scores closely every morning, and he had asked off work to go to the Tri-Cities for the 2007 state volleyball tournament.

"I had just packed the car, and I was sitting there, going, 'Why am I going there?' " he says. "I almost went."

It was at that point Johnson realized the pull of coaching was too great for him to escape. He began searching for a job, and his old one at Redmond opened again. After just one year away, Johnson came back, though this time he vowed to coach only the high-school team, in the fall.

"It's definitely addicting, the feeling of the big game and winning the big game," Johnson says. "There's nothing like it."

"It really does wear you physically down"

Early on Saturday mornings, Jason Kerr basks in the quiet of an empty gym. One whirlwind week has ended, and as Kerr sets up for the Saturday practice, another is about to begin.

"It's hard to put into words what that feeling is," says Kerr, who has won three state championships in 10 years as Franklin's boys basketball coach. "You look backwards and forwards at the same time."

For Kerr — like Johnson, Hennig and many area coaches — coaching has become like a second full-time job. So where does the time go? It starts with practice days, when Kerr does not get home from Franklin, where he works during the day, until 7 or 8 p.m. On game nights, he leaves for home closer to midnight.

"There's definitely no question that there's an addiction factor to loving the game you coach," Kerr says.

A new element has drastically changed high-school coaching in the past 20 years: scouting. Kerr has a rack of more than 100 DVDs of opponents' film from the past season. Many, if not most, are from teams Franklin never played, but Kerr wanted to have the tape just in case Franklin saw them in the postseason.

Not only does someone have to shoot all of this film — as many as five assistants and volunteers could be out taping on any given night — but Kerr and his assistants have to watch every tape of every upcoming opponent.

"You're so busy, there are so many things going through your head, by the end you're so fatigued that it really starts to become sort of a blur," he says.

Basketball coaches are hardly the only ones who use film to scout. It has become a staple for football teams; Skyline coach Mat Taylor and his coaches put in 12 hours every weekend breaking down film so that on Monday each player can take home a DVD of opponents' plays. Using film to scout teams also is widely used in soccer and in volleyball.

More advanced statistical techniques, like sabermetrics in baseball, have given coaches who are willing to put in the time the chance to break their games down even further.

"It really does wear you physically down," says Jack Hamann, who assists his wife, Leslie, in coaching the Garfield volleyball team. "You don't sleep, you don't eat, you're just wasted."

And what used to be a short season now has few breaks. Steve Gervais, who coached six state championship football teams before spending last year on Tyrone Willingham's staff at Washington, remembers when being a coach was confined to each four-month season. But as team camps and offseason weight programs flourished, by the mid-1990s, coaching had become a yearlong job.

"It snowballed really fast," Gervais says. "Once someone's doing it, you pretty much have to do it to stay with everybody else."

In summer basketball leagues, teams play as many as 60 games in 35 days. Then, once fall begins, there's a new season to focus on.

"You don't do a whole lot else," says Abe Wehmiller, who recently quit as the Lakeside boys basketball coach to focus on being the school's athletic director. "That results in either one of two things. You keep coaching, because that's what you love.

"Or you burn out. You get out of the game."

"You get paid in something other than money"

Shelley Bradford, an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama, did a burnout study with hundreds of high-school coaches in Florida. Bradford, a former high-school volleyball and track coach herself, often sees burnout in three areas: feeling exhausted, losing a feeling of personal accomplishment and "depersonalization" — seeing your players as objects instead of people.

"When you stop enjoying the development of the kids and you stop enjoying going to the gym, that's the time to step away," says Juanita girls basketball coach Sam Lee, who quit in 2001 and spent six years away from coaching. When he returned to Juanita in 2007, after he had retired, he says, "I was really rejuvenated."

When Bradford studied why former coaches left the profession, there were usually three reasons: too much time, a lack of appropriate compensation and unrealistic and disruptive parents.

In the Seattle School District, head coaching stipends range from $2,067 to $4,660 and those only account for the hours spent during the season. Most work that coaches do in the offseason is done on a volunteer basis.

"You get paid in something other than money," Kerr says. "But the memories you're going to have and the stories you're going to tell, to me that's more fun and more valuable. I still wake up excited to see what's the next challenge I'm going to have with my young men."

Gervais remembers a night five years ago in Mexico City that he spent with Terry Ennis, who coached high-school football for 36 years before he died of prostate cancer in 2007. Ennis had tried once to retire but could not give it up. Even in his dying hours, he was preparing for his next game.

"I remember Terry said, 'I feel like I get better every year. I love it more now than I have ever loved it.' "

Tom Wyrwich: 206-515-5653 or

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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