NFL coaches, the hardest-working men in human history.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 8 2006 12:34 PM

No Sleep Till Touchdown

NFL coaches, the hardest-working men in human history.

Nick Saban. Click image to expand.
Nick Saban

The key play in the Miami Dolphins' 28-17 loss Thursday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers wasn't a play at all. Dolphins head coach Nick Saban inexplicably waited until the last possible second to challenge a highly questionable fourth-quarter Steelers touchdown. The refs didn't see him throw the red flag, and the touchdown stood. A rough break, to be sure, but it's only one game. Will Saban lose sleep over it anyway? That goes without saying.

Saban epitomizes the modern NFL head coach. His in-season preparations resemble those of a student in the midst of a five-month cram session. His offseason work is just as taxing. Earlier this year, Saban turned down an invitation to dine with George W. Bush because it would have conflicted with practice time. Skipping out on dinner with the president is one thing—but Saban also turned down a chance to play golf at Augusta National. "Where I come from, there is no fun-loving," the coach once said. "You work. You work hard. And good things happen." Or, as the Orlando Sentinel's Mike Bianchi once wrote, "He's a single-minded workaholic control freak who always looks perpetually constipated."

Saban's not the only coach who fancies himself a long-haul trucker. Kansas City's Herman Edwards begins his workday at 4:30 a.m. Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden is known as "Jon 3:11," because that's the time he wakes up in the morning. He used to be considerably more mellow: When Gruden was in Oakland, he'd start his mornings at 3:17. In 2003, he co-wrote a book titled Do You Love Football?!: Winning With Heart, Passion, and Not Much Sleep. It's unclear what Gruden loves more—football or staying awake.

The list of workaholic coaches goes on: In his first run with the Redskins, Joe Gibbs had his wife tape dinner-table conversation so he could catch up on his home life at work. During the season, Eagles coach Andy Reid puts sofa cushions on his office floor and sleeps on those. (Why not just sleep on the sofa?) Bill Belichick, for his part, says he never sleeps at all.

Judging by the hours they claim to put in, NFL head coaches have the most demanding job in the world—medical intern, first-year associate, meth tweaker, and 1920s-era trans-Atlantic pilot rolled into one. It's no surprise that the rate of attrition among head coaches is so high. A 2002 Pro Football Weekly series on coaches pinpointed two ways that the clipboard carriers could lower their blood pressure: retirement and death. With that in mind, it's perhaps understandable why coaches might want to seize every possible moment to do … whatever it is that they do.

What exactly does a head coach do for 23 hours every day? If the exhaustive EA Sports video game NFL Head Coach is to be believed, the football coach's day consists of scrolling through interminable menus and trying to find the volume control to mute Trey Wingo. Even if the job's a little more complicated than that, there's no way it can require that much effort. Imagine telling George Halas that he should have worked 20-hour days. He would have laughed you out of his office, then gone back to inventing the T-formation. No matter how many variations on the spread offense you come up with, it's still the spread offense, not Fermat's Last Theorem.

Indeed, the head football coach has never done less coaching than he does now. The guy with the biggest whistle has a fleet of coordinators and position coaches that handle all the grunt work, from conditioning to game-planning to skill-training. And the head coach is only rarely the general manager, so he's not in charge of player personnel moves. Instead, the coach functions as a sort of CEO, coordinating large-scale strategic planning while ensuring all members of his organization perform competently.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Viewed through that lens, this endemic insomnia shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, CEOs fetishize waking up early just as much as football coaches. Disney President Robert Iger's day begins at 4:30 a.m. The head of the William Morris Agency sleeps only three hours a night. In a 2005 New York Times piece on the business world's early risers, one motivational expert explained the phenomenon: "Getting up late, having fun at work, these are all for losers."

For these overachievers, sleep is for the weak, and dedication is measured by how much time you put into a job. Endurance is a way for someone like the minuscule Jon Gruden to prove his masculinity. Maybe he can't bench-press 500 pounds, but Gruden can go without sleep for a week. Take that, Mike Holmgren!

Plus, it looks better to fans if the head coach is thought to be perpetually drawing X's and O's. In 2002, the Washington Redskins brought in Steve Spurrier, whose laid-back approach to coaching was worlds apart from the amped-up style employed by his predecessor Marty Schottenheimer. "If it takes six hours to get a good plan ready, why do you need 26 hours?" asked Spurrier, who saw nothing wrong with golfing on off-days and getting to work at a leisurely 7:30 a.m. Spurrier lasted two undistinguished seasons before the Skins, tired of losing, rehired Joe Gibbs—who, in his first stint coaching the team, removed all clocks from the practice facility's walls. Are you ready for some football? Joe Gibbs always is.

But in the end, it's not that clear that these sleepless nights make that much of a difference. Miami missed the playoffs last year, as did Andy Reid's Eagles and Herm Edwards' Jets. The Bucs won their division but lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Super Bowl-winning Steelers are coached by Bill Cowher, who sleeps at home and rarely misses his kids' sports games. Cowher was also on the winning end of last night's Dolphins-Steelers matchup. As a man who is well acquainted with the joys of REM sleep, Cowher might not win any masculinity points from his fellow coaches. But at least he's alert enough to throw a challenge flag in time.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.