Down South: A Coach’s Life
By Tom Poland
We who love college football don’t grasp how hard football is on coaches and their families. We watch the games but seldom think of what’s behind them. Headed into another season, now is the time to give coaches their due. Sure, they make good money, but earning it takes a toll, and there’s no job security. It’s a relentless grind.
1996, February—After spending three days in Winter Haven, Florida, writing a cover story for Ski magazine on Cypress Gardens’ 60th anniversary, I was driving back home along I-4 when the radio broadcast a bulletin about Wayne McDuffie, a coach at Georgia under Vince Dooley and later Ray Goff.
McDuffie masterminded Florida State’s high-octane offense in the 1980s and earlier he had been part of Georgia’s 1980 glory, Dooley’s offensive line coach. I heard him speak at a Bulldog Club meeting in the 1990s. He spoke deliberately and was intense beyond description. He seemed an ironman, beyond destruction. Like most fans, I watch the games; the crushing preparation I miss.
Coaching, the relentless grind never stops. There’s the pressure of not winning and there’s the pressure of looking for work. In the August 1996 Sporting News, Bill Minutaglio wrote “The Coach, The Players, Their Demons,” describing how McDuffie’s life spiraled down when the Ray Goff era ended at Georgia.
1994—“I really thought I wouldn’t survive this year. I’m so exhausted from trying to put pieces together that don’t fit,” Wayne McDuffie was telling his wife of more than two decades. It was the end of another grueling season as offensive coordinator at UGA. “I’m trying to make something from nothing. I really thought I would die. I thought I would have a heart attack and die because I worked so hard. I worried so much and tried so desperately to hold this thing together.” The team had what was, for Wayne McDuffie, a disastrous season. The Bulldogs went 6-4-1.”
In Tales from the 1980 Georgia Bulldogs, Vince Dooley discussed what a great coach McDuffie was and how he couldn’t turn off his intensity. Dooley said they had to send him on recruiting trips Thursdays and Fridays. “The players would be so stressed out after Sunday through Wednesday with Wayne that they needed a few days to build their confidence back up.”
The ruthless quest for gridiron perfection takes a toll on many coaches, and when the won-loss record doesn’t reflect the long hours and work, it does their family few favors. The ex wife of a former college coach told me she divorced her husband because she could not take the fan abuse. “I couldn’t go the grocery store or the hair salon without strangers walking up and criticizing my husband. I couldn’t go anywhere without being harassed. It just got to be too much.”
Minutaglio: “Sometimes, the assistant coaches at Florida State, where he coached for most of the 1980s, would hear a strange flapping sound echoing from one of the football offices. It could be 6 a.m. or even 5 a.m. As they held their cups of coffee and looked inside, there would be Wayne McDuffie asleep on a conference table, his Clint Eastwood face and body oddly illuminated by the flickering light coming from the movie projector. The film he had been studying, rethreading and rerunning all night long was still spinning wildly in the reels. But, when someone woke him up, he would simply, wordlessly, move to the football field where he had ordered his offensive lineman to show up before sunrise.”
“He was a very demanding coach,” said Georgia guard Jim Blakewood. “I can’t imagine there being a tougher coach. It really gave us an edge. We felt like nobody in the league worked harder than we did. The teams we were getting ready to play couldn’t survive our practices. The games were a piece of cake.”
Men like McDuffie give their all yet fans give them fits. The coaches can never do enough. If their team goes undefeated, then it must do so forever. Over the message boards, over sports talk radio and in the stands, guys play armchair quarterback. To hear them rant, you’d think they had coached a few national championships and a Super Bowl winner or two. Many I’m sure never played a down.
Following Dooley was tough. From 1989 to 1995, Ray Goff chalked up 46 wins to 34 losses and one tie. Six wins a season did Goff in and with him went the coaching staff. That included Wayne McDuffie.
“When the situation at the University of Georgia disintegrated, a big part of McDuffie’s life was dying right there in front of him,” wrote Minutaglio.
“McDuffie watched members of the old staff move on to other jobs. Wayne jogged in his golf-course neighborhood, pushing himself hard. He lifted weights. And, with his wife, he wrestled with the future. He hoped a professional team would come calling. He had feelers in with the Dolphins.
“But his birthday (December 1) and the holidays passed, as did the big bowl games, the pro playoffs and the Super Bowl, and Wayne McDuffie was still unemployed. He was 51 years old. The chart, the map, had led nowhere.”
1996, February—I’m driving down Interstate 4 when the radio crackles. Football was all McDuffie had known. His phone never rang. At the age of 51, Wayne McDuffie shot himself to death near the family pool. He left behind three kids and his wife of 26 years.
A former player said he “couldn’t stop thinking of Coach McDuffie, of the imposing figure he cut between the green grass and blue sky, of the wonderful way he affected my life.”
Nor can I. A coach’s life ended before the game did.
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Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”