By Stacy Smith Rogers
I’ve either loved October, or I’ve hated it. Sometimes both at the same time.
After the long stretch of heat and humidity of a Georgia summer, I’ve openly embraced the chill of early October mornings like a long-lost friend at a high school reunion. I’ve loved the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot, apple picking, pumpkin carving, talk of Halloween costumes and the inspiration that comes with watching a maple tree turn golden under the autumn sun. However, when you’re married to a basketball coach, sometimes you love October, and sometimes you hate it.
For more than 20 years, I had to muster up courage to face the most beautiful month of the year. With the season officially beginning on October 15, I had to wrap my brain around this date circled in red on my mental calendar and remind myself, “This is what I signed up for.” It was simply part of my job description. Although this role didn’t come with a paycheck, the title of coach’s wife was one I proudly embraced with a mix of both anticipation and dread come mid-October. Like a tree shedding its leaves, my husband’s mind would need to cast away the old for the new — new players, new plays, new opponents. It would have limited space for taking care of things that make our family life more challenging – co-parenting decisions, household tasks, bill paying, meal planning, relationship talks and managing the drama of raising three daughters. I knew that his brain would instead be filled with new defensive strategies, inbound plays and conditioning drills that would prepare his players to be ready to run up and down the court for 40 minutes straight. He would need to nurture a new class of college freshmen boys who’ve left home for the first time and help them with all the issues that accompany that – juggling class schedules, girlfriend break-ups, financial hardships and bruised egos. There would be no room or time for helping with soccer practice carpools, algebra homework, date nights, staying home with a sick kid or regular family meals. I would trade a manageable, slow zone defensive strategy to managing a family for a fast-paced, man-to-man, full-court press attack on life’s everyday challenges. Our home would be one player short from October through April, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.
Yes, I loved October. And, I hated it.
For those of us who have been there behind-the-scenes supporting a college basketball coach, we know. We know what it takes. We know the sacrifices, the prayers sent up for last-second shots, the stickiness of making pans and pans of Rice Krispie treats for long bus rides and the emotional thermometer that fluctuates with wins, losses and daily practices. A coach’s wife often feels alone, despite how many fans are cheering her husband’s team on or how many armchair coaches want to weigh in on how the season is going. That’s how I felt for many years. It wasn’t until my husband agreed to host a character coach from Nations of Coaches that I began to feel less alone and more a part of God’s plan for this season of our lives.
In 2015, we invited Pastor Phil Wade and his wife Kelli to our annual lasagna fest, which we traditionally hosted for the entire team before the first game of every season. The girls and I would spend two solid days preparing for it. Our kitchen table became an assembly line of noodles, cheese and meat sauce. Repeat. It was the messiest meal prep of the year, but I loved it. Twenty-plus hungry young men towered eagerly over the stove as we dished out second and third helpings. I remember wiping garlic butter off my hands to usher Kelli and Phil into our home, a little embarrassed at the tomato sauce splattered kitchen I was introducing them to. Kelli smiled and placed a gift bag in my hand. It had my name on it. No one else’s. Just mine. Humbled and surprised, I opened it to find a candle, an oven mitt, decorative hand towel and an assortment of chocolates. It was more than a hostess gift. It was a symbol of the sacrifice I was about to make as the season got underway. I realized at that point how much I needed that personal recognition. I was hungry to be acknowledged, much like those young men sitting on my couches craved a home-cooked meal. It was a reminder that I needed to give myself a little grace as I geared up for another six months as a coach’s widow. That small gesture set the tone for my relationship with Nations of Coaches. I realized that not only were they were pouring into those boys I was feeding and that man I loved, but they were pouring into me. I felt valued – and understood.
We ended the season that year with another acknowledgement from Nations of Coaches. We were invited to attend a two-day marriage retreat as their guests. Each May, Nations invites coaches and their wives to get away together after the chaos of the season has subsided and before the full-court press of recruiting begins. Ironically, it was hosted on the campus where my husband coached, at the beautiful WinShape Retreat perched atop 27,000 acres at Berry College. Just a few minutes after we checked in, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one eager to steal away with my husband after a long season as “Coach’s Wife.” To be in a room surrounded by other women walking a similar path was an enlightening experience for me. All we had to do was glance at each other to feel a sense of shared adversity and excitement. I looked forward to those retreats each spring, feeling less alone in my journey in supporting Jeff’s dream. I was part of another team now, and it felt good.
Throughout the years, it was interesting to witness the evolution of a friendship between my husband and his character coach. Phil started off sitting at the far end of the bench at games, more of an observer than anything. Fast forward a few seasons later and he was in an assistant’s chair, poised to offer a steady word or two for Jeff when officials got under his skin or just to be present when we called a timeout with 30 seconds to go and were down by two. It was a friendship, but it was also a mentorship of sorts. What I witnessed in that team during that time was life-changing. I will forever be grateful for it.
One day, Phil casually invited the guys to attend his church. It was a low pressure offer. A few curious ones took him up on it, and over time, they kept coming. They brought friends, roommates and girlfriends, and gradually more than half of our team began sitting on the front row of his church every Sunday morning. College boys who could have slept in were there with each other, listening, learning, singing and growing together. A few even took the mic to share their testimonies and lead worship. It was pretty cool.
What I witnessed in my husband was equally impressive during that time. Jeff grew deeper in his faith, but he also grew less frustrated with the things that were out of his control. Instead, he began focusing on the big picture more, and less on the details. He was decidedly more “present” at home mentally — even when there were fewer wins than losses and the politics of pleasing administrators and boosters collided with doing what was best for his players as individuals. He made hard decisions, choosing to focus on how to best serve his players as young men instead of simply guys in uniforms. He overcame obstacles with grace and a steadiness that I know would have been more challenging without the support of Phil’s calm sideline presence.
At the end of the 2018 season, our group of young men realized their full potential by making it to the finals of their conference tournament — a first for Berry College since it transitioned to Division III. Kelli didn’t hesitate when I asked her if she wanted to make the 12-hour round trip drive with me in one day to watch them play. We cried tears of joy together as we watched our husbands take a turn on the ladder to cut down the nets. It was an exhilarating experience to share together. Our players thanked God for the championship win. And, so did I.
Now, my husband is beginning a new season – both personally and professionally. He has traded in the clipboard and locker room speeches for a more involved role with Nations of Coaches – as an associate regional director. Instead of offensive strategies, he’ll be helping other coaches welcome their own character coaches to their college teams. Through his experience, he’ll be sharing how much of an impact this organization made on him, his players and our family. He’ll broaden his influence as a leader to help other coaches develop skills to succeed. What’s more is that he has invited me to help support efforts to demonstrate how being involved with Nations can make an impact on marriages. (The idea of helping other coaches’ wives feel less alone holds a welcome place in my heart.)
I’m already feeling a lot more love for October. And, I’m more confident than ever that this new season for our family will be a win.