NCAA Tournament Coaches- Michigan’s John Beilein (Final Four!) and Belmont’s Rick Byrd- Career Priorities, and Tradeoffs

Coaches Beilein and Byrd took different paths to the NCAA tournament, involving different work-life trade-offs. What we could learn from their stories.

Both Beilein and Byrd are fixtures during March Madness
Both Beilein and Byrd are fixtures during March Madness

I’m not a big college sports fan, but I enjoy March Madness. The school spirit, close games, tantalizing upsets are a perfect recipe for excitement.

But this year, something else caught my attention. Some coaches, like legends Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski, have helmed prestigious programs for decades. Most coaches aren’t that fortunate.

To climb the ranks of college basketball, coaches often parlay success at a smaller program into a new job at a larger one, often changing employers many times until reaching the highest ranks. This ambition and career focus is admirable, but must come at a cost to other aspects of life. Imagine moving your family cross-country five times in a 20 year period? This has to take a toll.

One study found that Division I, II and II head coaches worked an average of 69 hours a week, and spent 77 days on the road each year. Over 80% of coaches stated that their work pressures contributed to marital difficulties and divorce. Some have asserted (although the statistics are hard to validate) that 70% of coaches divorce during their first 15 years in the profession, well above the national average.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the importance of thinking through one’s work- and family-related priorities, making sure your spouse/family are on board, and then making family decisions consistent with those priorities. Whatever a family chooses is generally ok, as long as the decision is made together and everyone’s best interests are taken into account.

In this article, I’d like to use two coaches in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament to illustrate the range of choices one can make when it comes to career ambition, and the trade-offs that may be involved. I have no inside information here, just using public information on their careers to illustrate a larger point.

University of Michigan head coach John Beilein

Beilein is at the helm of one of the most prestigious basketball programs in the country (and has taken the Wolverines to the Final Four!). He took a long, winding route to get there. Over the last 25 years, Beilein was the head coach at Erie Community College, Nazareth College, Le Moyne College, Canisius College, University of Richmond, West Virginia University, and now Michigan.

Beilein worked his way to one of the most prestigious position in sports- Michigan basketball coach
Beilein worked his way to one of the most prestigious position in sports- Michigan basketball coach- switching schools 7 times in 25 years

That’s a lot of packing and unpacking (town to town, up and down the dial). But that’s the price you pay to make it to a program like Michigan.

According to his wikipedia page, Beilein has been married for 35 years, and has four children, all of whom appear to be happy, healthy and successful (one even followed his dad into coaching and is now the coach at West Virginia Wesleyan University).

I have unbelievable respect for the Beilin family, and especially for John’s wife, Kathleen. To have balanced the intense working hours required of a big-time college basketball coach (recruiting trips, glad-handing boosters, travel, long hours of practice and planning, media demands) while raising four children is remarkable enough. To persevere through SEVEN moves is even moreso.

The Beileins bucked the trend. I can’t imagine it was easy, but I bet John and Kathleen understood his career ambitions and came to an agreement about how they would make their marriage and family work. I’m sure Kathleen shouldered a substantial load- she must have done so much unsung work to allow her husband to “Lean In” to his career.

Belmont University head coach Rick Byrd

The other path for sustained success at a high level in Division I basketball appears to be starting at a smaller, less prestigious program, staying for the long-term, and turning it into a consistent winner. This seems to be the path Rick Byrd chose.

Byrd stayed at Belmont, building a consistent winner
Byrd stayed 27 years at Belmont, building a consistent winner

Aside from Boeheim and Krzyzewski, Byrd is the longest-tenured coach in the tournament, having spent 27 years at Belmont. He started there well before Belmont was a Division I program. Belmont is now a mid-major power- reaching the NCAA tournament six times in the past eight seasons.

I’m sure his success is a byproduct of hard work, long hours and dedication to coaching. But it is clear he does not have quite the same demands on his time as Beilein- and he hasn’t uprooted his family seven times. This probably led to less work-family conflict, and to hear him tell it, a more lifestyle-friendly career:

“The longer you coach, just the longer you live and work, I think you come to understand that there are things that money can’t buy and that quality of life is important. When you work in a place and you live in a place that you love — and that people are kind to you and you enjoy coming to work every day — then you’re very fortunate, and you’re in that [top] 10 percent of all jobs.”

Frankly, it was hard to find information on Byrd’s private life- I suspect this is because he is in a situation in which he can maintain his privacy. What little I could find is that he lives with his wife and kids in the suburbs of Nashville and is one of the most respected men in his profession.

Byrd may not be the household name that Beilein is, and will never make as much money. He will almost certainly never contend seriously for the national title. But he has attained a level of success and respect that cannot be denied, and this seems to be more important than his greater ambitions:

“Once I was here and became comfortable, I got over the climb-the-ladder mentality. Coaches who want to make the next level, don’t care where they go or how they got there, just want to end up coaching at Kentucky or wherever. Belmont and Nashville made me lose that not very long after I got here.”

Whichever path you choose- climbing the ladder and prioritizing career success, lowering career ambitions to make room for more family time, or finding that sweet spot between a good career and a more complete lifestyle- the key is to make sure your entire family is on board and everyone’s needs are being met. Then, work hard to live your priorities. It appears as if the Beilein and Byrd families would agree.

What do you think about these examples? The choices you have made regarding work and family ambitions? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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5 thoughts on “NCAA Tournament Coaches- Michigan’s John Beilein (Final Four!) and Belmont’s Rick Byrd- Career Priorities, and Tradeoffs

  1. On the way into work I was listening to ESPN radio and the Mike and Mike show was interviewing Andy Enfield from Florida Gulf Coast and the interview was along the same theme. His wife was a model and has basically stopped her career and become a stay at home mom to give him a chance to become a d-1 head coach. This wasnt mentioned in the interview but I learned by reading Darren Rovell on twitter that he also had a stake in a tech company that made him a lot of money so there may not have been a financial sacrifice.

  2. Guys like Rick Byrd are very inspirational;I suppose Beilein is too but I like the story of Byrd better because he found a job he loved and didn’t feel the need to claw his way up to a superpower basketball program. Just the thought of moving 7 times with a family is enough to make me nauseous. Another great coaching story is Brad Stevens at Butler University. He quit his job at Eli Lilly to get involved as a VOLUNTEER at Butler and gradually worked his way up to head coach. He has been amazingly successful, with Butler reaching the championship game of the NCAA tournament in both 2010 and 2011. Stevens could make millions more at another school but has decided to stay put because he loves his town and the school.

    • I gravitate to Byrd’s story more myself- but of course, I’m on track to try to do the equivalent- stay at a less-well known school for my whole career bc I love it here and don’t want to uproot my family.

      Beilein struck me in that his family seems to have made it through all the moves and upheaval relatively intact (at least from outward appearances).

      I really respect Stevens, who has turned down huge opportunities when most other would jump at it. (I chose to write about Byrd bc besides Coach K and Boeheim he has the longest tenure at his program of any tournament coach.

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