And so it comes to this: Two men finally facing off in a winner-take-all contest.
Both men are successful and accomplished, yet both have walked through the valley of defeat. Both live with the fact that fame and job security is fleeting.
Both men are supported by millions and both are ridiculed and condemned when they don’t perform well. They are accustomed to living in the public eye, and know how it feels to have their words and decisions picked apart by the media.
And just to be clear, I’m not talking about this week’s presidential election.
No, I’m talking about this week’s contest between Georgia football coach Mark Richt and Auburn coach Gene Chizik, whose teams face off this coming Saturday.
And while the outcome for the presidential race remains unclear, Auburn fans have little hope of knocking off Georgia this year. Georgia is 8-1 and ranked fifth in the country, while Auburn—which won the national championship just two seasons ago—is 2-7 and suffering through its worst season in many years.
Recently I read books about both coaches and was impressed with how similar the two men are in their commitment to their Christian faith, to their families, and also in their desire to mentor the young men they coach. In All In, an autobiography by Chizik, I was struck by the unique pressures and difficulties faced by college football coaches. I can’t imagine trying to keep a marriage and family strong in those circumstances. Chizik writes:
I love my job. But I also love my family, and unfortunately one of the downsides of coaching at this level is the amount of family time you have to give up. Between recruiting, off-season practices, the regular season, and—if things go well—bowl games, we are basically on the go year-round. Most days I’m at the office early and I don’t get home until late—I usually put in a sixteen- or seventeen-hour day. From August 1 until the first Wednesday of February (National Signing Day), we pretty much run nonstop—no days off, no holidays, no breaks …
With this schedule, Chizik writes, his wife Jonna is “pretty much a single parent six to seven months a year.”
And that’s just the schedule. How would you like to live in a glass bowl where people love or hate you depending on whether your team wins? How would you like to see your husband picked apart weekly in the media?
To survive in this world, you need a true partnership in marriage. And it’s clear that Chizik and Richt have been blessed with wives who are committed to building a marriage and family that honors God.
Both couples are outspoken about their dependence on God for guidance and strength. When asked in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes video about how he and his wife Katharyn keep their marriage together, Richt said, “If we both pursue God, we’re gonna get closer together … as humans we’re never going to always agree on everything or always been in perfect relationship to each other at all times, but if there is a conflict or there is something wrong … we always turn to the Lord. If I’m trying to fix my relationship with God and she’s trying to do the same thing, we end up pretty close together.”
I also was impressed by the commitment these couples have for mentoring the young men who come through their football programs. “The longer I coach the more I realize the great responsibility we have for the young men God has put us in authority over,” Richt says. Both football programs offer everything from educational tutoring to character classes to training in how to speak with the media. Players are given opportunities to attend Bible studies and devotions. And, since many of the players come from troubled family backgrounds, both programs boast a strong emphasis on family. Players often see the wives and children of coaches at practices and team functions. Chizik writes:
We want our players to become good fathers and husbands, but what good would it do if we stood up in team meetings and emphasized the importance of marriage and fatherhood but didn’t give them concrete examples of how a good father and husband looks, talks, and acts? My marriage isn’t perfect—it can’t be because I’m a part of it!—but it is a loving, biblically centered marriage. Jonna is around our team enough that she should probably demand to be on the payroll, which means the players can see how she and I communicate and get along with each other in our marriage.
This may be the final showdown between Richt and Chizik; Auburn’s poor record has led many Auburn boosters to demand that Chizik be replaced after this season concludes. It’s hard to imagine—just 21 months ago he was on the top of the world—kissing Jonna on national television after Auburn won the national championship.
But that’s the crazy world of a college football coach and his family.
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