Married to the job: IU coaches’ wives balance family, athletic responsibilities
By Stephanie Kuzydym
They married into the job. Actually, they married into the life.
Now, they’re working late nights and early mornings, just like their husbands do at the field. They’re up with the team, down with the team, waking with nightmares of rivalries and falling asleep to dreams of championships.
They don’t know who will win, when they will win or if they will win again. They just know their husbands are always busy: busy with team practices, team dinners and team bonding, busy with playbooks and films and always busy with recruits.
But when they look at the traditions their husbands are building, the boys they are turning into men and the life lessons their own children learn, they’re fine with the vacuuming, grocery shopping and bedtime stories. They don’t mind the busy.
These coaches’ wives understand there is no such thing as an offseason. That’s okay. They don’t much like the offseason.
It took three years at Indiana for Joani Crean to close her rabbit ears – the ones that hear every little criticism, every opinion from the stands. It took three years of struggles and losses, while her husband tried to rebuild a historic basketball program which had been shattered. It took three years for her to grow thick skin, to be at peace.
By the time last December rolled around, the basketball team was 8-0 and facing the No. 1 University of Kentucky. Tom was in his fourth year at the helm of IU’s basketball team. In that time, Joani had heard plenty of critiques.
“It’s not just an undefeated start,” Joani said. “It’s my mindset. You can’t control it or change it. I just have to support it.”
Indiana isn’t the basketball program it once was. Joani knows that. Her husband knows that too.
There’s a wall between the couch and TV in the basement of the Crean household that has remained empty the past three years. It’s the Indiana memorabilia wall. It’s going to document “The Process.”
“The Process” of rebuilding a program brought to its knees by the scandals of former coach Kelvin Sampson. “The Process” of a team that hadn’t seen much glory under Tom’s guidance – that was until the start of the 2011 season. That process and that support was a life involving a round-the-clock mentality. Joani grew up in a family of coaches. Her dad is Jack Harbaugh, the former football coach at Western Kentucky. Her brothers are current NFL coaches John and Jim Harbaugh.
“If I hadn’t grown up with a dad who was a coach,” Joani said in a recent interview at Cook Hall, “I think it would have taken me longer to understand the 24/7 mentality a coach has.”
Basketball is a constant in the Crean household. In a life with no offseason and no weekends, it’s always basketball, all the time.
“I’ll be honest,” Joani said, “we don’t live a life without Tom’s job.”
It’s a life that’s often difficult to balance. Joani learned even though she is the wife of Indiana basketball, some matters are more important than the daily ups and downs. Matters like trying to raise Megan, 16, Riley, 12, and Ainsley, 6.
“I’ve learned that in the grand scheme of things that the happiness of my kids needs to come before whether or not Indiana loses or wins a basketball game,” Joani said, “and that’s taken quite a few years.”
She wants her family to be normal. It doesn’t matter that her husband, as well as her brothers, appear on national television.
“We’re on a roller coaster, but any other parent is on the same roller coaster,” Joani said. “You just get to read about us in the paper.”
People in her situation who don’t see themselves as normal are putting themselves on a pedestal. That’s a place a fan could put her husband and his family, but it’s not where she wants to put herself. She isn’t Joani Crean. She isn’t even Joani Harbaugh. She’s just Megan, Riley and Ainsley’s mother.
“You have to, as a parent, remember that your kids are going through changes in their life. I’ve got one in puberty, another one who’s driving and one who’s six. Balance? I don’t know if I have an answer to that question.”
Years had gone by since she vowed to be the wife of a coach. Joani played Mrs. Fix-it for a while until the jobs got too big and she gave in and hired Red Dog Maintenance.
That doesn’t mean her husband doesn’t do his fair share. Tom has learned not to leave his stack of readings next to the coffee pot. If only Joani could get him to take them to the recycling bin, she’d be happy.
“My husband is very coachable,” she said with a laugh. “He will change if it’s warranted. All husbands need to be coachable.”
Last December, just before the Kentucky game, Joani spent a Friday evening with her family in Indianapolis. It was as close to a family night as they got: two halves of high school basketball games that featured four IU basketball recruits.
“That was our family night,” Joani said. “It was a blast.”
She loved spending her family time around an event that ultimately led back to her husband’s job. Joani understands what Indiana basketball means to this university, this state. She got it when people were still coming to games in 2010 after IU lost 11 straight.
Then they started the 2011 season undefeated. This wasn’t the script anyone predicted.
Dec. 10 started as a normal game day. Her husband rose early, like he did on most game days. Luckily, the Crean’s son Riley didn’t have a basketball game that day. That would have meant a trip to Indianapolis, and game day traffic could have made them miss the IU game. Instead, hours before tipoff, Tom and Riley went to Cook Hall, IU’s basketball development center, to shoot around before the game.
Joani took Ainsley to a birthday party before coming home to clean. She didn’t like leaving the house a mess, and the tidying up had become a ritual since it had worked the last eight games. Joani’s mother and father, the Harbaughs, were in town. As Joani picked up around the house, her mother watched.
“Oh, you must be nervous.”
“No, Mom. I’m really not.”
A few hours later, Joani walked into the belly of Assembly Hall to the sight of a student section that was almost completely filled an hour before the game. They were loud. Boy, were they loud. And they were already chanting.
As she looked around the hall, she walked to her new seats. Her seats used to be just one row behind her husband’s bench on a row of bleachers. They were too close. Joani didn’t want to be in the thick of things anymore. She wanted to be able to relax a little bit during the game, maybe have a chair back, maybe even enjoy some popcorn.
The noise continued to swell. She loved that the students were in their seats so early. Her phone lit up with a text message. It was from her neighbor.
“Welcome to Indiana basketball,” it read. “This is what it really looks like.”
Suzy Yeagley feels like a coach. She has witnessed intense rivalries and glorious championships. She watches hours of soccer from the sidelines.
She doesn’t have the technique for soccer, but she has the mind. Much like her husband. Much like his father.
A day after the 2011 season ended, Suzy stared at the memorabilia on her basement wall. Every light had been turned on to illuminate the IU Soccer Hall of Fame known as the Yeagley’s basement. Each room was a different decade of history. Suzy had married into a family of coaches: her husband Todd – the current IU soccer coach. Her father-in-law Jerry – the godfather and former IU soccer coach for 41 years.
Suzy was taking in the photos in the ‘90s room – the decade IU soccer brought two national championships to Bloomington. It’s been eight years since the last star was added to the seven-star IU soccer logo for its seven national titles. The Yeagleys had hoped that 2011 would be the year they added the eighth star.
Not even 24 hours had passed since the sting of a golden goal had knocked the Hoosiers from the NCAA tournament. The pain still burned. People tried to cheer Suzy up by telling her there would be more time for family now that it was no longer the season. They thought her husband would be home more now.
They didn’t understand. Season meant structure. Practice at two. Home by six. Games on specific days. The end of the season didn’t mean more time with Todd.
Suzy isn’t upset about it. She understands the importance of her husband’s job to the university, to a group of college soccer players and to her children.
“It’s very hard to complain about a life where you teach your children that the most important thing in your job is to help other people become the best people they can,” Suzy said.
This life also gave the Yeagley children many lessons.
Dad may have a game on Sunday at 2, but so might Grant, their 10-year-old. The Yeagley boys are at the age their parents are teaching them to be as dedicated to their team as Todd is to his – which often leaves Suzy with three males in the family having soccer games at the same time.
Sometimes, she stood on the sideline of Grant’s youth soccer games with a computer in one hand that updated her husband’s college game, a phone in the other hand receiving text updates on her son Ben’s game while Grant raced by with the ball on the field in front of her.
“I probably look crazy when I cheer at my computer and phone,” Suzy said with a laugh.
For IU soccer, and Suzy, it’s about building champions, then winning championships – but winning isn’t what’s important.
“Coaches will say, ‘I can’t tell you what we’ve done based on this season, but I’ll be able to tell you in 10 years by the kind of people they become – good husbands or fathers or whatever they become successful at and the jobs they do.”
Still, when it comes time for their anniversary next December, Suzy would prefer a ring with an eighth star.
She can’t help it. Title No. 4 came for IU soccer a week before her wedding day. She has been celebrating championships and the rings that come with them before she even wore her wedding ring.
Jaime Smith is terrible at saying goodbye.
The departure of plenty of young men over the years from the IU baseball team, her husband Tracy’s squad, hasn’t made farewells any easier. So Jaime only says, ‘See you later.’
At the end of every season, she watches as her latest handful of what she calls “unbiological” sons move on to the minor or major leagues, onto their own lives.
Jaime, a mother to three boys, lives for the sounds of the clank of ball on bat or the thud of leather hitting a worn catcher’s glove.
Fifty-six games a year wasn’t how she first envisioned her life.
She grew up a basketball coach’s daughter, but football is her first love. Then she met Tracy.
She had a degree in retailing she never used. Jaime knew to follow that dream, she would need a big city. To follow her husband’s dream, she’d need a place more suitable for a baseball coach’s career – so she changed her path.
“This was not my original plan,” she said as she glanced out her kitchen window into her wooded backyard. “But it’s not a sacrifice either.”
Jaime loves that she was able to raise her kids outdoors during three-hour baseball games. They made toys out of rocks, sticks, even sand. They climbed trees and created their own games. She gave them boundaries, and her children used their imaginations.
Being around the game that much also taught them lessons.
“The team makes so many normal growing-up mistakes,” Jaime said, “that we were able to say, ‘Look at this choice. You can learn from this.”
It’s a game and a life that taught her children about highs and lows. Watching their dad lose taught them life isn’t all glory.
“When my children grow up,” Jaime said, “They will see lots of examples of their father changing people.”
It has taught her kids how to grow and her as well. Jaime used to think there were jobs for men and jobs for women. That line blurred when she ended up fixing the broken toilet seat.
She also has learned that the end of a season can leave a bitter taste while making her crave the next, and that sometimes when plans change, life can still be better than imagined. It’s not a fairy tale.
“We have a house in the woods. Why? Because he has no time to mow the lawn,” she said. “But his field at IU looks great.”
Angie Wilson is still learning the supermarket aisles at Marsh.
Almost a year into a new life in a new state, Angie’s just beginning to understand what it means to be a head coach’s wife.
Video camera in hand, the mother of five has started to capture important moments her husband Kevin, the new IU football coach, was missing. She admits the life can be tough.
“We never see him,” Angie said in a phone interview. “He’s so busy. He’s dedicated to us, but he’s dedicated to his job. He took this on with full force.”
Her husband has a responsibility to “command the IU football ship.” Sometimes, Angie said, it can be weird to go to Wal-Mart and hear people talking about her husband and what he did or didn’t do in his first year with a football program that hasn’t seen a bowl game since 2007. This was the man she met 17 years ago and was married to within six months of their first date. These strangers in a Wal-Mart hadn’t even had a conversation with him. How could they possibly understand?
“I don’t think they know the scope of how many hours they look at film and that their job is reliant on 18 to 24 year olds,” Angie said. “It’s a sport and if they didn’t want to win, they wouldn’t be good coaches.”
Good coaches, thankfully, have their wives to stand beside them, to support them and to understand what not everyone chooses to understand.
“Every year they start out with a clean slate… with the same chances to win those 12 games,” Angie said. “It’s a lot of pressure to get all those kids to perform 12 days out of the year. …but everyone can be an armchair coach. I’m guilty of it too.”
With only 60 minutes of actual clock time per game and a schedule of 12 games a year, her husband’s performance is ultimately judged on 12 hours of performance from 18 to 24 year olds. Angie and her family’s life comes down to how those 12 hours turn out every season.
Sports widow – what a terrible term, the wives thought. How sad to those women who actually are widows. Coaches’ wives are not sports widows – a wife who is left alone because her husband’s sport stole him away. Alone? They’re never alone. If they aren’t surrounded by the team or the fans, they’re surrounded by the pressures, the expectations.
But at the root of the titles – coach and coach’s wife – is a relationship built on the first time they laid eyes, on each other. These women build their relationships just like their husbands build their program – on strength, trust and love.
And this coaching thing. It doesn’t take away from them; it becomes a part of them.
This life teaches husbands, wives and children how to learn to live with losing and how to appreciate those days when everything goes right.
Joani Crean still doesn’t really have a single definition for a Hoosier. Her best explanation is a person who lives off a dirt road, who painted an IU on the side of their barn, who shot at a rusty hoop attached to that barn, just like generations before.
That day in December, when her husband’s team played Kentucky, Hoosiers surrounded her.
She liked the 10 point lead her Hoosier sons built with nine minutes remaining in the game. Then, she watched it slip away. One point-deficit. Then a two-point deficit.
She was a little upset. She didn’t want to lose this game, but she thought it was over. It was a good, close game. IU had played well. They had started off the season 8-0. There’s not much more to ask of a team coming off a 12-20 season.
Until with 5.6 seconds remaining, Verdell Jones streaked down the court and with 2.2 seconds left passed the ball back to Christian Watford, all alone at the right side of the arc.
The crowd was standing. Then it was jumping.
Joani had never heard it so loud inside a basketball arena. She saw Watford, just beyond the arc, release the ball. She heard the swoosh through the hoop. All around her there was a rush of fans to center court.
Then it was all a bit fuzzy. She sat down. She cried. Fans dressed in red poured from every crevice in the hall. The floor disappeared.
Joani began to move with the fans. She kept getting bumped, but each time the fan turned around to apologize. She couldn’t believe how polite they were.
Lost in the moment, she searched for husband, her team, her life. After three years of losses, there were so many words left unspoken between them. After three years of struggles, this was finally a fun night. This was the night that proved the busy was truly worth it.
She rushed to her team and hugged them as her head barely reached their chests. Then she turned to find her husband. Somewhere on the court, she found Tom and held him, crying.
They didn’t say anything as they walked off the court, side by side.