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For many coaches, NFL means No Family Life

Should they be celibate or not? Shouldn't they benefit from the comfort only a loving wife can offer after a hard day's work? Shouldn't they be able to experience the joy of discovering what their kids did at school or on the playing field that day?

No, we're not discussing Catholic priests. The subject is pro football coaches. ESPN cameras followed the Bills' coaches at work before and after their one-sided victory over the Houston Texans last week and broadcast the result Tuesday. Most of the work was done under the cover of darkness, in cheerless hours of drudgery.

Compared to these guys, Trappist monks are the "Wild Bunch."

The camera followed Jerry Gray, who runs the Bills' No. 1-rated defense, from the time he left his house and arrived at his office. To be accurate, he opened the office -- in fact, he opened the entire administration building -- at 4 a.m. Gray likes to use his "quiet hours" to get an early peek at the films of the next opponent, in this case today's foe, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Gray can count on the hours being quiet since no one is out on the streets at 4 a.m. except cat burglars and football coaches.

During the seven months from training camp to the end of the season, Gray gets about four hours of sleep a night. Prisoners at Guantanamo log more than that. What will he do when he gets a head-coaching job? Make do with a couple of 15-minute power naps?

Actually, his boss, Mike Mularkey, is a sack hound compared to his defensive coordinator. Mularkey gets to his office nearer to 6 a.m. after closing shop around 10 or 11 the night before. Keeping crazy hours has been a practice of some coaches since Al Davis of the Raiders got the idea that because his team operated on Pacific time, his coaches should be at their desks making phone calls when the coaches on Eastern time reached their desks. That could mean 4 a.m. or even 3 a.m. starts for the Raider assistants.

Those kinds of working hours can be tough on marriages, to say the least. At a Super Bowl party many years ago my wife complimented the wife of one of Davis' chief aides on her new mink coat.

"It's a bribe from Al Davis for keeping my husband away from me," said the Raiders wife. She filed for divorce not long afterward.

In the early '70s, when Don Shula was relentlessly forming the Miami Dolphins into champions, all but two of Shula's coaches were divorced and one of those marriages was rocky. In his later years Shula must have changed, since Troy Vincent, the Bills' safety who once starred for Miami, told ESPN Shula had a car pick him up after practice at 5 p.m. each day.

When John Madden was head coach of the Raiders in the '70s, his wife, Virginia, had so much time on her hands that she opened a successful bar and grill near their Northern California home. After the season, John and Virginia were spending a rare day together at home when Madden suggested that maybe they should buy a bicycle for their oldest son.

"John, he's been driving for the last two years," answered Virginia.

Madden was the first coach I ever heard call 20-hour-a-day coaching for what it really is: "Paralysis by analysis." About a year later he discovered that life in the TV booth can be beautiful.

ESPN interviewed Tom Donahoe about the long hours in coaching. The Bills' impresario doesn't publicly critique his coaches, but when he was asked about Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, with whom he worked in Pittsburgh, Donahoe said, "Noll went home for dinner and suggested his assistants do the same."

Sid Gillman, the first boss for both Noll and Davis when they were with the Chargers, once said of his fellow coaches, "We're all a little nuts." Nevertheless, Sid used to go home at night to Esther, a Hall of Fame coach's wife.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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