WHITEFISH – Patrick Dryden is hard to bring down. He was a good football player and a respected coach. He is a cancer survivor. He is tough. But he is also tired.
The increasing demands of high school coaching have taken a toll on Dryden. Over the years, his free time dwindled and his summers disappeared. His eating habits faltered, a danger for a man who needs to closely monitor his personal health. Offseason camps grew and the stress mounted, so Dryden made a decision.
Earlier this month, Dryden submitted his letter of resignation as head coach of the Whitefish high school football team after four seasons. He had previously been an assistant for nine years and, before then, a head coach in Salmon, Idaho, for eight years. He has also coached various levels of tennis and basketball, and will continue coaching eighth-grade basketball at Whitefish Middle School, where he is a history teacher.
Dryden is concerned that the ever-growing demands of coaching, particularly for football, make it hard to retain longtime coaches and attract new ones.
“I don’t know where veteran coaches get the energy to do it,” Dryden said. “I was having a hard time dragging myself out of bed. I was burning the candle at both ends.”
He added: “I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to having a summer.”
Furthermore, Dryden said the year-round schedule discourages some players from participating. Turnout for Whitefish’s football team, he said, has steadily decreased. This is partly due to declining enrollment and demographic shifts, but also due to kids who are reluctant to try out for a sport that will dig into their schedule all year, he said.
“We don’t have to cut kids anymore,” Dryden said. “They cut themselves.”
When Dryden began coaching football 25 years ago, the job required a couple of hours of practice each day during the season and a few hours on the sidelines once a week for games. But high school sports evolved and coaching became a year-round commitment with camps, film sessions, weight training and meetings.
Early mornings, late nights – this is a reality for full-time college and professional coaches, but for teachers like Dryden, it can be too much. Not to mention, high school coaches aren’t paid the big bucks like their full-time counterparts at the upper levels. They receive stipends decided by the district.
The grind can be tough on both the kids and coaches, Dryden said. And it’s the main reason – though not the only reason – he hung up the whistle. He isn’t alone.
Dryden said in his four years as head coach of Whitefish, he had four different defensive coordinators. Grady Bennett, head football coach at Glacier High School, said he loses a few assistants every year. Also, Glacier’s head girls basketball coach Doug Hashley recently resigned in the middle of the season.
In Dryden’s case, each defensive coordinator resigned after one season because of family concerns. Wives and children wanted their husbands and fathers back.
“I lost a lot of really good coaches because of that,” Dryden said. “It’s really hard on a family. I’m not sure if I would recommend it.”
Dryden said he has been divorced for years, which made it easier for him to continue coaching. But the chicken might have come before the egg.
“Maybe (coaching) is why I’m divorced,” he said.
But Dryden is the first to admit that it’s mostly the coaches themselves who created the year-round schedule. As is the nature of competition, coaches constantly seek the upper hand. When one coach creates a winning program through long hours on the weekend and in the offseason, other coaches follow suit. The cycle then perpetuates itself.
“Everybody’s doing as much as they can,” said Russell McCarvel, head football coach at Flathead High School. “You can’t get better if you’re not doing these things, because everybody is doing these things.”
To be sure, many coaches enjoy working around the clock to improve their teams as much as possible. Dryden loved it, but got burned out. And McCarvel and Bennett cherish it. Some coaches would like even more time. Under state rules, team sport coaches are only allowed to work directly with their players from June 1 to July 31 outside of the regular season.
But coaches are permitted to oversee open gyms or open fields throughout the year, said Mark Beckman, executive director of the Montana High School Association. In these sessions, players practice but the coaches can only supervise, not instruct, he said.
Beckman said six years ago, a school proposed shortening the summer window in which coaches can work with their players, an idea Dryden supports. All of the MHSA’s members voted and the proposal died.
“You have coaches that say it’s too much and others say they want more so they can be working with their kids instead of someone outside of the program who doesn’t continue the coach’s philosophy,” Beckman said.
But coaches have many other demands outside of the June and July period, even if it doesn’t involve directly coaching their players. Other sports have year-round commitments and long in-season hours as well, but Bennett, who also coaches basketball, said: “Football is a machine like nothing else.”
Bennett has 19 years of coaching experience at Flathead and Glacier high schools. During the season, he arrives at school at 6 a.m. and doesn’t usually leave until 9 p.m., after practice and maybe a little film. Game days are longer. After road games, teams don’t get back home until the middle of the night.
Saturdays are filled with watching game film and going to junior varsity games. On Sundays, Bennett meets for at least eight hours with his assistants and watches more film. As a teacher, Bennett has to balance all of this with teaching classes, grading homework and exams, and preparing lessons. McCarvel’s weekly schedule is similar, as was Dryden’s.
“When the season was going, I saw Shay a lot more than I saw my wife,” Bennett said, referring to his quarterback Shay Smithwick-Hann. “That’s not a joke.”
In June and July, coaches hold their own camps and take their teams to other camps. And throughout winter, spring and summer, they try to stop in at as many of their players’ weight training and plyometric sessions as possible. The coaches strongly encourage players to participate in other sports as well.
“Football season’s over, I’ll see you next August – that can’t be the mentality in this day and age,” Bennett said.
McCarvel, who has 23 years of coaching experience, echoes the concerns over finding assistant coaches. The district increasingly has to search far and wide – McCarvel said only two members of his staff are teachers. Years ago, it was highly unusual to hire outside of the school system. In fact, Dryden said it was illegal when he first started coaching to hire assistants who weren’t teachers.
Dryden points out that when bringing in non-teacher coaches, administrators must perform thorough background checks and find people who have work schedules that allow them to show up at 3:30 every day for practice.
In another trend, head coaches are more frequently brought in specifically to coach, as opposed to teach first, Dryden said. One example is Paul La Mott in Bigfork, who was hired from California to take over the boys basketball program this year. He is in the real estate business and is not a teacher.
While Dryden looks forward to his newly found free time, McCarvel and Bennett will be back at it, watching film, meeting with assistants and studying opponents.
“Obviously if we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t do it,” Bennett said.