RICHMOND – The yellow school bus rolls out of the parking lot at Richmond-Burton High School at 5:30 p.m. and sets off on a 37-mile, 55-minute journey.
As it rattles along the bumpy road on this Tuesday afternoon in mid-December, it putters slowly toward Burlington Central for a midweek Big Northern Conference East Division boys basketball game. But every mile closer to its destination is a mile farther from coach Brandon Creason’s home, his wife, his 5-year-old son, Kellan, and his 1-year-old daughter, Vivienne.
“You might go two or three days without seeing your kids,” the 38-year-old coach says. “I’ve been home every day. But they might be in bed by the time I get home.”
Coaching basketball is a full-time job. So too is being a parent. The desire to excel at both pulls Creason and other coaches in opposite directions.
The coach lives for the bounce of a ball on a hardwood floor and the smell of popcorn on a Friday night. After playing basketball at Western Illinois, he got his first job at Streator as a way to stay involved with the game. Fifteen years later, in his sixth season at R-B, he’s still at it.
The last time he wasn’t playing or coaching in a Thanksgiving tournament was 1991. He was in eighth grade.
“I never really envisioned myself doing anything else. I was also terrible at everything else,” he says with a smile. “The only thing I ever did was basketball.”
Basketball is his passion. But on Saturday mornings when his son stands at the door, pleading with his father not to leave for practice, Creason feels conflicted.
Last season, the commitment at home doubled. His wife was pregnant with their second child, so beginning at Thanksgiving he carried his phone on the bench. Several times, he felt it buzzing during games and readied himself for the panicked call and the race to the delivery room. He whipped out his phone only to find one of his buddies on the other line.
On New Year's Eve 2013, just a handful of days after his Rockets won the Marengo holiday tournament, Vivienne was born. Creason finally could stop carrying his phone on the bench. But the birth only increased his responsibilities.
In the midst of a 20-win season and a conference championship run, he took no days off. He got by on two to three hours of sleep each night. On nights when the Rockets hosted home games, he’d lie to his wife, saying he had to finish school work and then fall asleep on the floor of his classroom until game time.
“I was that desperate,” Creason said. “I couldn’t wait to go on a long bus ride just to try to get some sleep.”
The job description
The game at Burlington Central is just one of many road trips the R-B basketball team will make this season. The Rockets will log at least 450 miles and 11 hours on yellow school buses.
Add the film study and the practices leading up to the game and you have more than 10 hours of preparation for a single game.
It’s a major time commitment, but it’s just the start of what it takes to be a high school coach.
For Creason and his counterparts in other sports and at other high schools, the responsibilities stretch much further than their title of “coach” implies.
They are fundraisers. Equipment managers. Travel agents. Recruiting coordinators. Strength and conditioning coaches. Secretaries. And scouts.
“Don’t forget picture day,” Creason adds.
Ask any coach around the area and you’ll hear a similar story. It’s a constant balancing act.
Johnsburg’s Brad Frey remembers about 15 years ago when he coached full practices with his 10-month-old daughter, Katie, strapped to his back.
Even as Frey’s children have grown, he is presented with new obstacles. Just before Christmas, he left home at 9 a.m. and pulled into his driveway at 7:30 p.m. His 22-year-old son, Alex, and 19-year-old daughter, Sydney, are home from college for a few short weeks. But he spent his day at a Christmas party for his girls basketball team.
“That’s something you wouldn’t think is in your job description,” Frey said. “But that’s part of the deal.”
It’s a full-time job. Even if they don’t get paid like it.
The stipends for coaches around the area vary depending on sport and seniority. A recent posting for the Huntley boys swimming coach lists the salary at $2,464 a season. Frey said his pay is around $7,000 for coaching the girls basketball team.
No one’s getting rich doing it. Most coaches agreed they spend as many as 25 hours a week coaching their sport during the season. It hardly tapers off in the offseason, either, with strength and conditioning and summer leagues a must.
“Someone asked me what do you think you make an hour?” Creason said. “I don’t want to know. I don’t think it matters. You don’t do it for pay. If you do it for pay, you’re going to be disappointed.”
Sitting across from Creason in the vinyl bus seat, his assistant, Brent Mansky, also has a daughter, Brynn, who is less than a year old, so he too knows the sleepless nights and early mornings.
But even before children, Mansky admits the rigors of coaching were at times overwhelming. Before coming to R-B four years ago, he was the head basketball coach for five seasons at Westosha Central in Wisconsin.
He would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. He stressed over small details such as returning a parent’s call or contacting a coach or uploading film.
The stress culminated with recurring pain that throbbed through the back of his head and down his neck. When they got worse, he decided he needed to step away.
“I’ll be the first to admit, the burnout got to me quickly,” he said. “I was so involved with every aspect of the program, building one from the ground up. Youth program. Aligning everything. Running camps. Running clinics.”
Mansky was pulled back into coaching four years ago, first as a football assistant at R-B and then as a basketball coach, too.
But his experience with burnout is hardly unique.
At the end of the 2014 football season, Crystal Lake Central coach Matt Fralick stepped down.
It was a surprising move if you only consider the results on Friday nights. He enjoyed tremendous success, winning more than 70 percent of his games and leading the Tigers to the playoffs in each of his five years.
But to achieve that level of performance takes hours in the weight room and long nights studying film. The thought of going into the weight room at 6 a.m. before school with the varsity and staying after several days a week with the underclassmen left him feeling spent.
“Don’t get me wrong, I loved it,” Fralick said. “I’m at a point where I’m out of gas right now.”
Fralick, who has a son who is 15 and a daughter who is 11, thinks of the things he gave up to coach football. Even when he was at home, he said his mind would wander as he thought about the upcoming game. He used to draw X's and O's instead of enjoying the time with the family.
Fralick said he got to a point where he was spending more time with other people’s kids than his own.
“In order to be truly successful, you’ve got to put a ton of time in,” he said. “I don’t care what anybody says. That job takes a toll on anybody’s family. It does.”
If anyone knows how to strike the right balance, it’s Don Sutherland.
Since arriving at Cary-Grove in 1978, he’s coached 37 football seasons, 28 baseball seasons and 17 winters of boys basketball, girls basketball and wrestling.
He’s showing no signs of slowing down. His secret?
“Your family has to come first,” Sutherland said.
He’s in a unique position to understand what it’s like to be in a coaching family – he’s the third generation of Sutherlands to coach. His father, Jim, coached almost every sport over a stretch of about four decades at Ottawa High School. Before him, Clayton “Chick” Sutherland started as a basketball coach at Mason City in Iowa before finishing his career at Iowa State.
When he was a kid, Don’s mom would drop him off at Ottawa High School. He climbed into the gym and shot baskets with his dad's teams. Then when it got warmer, he ran the bases and skinned his knees shagging fly balls.
Now as a parent and coach, he finds himself in the position his father was in years earlier. His family lives close enough to the baseball diamond that when Don’s two sons were little, they would run over to the baseball field and jump into the dugout.
His younger son, Matt, now a senior, has fond memories of growing up with his father as a coach. He recalls going to Champaign for the state championship football game in 2004. After the game, his dad lifted him over the fence and put him on the field.
“I went in the locker room and my dad told me be very quiet, because I could see all the tears on their faces,” Matt said. “I went to my hotel room and the first thing I thought about was me in high school and us in high school and that I would get my shot. I dreamt about it for a long time.”
Don grew up with late dinners and days spent out in the sun. To him, his lifestyle is no different than many families.
When he leaves the house to teach math at Cary-Grove, he sees his neighbor across the street pulling out to head into Chicago. After a day of teaching and coaching, he returns home and sees his neighbor pulling in.
“Our days are the same length, and I don’t think either one of us are slighting our families,” Don said. “We’re teaching them that this is what hardworking people do.”
Coaching is time consuming, but for Sutherland and the other coaches, it’s also a way to provide for their families and to impact young athletes’ lives.
"I think if I didn’t coach basketball, I’d have to be so bored," Creason said. "I can’t imagine what I’d do with all my time."
Home, at last
After the game, Creason walks out of Burlington Central and holds the door open for the parents of senior Sam Kaufman and sophomore Jake Kaufman.
“I’ll keep holding this door open for you as long as you keep having boys who play basketball,” Creason jokes before heading for the bus.
It’s now almost 9 p.m. It’s been a long day. But a successful one.
The bus is filled with laughter as it bounds toward home. Even this 30-degree December evening feels better after a 61-48 win.
Try mid-January when temperatures drop into single digits, or lower, Creason says. The wind sneaks in through the slanted windows that don’t seal all the way and whips around. On those days players bundle in stocking caps and Creason trades his dress shoes for insulated boots.
This is nothing, he insists.
By the time Creason pulls into his driveway and past his son’s basketball hoop it’s about 11 p.m.
He passes a second hoop in the garage. Then one in the dining room. Another taped to the wall of the living room. If he goes into the basement there’s one there, too. One in the backyard. And finally, one in Kellan’s bedroom. Seven in total.
“Oh, and one in the tub,” Creason adds. “Eight.”
A long day of basketball is finally over. But even at home, the sport is never far, blending one part of the coach's life with the other.