OXFORD, Miss. – There's something about the road that can make a football coach whole. Down each stretch of highway lies hope, whether it's a huge game or a prized recruit or a better job.
Dan Werner knows the road as well as anyone, both as a program-builder and as a part of a BCS championship team. He has been conquering the road all his adult life; he was the son of a football coach. The road is in his blood.
Werner was the quarterbacks coach on the 2001 Miami Hurricanes team that some argue is the best college squad of all time. He was a part of three national-title staffs at Miami, which set him up for other chances, including the biggest chance of all – the opportunity to be a head coach.
The road took him to FCS member Northwestern State (La.) early in 2009, where he took an offensive coordinator's job that might have led him to his first head-coaching job in a long career. Maybe, after 25 years, the road could make his career whole.
Then one morning on the road, his phone rang. He picked it up, and he stared in shock.
He had to turn around.
On that February day three years ago, and on many days afterward, Dan Werner made a choice. It was not the choice a lot of coaches would make. It was not the kind of choice we're used to hearing about from big-time coaches.
It was far different from the choice Bobby Petrino made when he got on a motorcycle with a woman young enough to be his daughter. It was not like the choice Urban Meyer made when he quit his Florida job, then un-quit the next day. It was not like the choice your favorite coach makes when rather than going home, he sleeps on the couch in the office, remote control in his hand.
Werner did not make the kind of choice coaches make when they want to be successful at their jobs. Instead, he made a choice he knew probably would end up costing him the job he always dreamed of.
Dan Werner met Kim Hadder in 1993, at a party in Ruston, La., where he coached at Louisiana Tech. He immediately was impressed. She was a nanny for a new coach, and she knew football. That was going to be crucial if he was going to spend any real time with her.
They went on a few dates and eventually got engaged, but when a rumor surfaced that then-coach Joe Peace might get fired, Kim asked Dan, "Is this how it is all the time?" And that's when it was time for the talk.
Pretty much all football coaches have the talk at some point. They explain to their girlfriends that although they are committed to the relationship, the road always is calling. The recruiting trail is crucial to keeping a job and keeping a stable home. If a bigger job opens up, there will be moving trucks. If the head coach gets fired, there will be moving trucks. Bottom line: There will be many nights alone, and there will be many moving trucks.
How many moving trucks are we talking about? Well, Werner has been an assistant at Cornell, Miami, UNLV, Louisiana Tech, James Madison, Auburn, Murray State, Miami again and Ole Miss. That doesn't include high school jobs in Michigan, Florida and Mississippi. And this is a good assistant – one who has mentored champions, Heisman finalists and future NFL picks.
Moving always is traumatic for a family, he explained to Kim, but it's much less traumatic than having nowhere to go.
"You didn't think twice about moving," he says now. "The timing was never perfect."
Kim said she understood. They had a daughter, Maya, who lived in four different places by age 2. Then came a boy, Ian. He would be diagnosed with autism, and that took a toll on Kim. But she was a great mom, and like any coach's wife, Kim worried about home so Dan could worry about the road.
They eventually settled into a routine in Oxford, Miss., when Werner was an assistant for Ed Orgeron in 2006 and '07. Then Orgeron was canned and Werner was out of a job.
It wasn't his fault; it's never an assistant's fault. But at least this time he had a year left on his contract, and for many months he was home with Kim, Maya and Ian. That's when it hit him how hard home life really is. He did some cooking and some cleaning and some laundry, and realized his day job wasn't anything like Kim's.
He awaited the next bit of good news – waited for the road to open up again – but he had no idea that the curse of a year out of work was about to turn into a bittersweet blessing.
In January 2009, Werner got a new job, as offensive coordinator at Northwestern State, in Natchitoches, La., about six hours from Oxford. He was on the road one morning in early February when his phone rang. It was Maya, and she sounded upset.
"There's something wrong with Mommy."
What did that mean? Werner sped toward home. But it wasn't long before far worse news came.
Kim was gone.
How could this happen? She was 37 and in great health. She was in the prime of her life, with two gorgeous little kids. Now those kids … those kids. Werner was going to have to drive to school, pull Maya out of class, and tell her something that would hurt her for the rest of her life.
Ian might not get it, but Maya would. She was 10 – old enough. Now was the time for Dan Werner to be strong. He was going to have to be mom and dad.
There was no way to prepare for this. At the time, Werner didn't even know the cause of death, which turned out to be an enlarged heart. He always told his players to be tough in the most pressure-filled situations, and so he felt he had to do it now. What was he worth as a coach if he couldn't coach himself in this horrible moment?
He got to the school, breathed deep, looked his only girl in the eye and said, "Mommy's gone to Heaven."
Then he clutched her as she wailed.
What now? Werner stumbled around the house as friends and family came to grieve. He was almost 50, young for a widower but quite old for a man with little stay-at-home parenting experience.
He watched Maya carefully, sighing with relief when she played outside on a trampoline with her friends. But how was he supposed to go on? How was he supposed to raise a girl, see her through puberty and dating and boys? What would he do when Ian threw himself on the ground in a public place, which happened once on a cruise ship, and all the accusatory stares came his way? All the coach-speak in the world seemed useless now. It wasn't going to bring Mommy back, wasn't going to soothe his daughter, wasn't going to help him give his autistic son the childhood care he deserved.
Football was all Werner knew. He tried something else when he was a student at Western Michigan, but realized during an accounting class that he cared much more about the score of a World Series game than the lecture he was attending. He took a high school coaching position in Michigan for $300 for the whole season and it felt like a CEO's salary. He even coached against his dad once, and lost.
He was past mid-life now and sports was the only language he spoke. He had grown up with three brothers, and didn't marry until he was 36.
"It was a lifestyle," he says. "It seemed normal to me."
Now nothing was normal. At all. Two days after Kim's death, a friend asked Werner, "What are you going to do now?"
He replied, "I don't know."
Werner could do one thing, though, and it scared him as much as it soothed him.
"That day," he says, "made me realize I had to stay."
He would give up the road. He looked back on his year out of coaching and started to consider it God's work, that he was being prepared. And he decided that as long as his kids were young, he would not be a nomad coach. He might not even be a coach at all. He would be a mom and a dad, as best he could.
Then he got a break: A friend from Ole Miss heard that a small private school in nearby Batesville, Miss., named North Delta needed a head coach. Werner was interested. The school's headmaster, John Howell, called him. Howell says he literally had been praying for an experienced coach, but this was ridiculous.
Howell told Werner, "I don't think you'd be interested." After all, North Delta had 390 students – and that was kindergarten through 12th grade. Werner insisted he was curious, and so the men met.
Howell sat Werner down in his office and continued to try to talk the coach out of it. He would be a 50-year-old college coach doing a job usually handled by a 30-something former PE teacher.
Werner waved him off.
"At one point in my life," he told Howell, "I wanted to be the top coach in America. Now I just want to be a great dad."
Werner handed over his resume. Howell looked at the references: Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Tommy Tuberville.
"It was all I could do," Howell says now, "not to call them and mess with them."
For North Delta, it was the chance of a lifetime, to hire a guy who had three title rings, who had coached the likes of Gino Torretta, Ken Dorsey, Frank Gore and Andre Johnson. The Werner-coached Green Wave rocketed to success. North Delta won back-to-back district championships, going 27-7 in three seasons with cutting-edge offensive schemes. "We had a blast," Howell says.
But the real gift was for Werner, who met other parents and figured out what "normal" meant in his new world. If he had a question about something at home with Maya, he could ask one of the women teachers. And at school events, there always was a gaggle of dads hanging out together. Meanwhile, across the room, there was Werner, gossiping with all the moms.
"I became a much better parent," he says, "finding out what real families are supposed to be like."
Werner's phone kept ringing. He still was in demand. How could he not be, with his pedigree? And how could Werner not long for the life he once had, calling plays in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans and national TV cameras?
That life is addictive for many reasons, not the least of which is the thrill of coaching the best and beating the best. Schooling 140-pound linebackers was just not the same.
"Murray State had a head-coaching job come open," he says. "I always wanted to be a head coach … "
But Werner remained happy with his new life, happy to be the dad he never really was before. He was worried sick every day and full of self-doubt, but he also felt he was turning into something else: a better man.
He called a child therapist for Maya, fearful he'd screwed up her life. "Hormones are amazing," he jokes. But the therapist surprised him: "She doesn't need therapy. She gets straight A's." Whatever Dad was doing was working.
The coaching world turned without him, but then it spun in his direction one more time. Houston Nutt was fired at Ole Miss, and Werner asked Maya, "What if someone I know gets that job?"
Maya's answer was quick: "No way."
But then Hugh Freeze got hired. Maya knew him well. She really liked him, actually. "She knows how much time he spends with his own kids," Werner says. "She got to where she wanted me to come back."
Freeze wanted Werner on his staff. He even bent the job description: Werner wouldn't have to travel much, and he could leave the office at the end of the day without guilt. The kids could visit his office anytime. Freeze told Werner he believed a better family atmosphere produced a better team, even in the cut-throat SEC.
There was nothing easy about this decision. Werner knew the dedication needed, and the slippery slope into workaholism. You can take a day off at a private high school, but not in major college football. Too much at stake.
But Maya was doing well. Ian was, too. Things were OK. They all talked as a family. They all liked Freeze. This would be a lone exception. There would be no more moving at least until Maya, now 13, was out of high school – no matter what. And everyone at the football complex would know that when Coach Werner left the office for the day, he wasn't coming back.
So the answer – the family answer – was yes. Werner would give college football one more try. He found himself excited to get another chance. But there was an even stronger emotion.
North Delta had rescued him from his loneliest moment. He found support there, found a community. And, looking back, he says he also found himself.
It's a late spring afternoon and Dan Werner is in his office making plans. There's this prep quarterback and … well, you know how this goes.
Werner is back on the road. But he's much pickier now about when he goes. No more spur-of-the-moment junkets to far-flung places in the hopes that some hot-shot thrower will be there. Werner is going to go for the quarterbacks he really likes, and he's going to go when he knows they'll be there to be seen. Will he be outworked? Yes. Will that eat at him? Probably. But he now feels he has advantages other coaches don't, mainly that he feels he knows what matters.
He quizzes his players on the names of workers in the football complex. He knows how to talk to kids about what's happening at home. "Are three minutes at the beginning of a team meeting going to cost us a game?" he asks. "I don't believe that."
His quarterbacks will leave school, he vows, with more than just a working knowledge of the Cover 2 defense. He wants to "make them grow."
Werner has had an effect on his colleagues. Wide receivers coach Grant Heard, who visited in the days after Kim's death, calls Werner "my idol."
"It's a great testimony to what kind of man he is," Heard says. "He knows what he has to get done at work, and he knows he has to get home to love his kids."
Werner has been in Oxford for six years, almost twice as long as he has been anywhere else in his career. And if Freeze gets fired? He'll go back to coaching high school. Gladly.
"It feels good," he says. "I ended up in the perfect spot."
A little boy in sunglasses barrels into the office. It's Ian, now 7, in full grin. He gives dad a hug, then wordlessly hustles by him to start playing on the office computer. Werner immediately decides that he won't be doing any more research today. He plays on the computer with Ian, greets the babysitter who brought him in, and peppers her with questions. This coach is a control freak, in the best possible way.
Werner talks about how he misses Kim, misses her companionship. Every year, on her birthday in early May, he and Maya each write a note to her. They tie it to a balloon to be sent to heaven. Ian now is old enough to write a note, too.
In the corner of the coach's office is a photo of Dan and Kim. Kim looks like Maya. It's a heartbreaking daily reminder of what's lost, but also an empowering reflection of what's gained.
Werner is a better man now, a man who had his life torn in half but stayed home so that he could help make his children whole.
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