If you’re looking to locate the wife of a high school football coach during a game, don’t look in the stands. They won’t be there.
“I’ve been social distancing at football games for years,” Olivia Kirby, the wife of Covington head coach J.R. Kirby, says with a laugh.
She stands in an undisclosed spot with a few friends to avoid the inevitable criticism that will come her husband’s way.
“It doesn’t bother him because that goes with the territory, but for me it’s a personal thing because you’re hearing people talk about your spouse or these players that you know personal things about, things they’ve been struggling with,” Olivia Kirby, who has been married to J.R. for 17 years, says. “I stay away during games so I won’t be tempted to say anything. For most people it’s just a game. If we lose they wake up Saturday morning and life is no different. For us a loss stings, sometimes for seasons to come. There’s a difference. I let people enjoy the game and I keep my emotions to myself.”
Laura David, who has been married to Brighton head coach Mike David for 19 years, likes to walk around the stadium during games.
“It’s one of the reasons,” Laura says when asked if she stays out of the stands to avoid hearing complaints. “I like to stand so I have the freedom to walk around if I need to.”
Despite keeping her distance, Laura has heard plenty of negative comments directed at her husband over the years.
“Mike is always very calm about it, he understands, and I get that, but every now and then I’m like, ‘If you only knew how much time these coaches put in and how much consideration they’ve given to each player.’ Every coach I’ve ever known, Mike included, is so kid-oriented.”
Sherrie O’Brien has been married to Tipton-Rosemark Academy coach Shannon O’Brien for more than two decades and watched him coach their two sons at TRA.
She stays out of the stands and close enough to the sidelines so he can hear her if necessary.
“She’s kind of like by defusing button. A lot of the time I’m very intense, very loud at times,” Shannon says. “If she thinks I’m getting a little too animated, I hear a ‘Hey, hey’ in the background.”
It’s a message to take it down a notch.
Sherrie, who takes a more cerebral approach to football, says she’s trying to prevent her husband from being emotionally hijacked.
“I can get on him a little bit, but that’s okay, right, but because we’re a team,” Sherrie says.
Ashley Calhoun has been married to Munford coach Slade Calhoun for eight years. When Slade coached in Memphis and Haywood County for a few years before coming to Munford, Ashley could sit wherever she wanted because nobody knew who she was.
But since she grew up in Covington and her husband now coaches in Tipton County, a lot of people know who she is and to whom she’s married. From time to time they’re not shy about asking her why their son is sitting on the bench while the guy playing in front of him is, in their mind, not as talented as their son.
When talking with parents of players, she tries to avoid touchy subjects.
“Anytime somebody brings up something to me, like playing time or decision making, my response is always, ‘I’m the wife, I’m not on the coaching staff and that’s not something I know anything about.’ I usually do, though. I’ll say, ‘You need to talk to Coach Calhoun or one of the other coaches on the staff.’ I try to keep myself separate from that. I don’t like to get involved … I plead the fifth.”
Sometimes the criticism is yelled so everybody can hear. Something like, “Why won’t this clown call a passing play!”
Coach’s wives have heard it all.
“People are always going to say stuff,” says Ashley. “You just have to have thick skin and let that roll off because, at the end of the day, I know more than anybody how hard he works and how hard the staff works. I know they’re doing the absolute best they can. If they only knew how many hours he spends working, day in and day out. Last night he got home at nearly 10 o’clock. I woke up at midnight and he was on his computer working on game film. The only thing that I will verbally defend is his commitment.”
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be married to a coach, having to listen to all the second guessing, all the derogatory comments,” Slade says. “They probably have their own support group on Facebook, called Friday Night Wives, or maybe football widows.”
Coaches’ working hours, particularly this time of year and because of recent COVID-19 restrictions, are crazy. It’s not abnormal for a coach to be at the facility for 12 hours or more, which is followed by more work at home. Then there are the calls and texts from players, parents, coaches and media members.
The Calhouns have three small children at home. Ashley is a teacher and is very busy herself these days trying to get ready for an unprecedented school year.
“It’s kind of like being a single mom for a few weeks,” she says.
The Kirbys also have three children and Olivia is a nurse.
“Really, there’s no offseason, but you can definitely tell the level ramps up around this time each year,” Olivia says. “Things just get on another level and hours get even longer. As a wife you have to be pretty independent and know that he’s going to be real busy for the next few months.”
They have a daughter who is a senior cheerleader at Covington and two other children approaching high school age. J.R. wistfully acknowledges that he has missed some things.
“You hear coaches talk about getting out (of the profession) to spend more time with their families, and I get that,” he says. “The other day my daughter said, ‘I’ve missed you. It seems like I haven’t seen you in a week.’ That’s pretty much true. Wives, I think, in general, have go realize if they’re going to be part of a winning program the time we have to commit is a lot. Sometimes I spend more time with these players than I do with her. I don’t know that I’d be a head coach without her support. I may have gone and done something else.”
Shannon O’Brien’s father, mother, brother and nephew have all been coaches. He once spent six months in Poland to coach football and has worked at various places around the country.
Sherrie is professional service veterinarian for a pharmaceutical company. When we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic she travels quite a bit. Right now he’s working 12 hour days.
“We both have our lives and we try and intermingle them the best we can,” Shannon says.
Says Sherrie: “We both have very demanding professions, but we’ve been able to find the similarities instead of the dissimilarities over these many years. I think that’s made my life richer.”
Coaches not named Mike David yell a lot.
When J.R. Kirby really gets worked up, which he does a lot, his voice goes in and out of hoarseness. Anybody who has spent any time with the coach has witnessed this.
“We all know that hoarse voice,” Olivia says with a laugh.
When he coaches his own kids that hoarse voice will come out, but other than that, he’s relatively calm around the house.
“He’s an intense person,” Olivia says. “’We are polar opposites. He’s very much Type A and I’m very much Type B and I probably drive him absolutely crazy sometimes … He goes into coach mode when he’s coaching our kids, then there’s dad mode. He’s a bit more relaxed, but I’m not saying he’s a completely different person. With the kids he’s just dad. They’ve grown up around he football field. That’s what they know. They’re used to it. If he gets on them about something they know if it’s from a coaching perspective or a dad’s perspective. There definitely is a difference.”
Slade Calhoun does is sharing of yelling on the football field as well.
But, according to his wife, that persona stays at work.
“As far as just hanging out with me and our kids, he’s a really chill guy. He doesn’t get ruffled and never gets upset. Super easy-going and hilarious. He’s a real people-person. Some people might be surprised how chill he is, but everybody’s got to take a break.”
David, who’s stoic personality and looks have been compared to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, is pretty chill no matter the setting.
“Oh yeah, he’s pretty calm all the time,” Laura said. “He takes things in stride.”
Over the coming weeks the work schedules of high school football coaches will lighten up a little bit, but not much. Then there’s the stress of the games. Wins will bring joy and losses the accompanying pain. The wives will be in middle of it.
Nevertheless, the better halves of the area’s coaches believe it’s all worth it.
“It’s been fun,” Sherrie O’Brien says. “I feel blessed that I married into the coach’s world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I feel like I won the Master’s and earned the green jacket when I married my husband.”
“It’s always wonderful when you get to see your spouse do something they love, something they were made to do,” Olivia Kirby says. “That part is really great.
It’s wonderful when players become part of your family, even after they’ve graduated, get married and have babies. We’re all still connected and that’s because of football … I think we sacrifice a lot, but it’s worth it in the end. I wouldn’t change anything.”