Column: Mark Pancratz and the realities of the coaching climb

Former Tennessee director of video scouting Mark Pancratz, right, and former UT assistants Houston Fancher, center, and Steve Forbes, left, watch as the Vols play Arkansas during the first round of the SEC Tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga., March 10, 2011.  (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Former Tennessee director of video scouting Mark Pancratz, right, and former UT assistants Houston Fancher, center, and Steve Forbes, left, watch as the Vols play Arkansas during the first round of the SEC Tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga., March 10, 2011. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Over a 20-minute conversation Tuesday, Mark Pancratz darted and zipped from one point to another. There were rumblings out there that he had resigned as Tennessee’s director of video scouting. I called and simply asked, “Are you out?”

No follow-up questions were necessary. Pancratz ran away with the conversation. He lamented over his lack of progress in the coaching profession. He recounted the malaise he felt walking into Cuonzo Martin’s office the day he quit. He talked about being scared of finding himself years down the line as a 35-year-old father of two working as a No. 3 assistant making nickels at an out-of-the-way, never-heard-of-it program.

This isn’t how things were supposed to end. Pancratz arrived at UT as a graduate assistant in 2006, picking the right swell to ride just before the wave. He rode the Vols’ six NCAA tournament appearances from 2006 to 2011 and survived the crash when Bruce Pearl was washed out. Cuonzo Martin came to UT in March 2011 and retained Pancratz as the program’s video coordinator.

Heading into Martin’s third year in Knoxville, that was still Pancratz’s title. This summer, he was passed over for the Vols’ director of basketball operations job and swung and missed on a few open assistant jobs.

With that, Pancratz felt like he was climbing a ladder with no rungs. That, combined with a second child on the way, led him to resign, he says. He’s heading to pursue life outside of coaching’s grip.

So why rehash this 24-hour-old news about in a blog? As the son of a Division I track and field coach and the brother of a Division I field hockey coach, I think Pancratz and those like him are fascinating. I find the realities of the coaching climb to be equal parts fascinating and sickening. I find the time dedicated by lowly assistants and staff members to be fascinating and disturbing.

I was surprised by Pancratz’s decision. He and I are almost the same age. He’s turning 30 in a few weeks. I’m turning 31 in a few weeks. As a sports writer, I know the fear of a decomposing future. It’s easier for me to validate a blind run at a dream, though, because no wife, no kids and no mortgage make me a free agent in life. That’s where Pancratz and I diverge.

All that said, I was still surprised to hear Pancratz explain his move. Coaching is a disease that gets past the façade and runs through the cracks. Trust that every graduate assistant in the country hired this summer heard the same from his elders: This is an ugly business. This job dominates your life. Are you sure you want to do this?

Pancratz has the disease. So many young coaches do.

In the early stages, a young coach thinks proving himself means logging absurd 15-, 16-, 17-hour days. The warped perception says it’s good to be the guy who sleeps on the ratty couch in the office. First-in, last-out is the expectation, not the exception. To be burnt out is a good thing.

In reality, though, it’s nonsense, like a nation taxing itself into prosperity.

Pancratz posted a lengthy blog entitled “Toughest Decision Of My Life” this morning that can be interpreted a number of ways. In it he wrote:

“My almost 3-year-old daughter told me while we were at home about two months ago, “Daddy you need to go home.” When I responded with “Charli, I am at home.” She said, “No daddy, you live at your office. That’s your home.” She may or may not have known what she was saying, but that about broke my heart.”

Yes, other jobs are hard. Yes, plenty of other professionals work insane hours. But there’s something different about coaching. There’s something sadly all-consuming about it. Sure there’s the appeal of making millions as a head coach or six-figures as an assistant, but there are no guarantees. Sometimes the young coach simply turns into an old coach.

What is guaranteed is that at one point or another, the coach will stop and ask, ‘Is this worth it?’

When I was young, my father coached the track and field programs at Saint Joseph’s University, worked full time as a teacher and disciplinarian at Roman Catholic High School in downtown Philadelphia and worked summers as a park ranger at Independence Hall. I was the youngest of six and he was up against it. Dad could have certainly found another source of income less time consuming than being a college head coach. He’d never consider it, though.

There are coaches and then there are those who coach. Dad doesn’t know how to be anything other than a coach. Even with a wife, six kids and three jobs, he spent every night making recruiting calls. He loaded up a cramped van with college kids every weekend and drove to New York or Virginia or god-knows-where.

Dad is now in his 70s. Next year will be his 48th at St. Joe’s. It’s been a long disease.

So I wonder what will become of Pancratz. Having watched him work for two years, I know he has the disease. It’s in the cracks. I’d imagine he already has more free time than he knows what to do with.  What do you do when you’re done with all you know? He’ll have to figure that out. For now, he says he’s happy to have picked his family and what he hopes to be a more financially stable future.

The young coach is no longer a coach, but don’t for a second think he’s beaten the disease.

That’s the reality.

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