Keeping her eye on the football (research)

Bad fan behavior led CSB/SJU professor to research lives of college coaches’ wives

November 23, 2011

By Mike Killeen

When Minnesota Nice turned out to be Minnesota Not So Nice after a college football game, Janet Hope decided it was time to do a little research.

The result of some rude behavior by University of Minnesota football fans is a book in progress by Hope, professor of sociology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University; her daughter, Liddy Hope, a clinical supervisor at Nexus Treatment Systems in Elgin, Ill.; and Sally Hope, Janet's daughter-in-law who is an instructor in Purdue University's health and kinesiology department and is married to Purdue head football coach Danny Hope.

Janet Hope attended a Minnesota-Purdue football game in 2001 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. She was sitting with a delegation of Purdue coaches' wives who attended the game as part of the annual wives' trip. Several officials' calls went against the Gophers in the closing minutes of regulation play and overtime, allowing the Boilermakers to escape with a 35-28 overtime win.

The loss so enraged some Minnesota fans sitting near the wives that they made vulgar allegations about the wives' conduct with the referees.

"It was actually a real revelation to me," Janet Hope recalled. "This was the first time I'd ever witnessed (behavior) like that. But, my daughter-in-law said, 'This happens all the time.' I just thought it seemed so unfair."

That incident served as a catalyst for Hope to conduct a formal study that would examine the lives of college football coaches' wives, although the research would have to wait several years to come to fruition.

"I had been on sabbatical in the spring of 2001 and was not eligible for another one until 2008, so I knew I wouldn't be able to do a lot of the work that needed to be done until the spring and summer of 2008," Hope said.

"Even before the Minnesota game, I'd been kicking the idea around for a while, because I'd seen Sally move with Danny from place to place many times, buying and selling homes and putting her own career on the back burner each time," Hope added. "I knew she wasn't the only one; I'd met a number of coaches' wives over the years, and I knew they were all doing this."

Quite a bit of their groundwork was accomplished in 2007, including online questionnaire preparation, proposal preparation and Institutional Review Board paperwork. Later, they contacted NCAA football programs in all divisions, alerting them to the study and asking that they notify all their coaches' wives.

The three authors received 289 responses to their survey from wives of both head and assistant coaches in all NCAA divisions. Follow-up, in-person interviews were scheduled with 16 wives in the summer of 2008. None of the wives are identified by name, and all references to schools or conferences have been replaced by non-specific terms.

The wives were asked to provide insights into their lives: the long hours that coaches work away from their families; the responsibilities of coaches' wives with the program; parenting issues; conducting a normal life in a media fishbowl; the effects of fan behavior at games; and the moving that comes with coaching changes.

"Fans don't see the families behind the coach," Hope said. "They don't see the effects of their behavior on the families. When they're yelling obscenities at the coaches or making horrible comments on the radio about the head coach, I honestly don't think they think at all about how many lives' are affected, not just the coaches' themselves but the lives of their wives and children as well."

Despite all the problems football families can face, Hope said she has been "surprised to find how strong coaching marriages are and how committed these wives are to their husbands and their husbands' careers. They are incredibly loyal toward their husbands, the players and the football program as a whole. That was a major, major finding."

Hope needs to have the book to its publisher, Coaches Choice, in March 2012.

"I don't know if this book will have as wide spread an audience as we wanted, because our goal was to open the eyes of the general public to the lives of these women, and it will probably be marketed largely to coaches," Hope said. She added that students taking introductory coaching classes or those contemplating coaching careers will find the book valuable as it details the effects of college football coaching on family life.

"The bottom line for the study is that most of the wives - even those whose husbands are not earning huge amounts of money - are happy to be married to men who absolutely love what they do, and almost all of them said their husbands love their work. Now, that doesn't mean they don't grumble and gripe about the downsides, but as one veteran wife said, 'When you send a man off to work every day and he is happy and he comes from a job that he enjoys, the atmosphere in the home is impacted positively,' " Hope said.