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MX News Update 2024

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Six MSU head coaches are moms. It’s a life of ‘controlled chaos’

EAST LANSING – As Leah Johnson and her family dined with the brass from Michigan State’s athletic department during her interview to become MSU’s new volleyball coach, Leah’s then 7-year-old daughter, Edith, delivered the bad news: This wasn’t going to work.  

“You all seem like really good people and I’m sure Michigan State is a great school,” Edith said, her face covered in sauce from the carnival-sized rib platter she ordered while everyone else shared pizza. “I don’t want you to hire my mom. I don’t want to leave my friends.”

She was dead serious.

Fourteen months later, after Robyn Fralick’s husband, Tim, sat their two children down to explain that they were leaving Bowling Green for MSU — messages were coming; the conversation couldn’t wait for Robyn to be home — their son, Will, then 9, let his mother know that this wasn’t OK.

“Mom, why are you ruining my life?” he said through tears. “I’m already happy.”

It was hard for Robyn to hear. She was crying right along with her children, including then 6-year-old Clara, who didn’t know how she felt, only that she wanted a house with stairs, because they lived in a ranch-style home in Bowling Green. “She had very unique requests,” Robyn said.

Robyn took the job as MSU’s women’s basketball coach nonetheless. Will, now 10, has adjusted to his new life.

Same for Edith, who will be 10 next month. 

Moving a family away from a cherished life for the sake of one’s career is a tale as old as employment. Less common: Being a mother whose career as a Division I head coach is the driving force behind your family’s decisions and daily life.

At MSU right now, six of the Spartans’ head coaches are also moms, five of them with school-age children or younger, three of them with toddlers.

There are all sorts of joys and advantages, challenges and sacrifices, but also …

“Mom guilt,” said MSU field hockey coach Helen Knull, who was pregnant with her 13-year-old son, Calum, when she got the head coaching job (and had a 3-year-old as well, Grace, who’s now 16). 

“Every day, every minute, right now, you are dripping with guilt all the time,” Johnson said from an airport, on her way to scout prospective 2026 volleyball recruits, her children, Edith, PJ, 7, and Roz, 15 months, back home with her husband, A.J. “You have to work very hard to channel that into a way that I can remind myself that the life I want my kids to enjoy is seeing that it’s OK to pursue your own goals and still support others.”

“You’re torn between two worlds,” said MSU women’s tennis coach Kim Bruno, whose children, Blakely and Avery, are 4 and 2. “I think you’ve just got to come to terms with, ‘Hey, you’ve got to be present when you’re present, the best that you can.’ ”

And even then, in the midst of intentional quality time together, they can be reminded how much their kids notice their absence — like recently when MSU softball coach Sharonda McDonald-Kelley was playing with her 3-year-old daughter, Kyler, and Kyler’s stuffed giraffes.

“She has a daddy giraffe and a mommy giraffe,” Sharonda said. “And she goes, ‘OK, the baby giraffe has to go to school.’ I was the baby giraffe and she’s the mommy giraffe. And I said, ‘I’m at school, bye, mommy.’ And then she says, ‘Now mommy’s going to the airport’ — and she tosses the mommy giraffe on the other couch.’ ” I was like, ‘Ohh!’ ”  

“It’s tough leaving on these road trips,” McDonald-Kelley continued. “But you also try to keep your perspective of (the idea) that it’s possible to have this career and have a family. I know there are a lot of women that question that. And I was one, too, looking at a couple other coaching friends in the profession. I’m like, ‘How are you doing it?’ You just grind it and you figure it out.”

“I don’t think we ever (have it) all together,” Robyn said. “I just think we’re fine with the chaos. Like, we really just know what’s happening today. I actually will have to ask Tim, ‘Wait, what time are you going to be home? Wait, who’s got the kids?’ ” 

“She doesn’t have access to the family calendar,” Tim said, laughing.

‘You just figure it out. The alternatives aren’t options’

Robyn refers to Tim, in person and on social media, as “the real MVP.” 

“She does a good job of complimenting,” Tim said. “The phrasing I think is partially because she thinks, ‘Tim is about to lose his mind. He’s on like his fourth straight day with a 10- and 7-year old during (school) break.’” 

Every one of MSU’s head coach moms will quickly tell you about an uber-supportive spouse.

“Are there single moms out there who are (collegiate) coaches?” said Bruno, whose wife, Shayna, is the associate director of student-athlete wellness at MSU. “I don’t know how they could do it.”

Their stories as couples differ. But there are common threads — how they try to include their kids in their programs and in the greater MSU athletic scene, creating experiences they wouldn’t get otherwise, and how they work in tandem when there is no other choice.

As Leah’s husband, A.J., described those times when he has to do a little extra: “I don’t view it as like I’m picking up her slack. It’s our slack.”

For Robyn and Tim — who first met when Robyn was interviewing for an assistant coaching position at Ashland University in Ohio and Tim, on the Ashland men’s basketball staff at that point, showed her around town in his 1994 Eagle Vision — that meant integrating their lives.

When Robyn became the head coach at Ashland and Will was a baby, Tim gave up his job as a varsity boys basketball coach to join her staff, while continuing to teach. It put them on the same basketball schedule. He’d pick up Will from preschool and bring him to practice. Even as a 3-year-old, Will would keep the clock and score. When Clara came along, Robin would conduct practice with Clara in a baby carrier.

“One of the things when we had kids that we were on the same page with — and we’ve had people help or babysitters, grandma comes down — but we wanted to raise our kids,” Robyn said. “And so Tim’s path has kind of veered. He’s still found his way to help with basketball, but he is with the kids a lot.”

At Bowling Green, Tim began his own youth basketball training business, Be Transformed Basketball, which he still runs today in Lansing and Bowling Green. “It was a way for me to stay in hoops,” he said. Will and Clara take part, just as they do with their mom’s MSU program. Right now is a sweet spot for that, especially with Clara. 

“I think Clara is at that unique age,” Tim said, “Where she feels part of the team,” Robyn interjected. “The girls are so good to her.”

“She lights up. They light up,” Tim said. 

“(Robyn) does a good job of trying to integrate us into the program and staff and players. She’s always like, ‘Hey, can the kids come up for practice?’ We have to tell her ‘no’ more times than we’d like because we have our own stuff going on, especially as they get older.”

*****

McDonald-Kelley and her husband, Mike, aren’t aren’t in that stage yet. At 3, their daughter, Kyler, is testing them with her desire for independence, with Mike receiving the brunt of the sass. 

“She’s at the stage where she wants to do it herself,” Sharonda said. “Like it’s the end of the world if you put her toothpaste on the toothbrush for her.’ ”

Mike and Sharonda met at Campbell University in North Carolina, where they were hired at the same time — she as the head softball coach, he as a strength and conditioning coach.

Both of them worked long hours as newlyweds and so when they learned they were going to have Kyler, Mike began to look for something else and found it training special forces in the military, which came with a more family-friendly schedule.

“I had envisioned in my mind the dad that I wanted to be,” Mike said. “And it was the dad that I never had. And I just told myself, when that little girl is born, she is going to be more important than either of us.”

When Sharonda got the MSU softball coaching job, Mike had to start over again. Among the things Sharonda appreciates about him: “Taking on that mindset of, ‘We’re going to attack this to give you an opportunity at this career that you love,’ ” she said.

He found work teaching in Waverly schools and training East Lansing athletes. And purpose in raising Kyler with Sharonda and trying to keep Sharonda’s spirits up through a hard first couple seasons. 

“Sometimes he’s like, ‘I’m more stressed (about the team) than you are,’” Sharonda said. “I’m like, ‘No, you’re not.’ … But he’s totally in it. You see him running around chasing her at games and trying to watch and … he’s awesome.”

“I see all the behind-the-scenes stuff,” Mike said. “I see the stress, the sleepless nights, the planning and the sacrifice. When she takes MSU to a regional, you are going to see a little girl and her dad jumping right into the pile of players celebrating.”

For now, they’d celebrate Kyler staying in her own room through the night.

*****

Leah and A.J. have been through the toddler phase twice and are just entering it again with Roz, who was born just after Leah’s first season as MSU’s volleyball coach.

“That’s super hero status to me, just seeing her do that,” Sharonda said of Leah managing three kids.

Perhaps if “controlled chaos” was a super hero, Leah would agree. 

“The sleepless nights with the little kids is the hardest,” Leah said, “because you still have to get up and be your best the next day for a group of young adults and high-pressure expectations coming every which way.”

“You just figure it out,” she continued, “because you have to. The alternatives aren’t options.”

Leah met A.J. (Weissler) through mutual friends in Texas when he was working for Teach For America and she was an assistant coach at Texas-Pan American. When she got her first head coaching gig, at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, it fit perfectly. A.J. had landed a job as a lawyer at Husch Blackwell in St. Louis. But when Illinois State called interested in Leah — just after their son, PJ, was born — it was time for Leah’s career to take precedence. 

“I remember rolling my 2-month-old in a stroller in circles around Redbird Arena (in Bloomington, Illinois) so that he would stay asleep long enough for her to complete the interview,” said A.J., whose firm allowed him to work remotely before that was commonplace. He still does.

A.J., like the other spouses, was — and is — all in. Leah’s career has become his hobby.

“I don’t know that he could do without it,” Leah said of the athletic scene and A.J. giving his unsolicited opinion on her recruits. He even likes to play volleyball.

“I’m not very good,” A.J. said. “I’m not allowed to play volleyball in a setting where anybody would be able to see me and know who I am. But I really do enjoy the sport.”

He and Leah are very different — A.J. a social butterfly working from home and Leah a natural introvert who comes across as anything but. 

“Our jobs require the opposite of our personalities,” Leah said. “My husband is the perpetual jokester. Like nothing is serious in his life. And so he just is on me all the time in front of the team, constantly airing out my laundry and making fun of me and the team lives for that. Because it humanizes me in a way that they don’t always get to see in vulnerable states. And I think that’s a really healthy thing.”

‘She’s just my mom’

Leah over the years has learned what makes for a healthy life for her and family. 

It begins here: “You find a way and you get really efficient with your time. I don’t do a lot of wasting. And I think my gym (at practice) models that. We don’t waste a rep, a minute.”

That goes for her home life, too. She doesn’t apologize for having a live-in au pair to cook and clean and help with the kids. 

“It took me a long time to get to the point where that was OK,” Leah said. “I felt those were tasks I should be able to figure out how to get done, too. Really that’s just stealing time from my kids.”

Time is precious in these jobs, be it a morning routine with the kids or soccer game or gymnastics practice. It’s not about how much, Robyn said, but the quality of the time. And creating more of it by integrating your family into the team — practices, road games when feasible, having recruits over to the house so they’re still all having dinner together. 

“We try to figure that out — like how do we move in this together?” Robyn said.

And when you can’t be there, when you can’t see every Little League game, that’s OK, too.

“I think there’s a healthy part of not being at everything and hovering over everything,” Robyn said. “It’s like, (Will) could have a bad practice or a bad game. It’s OK. I don’t have to know about all of it. I think there’s a balance of letting him have his own space and time.”

For every moment Robyn and the others miss, their kids are likely getting it back at least two-fold in cool experiences — be it flights to fun places or just being around the team or going to other MSU athletic events. For example, Helen might coach field hockey, but her son, Calum, goes to all the MSU ice hockey games.

And for the coaches, there is a camaraderie in knowing they’re not alone in feeling guilty or pressed for time and comfort in learning other children of coaches have loved their experience.

“Jacquie (Joseph’s) daughter was telling me, it’s the ability to grow up with all these sisters, these softball sisters,” Sharonda said of a conversation with the daughter of her predecessor. “And to be in the dugout and be around the sport. She’s like, ‘I loved it.’ And that was really helpful for me.”

Parts of it, though, won’t get any easier.

MSU women’s golf coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll went through every stage of this with her daughter, Olivia, who’s now a sophomore golfer at Grand Valley State, where she won the conference meet two weeks ago and competed in an NCAA regional this week. Stacy is missing all of it, coaching her own team.

FROM 2023: Couch: MSU’s Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll and her daughter, Olivia, are sharing an unlikely golf experience

“It doesn’t matter whether they’re toddlers or whether they’re 20, which is how old Olivia is, like, it’s brutal,” Stacy said, getting choked up about the conversation she had with her daughter about missing her tournaments. “She was here (last) week and I said to her, ‘Honey, you know there would be nothing more I’d want than to be watching you compete. I just have a job that I can’t. I can’t not be at regionals or be at (the) Big Ten (tournament).’ She understands, but it’s hard for a parent. You feel so bad because you want to be there.”

There is also this: To their kids, they aren’t who they are to everyone else.

At a home women’s basketball game this year, Robyn’s son, Will, his life no longer ruined, was asked what it’s like to have his mom be the coach at MSU.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “She’s just my mom.”

“I hope that never changes,” Robyn said.

Contact Graham Couch at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.