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Mormon coaches and callings: How they balance serving in the church with pressure-filled profession

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 22 2014 8:51 a.m. MDT

“It's tough. I’m not going to sit here and lie,” Atuaia continued. “You’ve got to set your alarm and know that you have got to get out of bed and go do something that's essentially voluntary. Your motivation stems not from repercussions of sorts, but from your own personal relationship with your Heavenly Father. So balancing that and finding that grit to continue is a tough deal, but you just manage it and do it.”

Like with many professions, the long hours and travel involved with coaching present challenges to fulfilling church callings, and the commitments overlap from time to time.

Paul Tidwell, another BYU assistant who serves on his stake high council, sometimes needs some flexibility in his responsibility over baptisms. The stake baptism services are held on Saturdays — some of which happen to be game days.

“There are times I can’t do that. We all have them,” said Tidwell, BYU’s inside linebackers coach. “But this is a volunteer calling. I work with awesome people and we find a substitute.”

During his time as an assistant at Utah when the Utes were enjoying 10-win seasons and making a Sugar Bowl appearance after an undefeated 2008 season, Hill was the elders quorum president in his Murray LDS ward. His Sunday schedule involved studying game film from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m., attending church and returning to the football office. Monday and Tuesday were full days, so Hill had to split his family time on Wednesday and Thursday with making visits to ward members. During bye weeks, Hill was able to assist in a service project or with moving a ward member. He often relied on his counselors to carry the load.

“That was crazy,” said Hill, now a first-year head coach at Weber State and whose new church assignment is teaching teenagers in Sunday School. “The stake president told me to rely on good counselors, but I also didn’t want it to look like I was slacking off. I tried to make up for it in the offseason.”

The transient nature of coaching can also present challenges to church service. Firings and staff changes are part of the job. Justin Ena, Weber State's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach who also currently team teaches a Primary class with his wife in their new Syracuse ward, joked about how that reality could be used to avoid responsibility.

“I know how to get out of a calling — by moving,” he said with a laugh.

Having coached at 13 different colleges since the early 1980s, Stubbs has lived all over the country and served in various capacities. One of his more memorable callings came when he was an assistant at Alabama from 1998 to 2000. While the Crimson Tide was competing for Southeastern Conference titles, Stubbs was doing his best to serve as a counselor in a bishopric.

“It was a challenge, to say the least,” said Stubbs, who is currently a high priest group instructor in his Louisiana ward. “It worked thanks to an understanding bishop.”

Over the years, Mendenhall has served as a gospel doctrine teacher, a member of the Sunday School presidency, a ward mission leader and a Primary teacher, among other callings. His current church calling is high councilor, and he is quick to acknowledge he has the fewest responsibilities in the stake.

“I love the calling,” he said. “I contribute where I can.”

Sundays

After several years of experiencing Sunday conflicts as an assistant coach, Mendenhall put not working on Sundays as one of his conditions for coming to BYU from the University of New Mexico.

“We would not come unless not working on Sunday was a guaranteed part of my contract,” Mendenhall said. “I had reached a point in my career where a positive balance among football, faith and spirituality was needed.”

Fortunately, the coach said, he was later selected as the head coach and able to design his own program. In this aspect, BYU has been a dream job for Mendenhall.

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