Coaching college player dads takes patience, understanding
Todd Graham has recruited and coached plenty of fathers during his 17 years in college football. Married, unmarried. Engaged, estranged. The relationships between player, mother and child have varied and, therefore, so have the ways Graham has tried to help.
Never, though, has Graham viewed fatherhood at a young age as a red flag on a player or prospect.
"If it was I'd be hypocritical," said Graham, a former Arizona State head coach. "I had a son when I was 17 years old. When I went to college and I was being recruited to go to college I had an 8-month-old."
The NCAA does not keep track of how many athletes in any sport are parents, and privacy rules plus the perceived sensitivity of the subject means schools are not eager to share that information. Several prominent college football coaches declined interview requests on the topic, but it is not uncommon to find fathers playing major college football all over the country, and many of them are unmarried.
As with any aspect of a player's life, coaches want to know as much as possible when a child is in the picture.
"We're adopting the child as an extended family member," former Texas coach Mack Brown said.
The core question for most coaches?
"Is there a support system?" TCU coach Gary Patterson said.
That means digging deep into the personal life of a player and his family. That's typical in recruiting, no matter the circumstances, but talking about teen parenting can cover potentially touchy territory.
"The first thing is I want to know about the relationship with the child. I want to know what's the relationship with the child's mother and then is one set of parents or both sets of parents involved in helping raise the child," Troy coach Neal Brown said. "And really just listening and understanding that situation. What you have to do is you have to make a decision whether you think the player is mature enough to handle both aspects. To be a student-athlete while also handling those responsibilities.
"I can tell you during the time that I've been a head coach, there's not one kid who we've disqualified I guess is the best way to put it, from recruiting based on because they had a child," he said. "We've been comfortable with those relationships."
Graham estimated about a dozen players on his teams have had kids.
"A large percentage of them weren't married, but were in a committed relationship," said Graham, who also did stints as head coach at Rice, Tulsa and Pitt before being fired by Arizona State after going 7-6 last season.
In many cases, Graham said, the presence of a child was a good influence on a player: "It tended to curtail a lot of their social life."
Baylor coach Matt Rhule said his father, Denny, a former minister, led a weekly voluntary class on fatherhood for coaches and players last season.
Matt Rhule said his message to his players is: "When the time comes to finally be a dad, No. 1, I encourage them to enter into it as a decision. Make the decision to be a father. Whenever you're blessed enough to be a father, go be a great dad."
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