NEW ORLEANS – One of the pillars of coachspeak is the persistent reminder to players to overcome adversity.
Don’t let what happens around you impact what you do on the field. Stay focused on the task at hand.
As much as coaches lean on that, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense if they didn’t live it themselves when an unforeseen obstacle pops up.
That might not be what Steve Kragthorpe and Greg Studrawa had specifically in mind way back in August, but the two LSU coaches couldn’t have been better examples of why that cliché fits so well.
How they’ve handled adversity is a huge reason why the No. 1-ranked Tigers (13-0) get a shot at destiny when they tangle with No. 2 Alabama (11-1) on Monday in the BCS National Championship Game.
And make no mistake, the adversity Kragthorpe encountered wasn’t for the faint of heart. Maybe not quite life or death level, but certainly quality of life is involved.
By now, of course, the story of Kragthorpe’s personal adversity is well-documented. Last spring and summer, he just wasn’t feeling right and after a series of visits to a doctor and extensive tests he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The layman’s description of Parkinson’s is a brain disorder that creates tremors and rigidity that affects movement and coordination and can make every-day functions – including walking – a major challenge. In football parlance, that’s potentially devastating.
To a man who has been around football all his life, the ailment could have been a professional death sentence. Instead, Kragthorpe chose to stand and fight and keep doing what he loved.
There were adjustments that needed to be made, of course. Hired as the offensive coordinator last January, Kragthorpe went to Les Miles and was raw and honest when he told his new boss he couldn’t move forward with that task. At the same time, he made it clear he wanted to stick around and contribute in any way he could.
So Miles, after an emotional meeting with Kragthorpe, went to Studrawa, his offensive line coach since 2007, and asked his fellow gregarious Ohioan to take over as the offensive coordinator. Studrawa’s first concern was for Kragthorpe’s well-being, but he accepted the challenge because – like any of the LSU coaches who had been around for the 2010 season – he knew this team had a chance to be special.
So Studrawa and Kragthorpe adjusted and adapted, as did the other offensive coaches: Receivers coach and passing game coordinator Billy Gonzales, running backs coach Fran Wilson and tight ends coach Steve Ensminger.
As the transformation took root, something happened – perhaps something that should’ve been predictable considering who the coaching staff patriarch is. Instead of the offensive staff fraying at the edges under pressure, a chemistry was forged.
“There was no structure, no chain of command when we all started working on what was going to work for this team,” Studrawa said. “That room was wide open. If you had an idea, you threw it out, we all wrote it down and thought about it. Nobody was standing there saying ‘I want this or I want that.’ It was a bunch of guys working together toward one goal.”
Miles’ personality is a big reason the suddenly shuffled offensive staff made things work.
Don’t misunderstand: The personable and sometimes goofy Miles is still the man in charge and he won’t hesitate to make that clear. But Miles has never been the locked-down, robotic taskmaster that some head coaches can be.
“He’s a stickler for getting things done now, but he’s also a person” Studrawa said. “He’s a human being. He’ll talk about your family. He makes it personal. There’s a human side of it when we’re all in it together.”
That human side is a major reason Kragthorpe has been able to manage his situation. It helps that Miles is a family man who has been through his own health scare – a cyst on his brain that required emergency surgery in 2001.
As much as anything, though, Miles’ leadership and a pretty damn good team gave Kragthorpe the two things he needed most of all.
He said the two best cures for him are winning and laughter. He’s gotten plenty of both this season.
“When you win those games, it’s a lot of fun,” Kragthorpe said.
Kragthorpe also hasn’t had the breathing room to feel sorry for himself.
His wife Cynthia has battled multiple sclerosis for several years and that exacerbates his personal battle. But sharing a life-changing ailment has also drawn them even closer together.
|Cynthia Kragthorpe (right) has battled MS for years.|
“If I ever want sympathy, I don’t go home to get it,” Kragthorpe said, adding that he and his wife make it a daily point to make each other laugh.
“She’s tough and unselfish.”
There are difficult days for sure. Kragthorpe said that while the Parkinson’s doesn’t prevent him from doing his job, it does make it more difficult to function at times. The side effect of rigidity is especially problematic if he sits still for too long.
Long days – a coach’s companion – and road trips can be very challenging.
All along, though, Kragthorpe has plowed ahead.
“We all get concerned about him,” Studrawa said. The two have forged a strong friendship the last several months. “There are those moments at the end of these long 12- or 14-hour days you work as coaches when you look back at him and you can tell he’s struggling. It gets past 8 o’clock and it gets pretty tough for him.
“You know, on those days when I’m starting to get tired, I think I want to go home and sleep and I say to myself ‘You selfish son of a … That guy is fighting this disease to make this team better and you want to go home and take a nap?’ It brings you back to reality and is really inspirational and makes you want to work that much harder. The kids see that, too, and they feed off of it.”
As time has gone by, Kragthorpe has gradually begun to gain the upper hand in his battle. His doctors have attacked the disease with medication, some of it experimental, to find a balance that works for him.
The tremors are only slightly noticeable and his coaching impact hasn’t been derailed at all.
“Coach Kragthorpe’s impact on me has been amazing,” senior quarterback Jarrett Lee said. “I played the best football of my life this season because of him.”
A lot of LSU’s success can be tied back to Kragthorpe and Studrawa and how they approached the hurdles they faced.
And it’s a relationship that will apparently stay in place.
Asked if he plans on being back in 2012, a smiling Kragthorpe quickly said “Looks like it. I’m hopeful. We’d better play well Monday, though.”
Studrawa reiterated Sunday that he will return as the offensive coordinator as well.
And why should anything change now?
After all, the Tigers will look to add the finishing touch to arguably the best season in LSU football history on Monday and those two men have been ideal examples of what overcoming adversity means.