Coaching through COVID: Impact of the pandemic on families of local coaches

The ongoing challenge of finding normalcy at home during the strangest year in sports... ever.

Coaching through COVID: Impact of the pandemic on families of local coaches

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - It’s been a long year since March 2020. It would have been a longer one without sports, which returned as a disarming diversion and a reminder of normalcy in a world that badly needed both.

What is the price of sports in a pandemic? For most, not much. The audience keeps off the stage; there’s little work in being entertained.

But behind the curtain, the work — of endless tests, of thankless isolation, of constantly living in the short-term — was that much more difficult.

Few know it better than the head coaches and First Ladies of our crazed college sports scene.

“The most difficult part,” Amy Fickell said, “is that he doesn’t have a door on his office. So when he was in there, it was constantly — he’d mute himself and yell, ‘Quit, I’m on a Zoom call!’”

The Fickells are a family of eight, with six beautiful kids and a college football coach as a father.

But not just any college football coach. Luke Fickell took the Cincinnati Bearcats to the brink of glory last year, and he remains one of the most sought-after young coaches in the profession.

It’s a full-time job, just like being a parent. Add in COVID-19 protocols, and things begin to get dicey.

“Three times a week getting tested, and you’re biting your nails,” Amy said. “There was a level of stress there the entire season. You feared that, what’s going to happen when it blows up?”

Lisa Brannen and Amanda Steel know the feeling — and they’re living through it now.

“They’re constantly waiting on tests,” Lisa, wife of UC Men’s Head Basketball Coach John Brannen, said. “You can’t really plan, because you’e constantly waiting to see who has it and who doesn’t.”

Life on lockdown certainly looks different for the Brannens and their two girls. It’s a life spent constantly thinking about what they’re doing so they don’t give an entire team COVID-19.

“I didn’t want to be the one to bring the UC basketball team down,” Lisa said. “So we have teenage girls, and they can’t have sleepovers like they used to.”

Crosstown rival Travis Steele, head coach of the Xavier men’s basketball team, and wife Amanda Steele are dealing with the same losses in a season of winning for XU.

“You’re one text away or one call away from bad news, and I know what it’s like,” Amanda said. “You’re sitting at the dinner table and you get a text, and it’s so deflating. It’s just an ongoing thing.”

That is, coaching through COVID is more than just a coach and his team. It’s everyone in his or her bubble. And everyone needs to be that much more careful, so the coaching — and sports — can continue.

“In many aspects, [you] hope that things get back to normal, and there’s no more sickness, and no one loses more loved ones,” Lisa said. “And that these kids get to have their college years, and these coaches get to do what they’re lived for.”

“In my heart of hearts, I hope by this summer that things are going to be normal,” Amy added. “You know, I don’t think anybody knows.”

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