890 Miles Away

Sept. 30, 2016

DENTON - There are a lot of factors when considering the career of a college football coach. Success on the field, success in the classroom for your student-athletes, hirings, firings and the excitement each of those may bring to a fan base.

What isn’t always thought about is the effect those hirings and firings have on not only the coach but his family, and the remainder of the staff’s families.

Mean Green
Middle Tennessee
Gameday Central

North Texas defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler is like most everyone on head coach Seth Littrell’s staff, new to Denton. How Ekeler differs from the rest of the staff is that he doesn’t have his family here at the moment. His wife Barbie and four children, J.J., Cameryn, Abigail and Bella, remain in Athens, Georgia. With family being such an emphasis within the program, and with it being the highest priority on Ekeler’s own list, things have been difficult for the family to adjust to life in different locations.

After Georgia decided to make a change and fire head coach Mark Richt (he now is the head coach at Miami), his whole staff was suddenly put in limbo, Ekeler and his family included. A linebackers coach who was instrumental to the success of a defense that ranked seventh nationally in total defense for a team that won 10 games in 2015 suddenly found himself looking for a job.

That search for a new opportunity was cut short when North Texas came calling, thanks largely to head coach Seth Littrell. The two shared time together at Indiana and Littrell’s decision to hire Ekeler was an easy one.

Conversely, Ekeler had a difficult decision on how to handle the move. With all of the coaching staff’s homes going up for sale at once in the community where Ekeler and his family lived, selling their home was not easy. Five homes in the same neighborhood went up for sale around the same time, but only one has sold to date.

“The timing of it just didn’t work out,” Ekeler said. “We didn’t get our house sold so my family is staying back in Georgia for now until we get it sold, and we are planning on having them move after the season. I’ve never been apart from my family, and I absolutely hate it. But I’ve just poured everything into my job right now and tried to make use of my time that I wouldn’t have had because I would have been spending time with my family.”

The sacrifice of coaches as it pertains to their family-life is immense as it is, and in Ekeler’s case having to live apart from his wife and four children for a year makes things that much more difficult.

“When people understand the heaviness and sacrifice a coach feels in regards to his family, where they miss their children’s sporting events, school events, birthdays, certain holidays, family-gatherings, sleepovers and more, but yet continue to be out on that field, it shows the passion and love they have for the game and mostly for those young men,” Ekeler’s wife Barbie said. “That’s the mark of a great coach.”

Ekeler, a native of David City, Nebraska, has made several stops in his career before arriving in Denton, including three stops with his mentor, former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. Ekeler began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma, where Pelini was a co-defensive coordinator, and then followed him to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when Pelini was defensive coordinator at LSU, where Ekeler was also a graduate assistant. He then followed Pelini to Nebraska, where Ekeler became the linebackers coach.

All of those stops take a toll on all involved, and it’s the less glamorous part of being the family of a football coach, though the understanding of why it is happening is shared by everyone involved.

“We’ve moved several places,” Ekeler said. “I was with my mentor for eight years but at three different schools. From there we’ve moved a few more times. When our kids were younger, it was kind of a neat little journey and it was fun and exciting to go see a lot of different parts of the country and experience different things. As they’ve gotten older, it has gotten harder and harder because they’ve gotten more ingrained in their schools and you can’t just pick up and go. This one has definitely been our hardest so far, because we’ve got a son (J.J.) in high school and a daughter (Cameryn) who just started as a freshman.”

When discussing his family, Ekeler lights up. The sheer joy on his face and pride for his family is evident as he described his son J.J., a junior in high school, as an incredibly intelligent and talented swimmer and diver. The same is true as he points out that Cameryn is “quite possibly the nicest human being on the face of the earth, sharing so many qualities with her mother.” He questions whether Abigail, now in eighth grade, may know more about the game of football than he does, and beams when discussing his youngest daughter Bella, who he says is “a hoot.”

“Abigail wants to be a sideline reporter,” Ekeler said with pride. “I think she knows more about football than I do,” he continued with a chuckle. “We were watching a game a while back and she goes, ‘hey dad, they just ran a buffalo y-7. You know that’s a red zone route, right?’ I said, I’m pretty well aware of that.”

While coaching for the Mean Green, Ekeler lives near campus in an RV he purchased. He spends minimal time there, just six hours or so to sleep, while he pours everything into his job. Since the season began, the Ekeler family has been reunited twice, albeit for a short amount of time each time. The family traveled to Denton to take in the season-opener against SMU, and made the near-six hour drive down to Gainesville when the Mean Green took on Florida.

Those moments, Ekeler said, are priceless.

“That moment in Gainesville was awesome,” Ekeler recollects. “They drove in and got there pretty late on Friday night, and we were up for quite a while catching up. That feeling is why you do what you do.”

One theme that was constant is making sure that the time he spends with his family is separate from that of the job.

“It’s crucial,” says Barbie. “Coaches’ phones could be ringing 24 hours a day, so Mike tries his hardest when he is home to put that aside. You will never be caught up, never be ahead, so you have to just stop and take a breath. I get to be with the kids and be a part of all of their activities, school events and all of that stuff that Mike doesn’t. I know how much that weighs heavily on his heart, so I always try to remind him that it’s not the quantity of time you get with the kids, it’s the quality. I can guarantee you that there is no one else that has more quality time with kids than Mike. He takes advantage of every second he has with them.”

Whether he takes that time to play volleyball with his oldest daughters, board games with J.J. or sitting with Bella while she teaches him math, his efforts to spend individual time with his children is something that Barbie admires. Making the most of that time he does have is the key component to that equation. At the very least, while they are apart, technology grants a window into his family’s life back in Athens, but it is nowhere near enough to fill that void.

“Technology is fine, but it’s not like being there,” Ekeler said. “We are just making the best of it and knowing that this is a short-term deal. I’m just trying to stay focused on that and make it as good as we can for the time being.”

Some of the seemingly mundane tasks that take place during a move sometimes go unnoticed, but each time the Ekelers have moved, whether it be any of the Pelini stops or his move to Indiana, Los Angeles, or to the family’s current home in Athens, there are a ton of tasks to be done. Changing addresses, getting the kids situated in schools, changing churches, getting to know new neighbors and friends, finding new doctors, etc. are challenges in and of themselves. Try doing that every few years on average, and that makes for a lot of extra work.

“We have two choices,” Barbie says. “You can wallow in all of the cons or we can embrace the move, and that’s what we try and do. We have sweet and dear friends all over the country and have had some amazing experiences, so there are a lot of good things as well. It’s never easy, but we know that God has a plan for us and this is what we do; we move forward and try to keep what happens at home as normal as we can throughout some of the change. We always enjoy the next stop in the journey. As sad as it will be to leave Athens, we know that Denton will be a great location for us with new and exciting opportunities.”

The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child,” is one that the Ekelers each mentioned when discussing the challenges presented to their family, as well as all football families. Without the supportive friends, neighbors and community around a football family, things get extremely difficult in a short time. Rides to school, practice, or simply letting a dog out for a walk when needed goes a long way to help.

“The sign of a great friend and neighbor is this;” Barbie continued, “despite the wins or losses, they might be bummed about a loss, but they care more about you as a family and part of their community. They don’t talk to you about football and are just great people who love you for who you are and not just because of what Mike does. Having people around who genuinely want to help you makes a huge difference, because you scramble sometimes, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have that in most places we have been.”

Having that support in place in Athens is something the Ekelers pointed to as something that has been a massive part of creating a sense of peace of mind while separated by 890 miles. That, coupled with the strength that Ekeler praises his wife for having, helps keep everything in place.

“It’s not fun, but like I said, it’s about trying to just immerse yourself in your job and understand again that it’s short-term,” Ekeler said. “Knowing that they’re happy and are ingrained in their community there, makes it okay.”



North Texas Mean Green