Not even 500 miles of separation can prevent Nikki West from coaching. Of all the guidance she's given — and when you're as good a coach as she is, you're always ready with a little input — the best may be the occasional long-distance cellphone reminders to her husband Marcus.
"I tell him to wash all the clothes in cold and to be careful not to mix the colors," Nikki said with a laugh. "I'm trying to keep him from having to go to the mall and buy new clothes so much. Plus I feel guilty because I know he puts in a lot of long hours and doing laundry isn't his strength."
Laundry advice is just one example of how the couple is forced to find creative ways to overcome the challenges of their profession in their marriage.
Marcus is entering his sixth season as the defensive line coach for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team, but the first in more than three years to not have Nikki close by. After nine seasons as the top assistant for the UTC women's basketball program, Nikki followed head coach Wes Moore to North Carolina State last spring.
"We met through coaching, but that's also the reason we're apart right now," Marcus said. "It's tough because this is the person that makes my life better and now we're living so far away from each other.
"It can be lonely sometimes, but we just have to make the best of it right now."
Soon after Marcus joined the UTC football staff his keen eye for talent noticed Nikki, and they were married less than two years later. But not without some persistence on his part.
"She shot me down the first few times I asked her out," Marcus said. "She wouldn't go out on a date with me, but she eventually said I could go to church with her. So I did. Then she let me take her to lunch after church and then finally to go out on a date."
After the Mocs finish their second day of spring practice in full pads Saturday evening, Marcus will get together with other coaches to watch Nikki help fifth-seeded N.C. State take on 12 seed BYU in the NCAA tournament's first round at UCLA. Marcus was able to fly to watch a couple of the Wolfpack's games this season, and when Nikki wasn't able to make it for a UTC game in the fall, she watched online, texting coaching tips throughout.
Marcus admitted he's a lot more knowledgeable about the women's game now and even filled out a women's NCAA tournament bracket rather than one for the men's tournament. Asked how far he has N.C. State advancing, Marcus smiled and said, "They're in the same bracket as UConn, so that's as far as I have them."
After a long pause, he added, "Oh, man, that's going to get me in trouble."
One signature trait of top-notch coaches is their ability to communicate. Marcus has coached three Southern Conference defensive players of the year and helped two linemen set program sacks records, while Nikki had two post players at UTC who twice were named SoCon player of the year.
So as is the couple's ritual, Marcus will call Nikki for a pregame pep talk and later a postgame breakdown. And at some point they will change the subject to discuss when they'll see each other next.
The plans made during those cellphone conversations, and often just the familiar voice on the other end of the line, help bridge the distance and make a hectic time of the year for both a bit more tolerable.
"So far we haven't gone more than two or three weeks without seeing each other," Marcus said. "Absence does make the heart grow fonder, and it also makes the time we do get to spend together more special.
"It's not ideal for either of us, and we weren't really prepared for how tough it would be, but we're doing everything we can to be supportive of each other's career."
Even if that means long-distance advice on how to handle the honey-do chores.
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...