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Thursday, January 6, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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For better or for worse: The life of a coach's wife

Seattle Times staff reporter

The image is of splashy diamond jewelry, haute couture, and the best seats in every arena, stadium or ballpark. They are, after all, professional coaches' wives.

While their husbands are at the office buried in scouting reports, they're at the boutique cashing in on the million-dollar paychecks. Even Michelle McMillan can paint an ostentatious lifestyle with her husband, Sonics coach Nate McMillan. Know the commercials where the guy wraps a new luxury car with a mammoth red bow? Nate has done that twice for Michelle. One Christmas it was a black convertible Mercedes, and in 2003 it was a black Escalade.

"I don't know where he finds these big, pretty red bows!" Michelle shrieks at the memory. "I was so shocked. I don't know when he had time to sneak out of the house to do that."

But she pauses before calling this life glamorous.

The same goes for Sharon Hargrove, wife of new Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, and Kathy Holmgren, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren's wife. In fact, all three scoff at the mere idea as they remember the rough beginnings, when the pay was less than what they'll shell out in taxes come April.

But they understand where the perception comes from.

At one point they were like most, reading sports stories simply because they, too, were fans. Michelle played basketball at Hickory High School in North Carolina. Kathy played baseball and swam growing up in San Jose, Calif. Sharon was usually raspy-voiced after cheering at football games in her native Perryton, Texas.

Then they met the person each calls her soulmate, and newspaper stories and highlight clips twisted from innocent entertainment to virtually a daily documentation of their lives.

The Hargroves still own a home in Perryton, and return often to visit family. The day after Christmas, driving to the home after a trip to the Dixie Dog Drive-In, Sharon Hargrove laughed when Shelly, her youngest of five children, asked if her parents could move back to their childhood hometown.

Sharon says her eyes widened when she calculated that the family's move to Seattle this spring will be their 93rd.

"I can't believe it when I look back," said Sharon, 52. "If someone had told me in high school that we'd move all over the country and live in all of these big cities, I would have said, 'No way.' I would have told Mike, 'That's OK, you can be a high-school coach and I'll teach and our children can be raised in Perryton near all of our family and friends.'

"But I guess I was stronger than I thought. Once I realized it was the only way I was going to be able to be with Mike, it was the only choice I had, and I just think you can do whatever you set your mind to."

Living her life

Kathy Holmgren, 57, fiddles with her small, gold hoop earrings as she shares a fantasy. It involves her husband, their dogs, and a ranch home in Phoenix.

"It's for the future," she says with a smile. "There's wide doorways, in case we're in wheelchairs, and a room off from the kitchen for our caregiver, if we ever need one. It's on a golf course, and the Biltmore (Fashion Park Mall) is close. We're looking forward to spending some time there. I was thinking we would be moving there (this month)."

The urge is to chuckle at the last comment, but flick on any sports program or read any article about the Seahawks, and Mike Holmgren's job stability is always in question. Kathy has gone through 33 years of this type of turmoil and radiates a tinge of seriousness when she declares her husband "can't do this forever. I just have to be patient."

"The game is so amazing and has evolved so much, I'm in awe of what they do," she says. "But the intensity, it gets to you. It's up and down, and every game is so important. In (pro) basketball there's the best-of-five or best-of-seven series, so you can have a bad showing and still win the series. In football, they're all important. (After the loss to the Cowboys on Dec. 6), we wanted to shoot ourselves. After a win everything is fine."

Normally, Kathy doesn't ask much of her husband during the season. She raised their four daughters and dealt with not having traditional holidays like a family with 9-to-5 parents. She was even going to attempt making it alone through a breast-cancer scare in 2001.

It was weeks before the April draft and Kathy said Mike didn't need to worry. But he was more concerned than her, diving into extensive research about his childhood sweetheart's condition. Kathy had a lumpectomy.

After the jolt, the couple worked a morning routine into their schedule that includes reading devotions, exercise and talking over a cup of coffee before Mike heads to work. Still, after the intense scrutiny in Green Bay, nothing can bring Kathy back to the games.

As Mike led the Packers to two Super Bowls, Kathy started her own tradition of skipping out of the stadium after the national anthem to walk around the empty streets or catch a movie.

"It was like he (Mike) was responsible for the whole mental health of the town," she says.

During the Seahawks' division title-clinching victory over Atlanta on Sunday, she strolled around Pioneer Square with her 5-month-old granddaughter Mary, visited the library and watched the ferries come in.

During the week she stays busy with her other passion, volunteering. A former nurse and social worker, Kathy is on the board for Northwest Medical Teams and the Salvation Army.

"I feel like a person of privilege who has way more than I'll ever need," says Kathy. "I look at the money, and it boggles my mind. But I think it's really important to have my own life or identity. I have absolutely nothing to with his success and I never have claimed to have."

"I had no idea ... "

There was a time when you couldn't pry Michelle McMillan from her seat.

Situated seven rows from the court in the Seattle Center Coliseum, which was renovated to KeyArena in 1995, Nate McMillan had to advise his wife when she was pregnant with their first child that maybe she shouldn't try to squeeze into the seats anymore.

"I loved watching him play," Michelle says of Nate playing for the Sonics from 1986-1998. "That's what I miss the most. It was different then, the older players knew how to play the game the right way. Not that the players don't know how to play today, but they don't spend a lot of time in college now, so there's not the same development and maturity. Then, it was so much fun to watch and most of the players were married, so all of the wives knew each other. We'd go shopping in different cities, have dinners, and became really close friends."

Michelle, 40, has moved down four rows and has two children with her, but the scene isn't the same. Some nights she has to drag her husband of 17 years to bed, Nate weary-eyed from dissecting film or nitpicking at every coaching decision he made.

Michelle, a former accountant, says after Nate's 12-year NBA playing career ended, she had no inkling he'd go into coaching. She thought he'd enter the assisted-living business with his older brother, but ex-Sonics coach George Karl got into his ear.

"It's really different," Michelle says. "All the pressure is on the head coach and they're blamed for everything. I had no idea when I was a player's wife. They'd play the game and go home. And after the season, I'd get him for the whole summer. As a head coach, there's a lot of sleepless nights and he has one month off. But whatever he wants to do is fine with me."

The McMillans have been fortunate Nate has experienced his entire professional career in the same city. They purchased an additional home in their native North Carolina so that their children can spend summers with relatives.

This season even offered an extra perk with home games circling the holidays and New Year's Eve in Charlotte, N.C., where Nate rented a ballroom so about 50 family members could ring in 2005 together — after a Sonics win, of course. But Nate usually can't be there for the birthdays of son Jamelle (Dec. 30) and daughter Brittany (May 16).

"The money has afforded us a comfortable life, but all the stress he goes through, it's not even worth the money," Michelle says of Nate's four-year, $10.8 million contract, which expires at the end of the season. "Nate is such a perfectionist. He feels that whatever players they put in front of them — whether they fit his system or not — he should be able to win with them because he's the coach. I just have to stand back and let him do his own thing, but I worry about him a lot."

McMillan jokingly calls this season "the last ride" because his team was predicted not to do well. Yet, the Sonics are 23-7, one of the best records in the NBA. Michelle only has to look back to last year's wild coach-firing spree to be reminded that things can change quickly.

"It's hard when you start trying to imagine not being in Seattle anymore and still we don't know what will happen after this season," Michelle says. "We would like to stay, but it could be the final ride. I pray about it and leave it in God's hands."

Make your own sandwich

Maybe it's the twinkle in the eye.

Fired from managing the Baltimore Orioles after a 91-loss 2003 season, Mike Hargrove experienced an early retirement. Sure, he worked as a consultant to his former employer, the Cleveland Indians, but according to Sharon, the offer was more so to keep his spirits up. He would rather be managing.

When rumors started linking his name to the open positions in Seattle and Philadelphia last fall, however, the twinkle returned.

"His ego was hurt when he lost the job in Baltimore and he didn't hear from anybody," Sharon says. "The minute he heard about Seattle, he rushed to the computer and was researching the team. He was so excited just to be considered."

Not that the past year wasn't thrilling and comical. After more than 30 years in "ball," Mike had to be introduced to civilian life as he and Sharon spent their longest time together in 34 years of marriage. And after years of him chuckling at his wife locking the babies in the car or bouncing checks from banks they no longer had accounts at because they had moved and she'd forgotten, she got the chance to giggle as he adjusted to everyday life.

First she had to tell him it was fine to throw the peanut shells on the floor at the ballpark. Then she had to explain that tiki lamps shouldn't be used as supports for tomato plants. And lunch?

"I was rushing around the house busy with something, and he was sitting in the chair asking when lunch was," Sharon says. "I said, 'Mike, I married you for better or for worse, not for lunch. You can get up and make your own sandwich.' "

Life as a professional coach's wife has its struggles, but she authored a book in 1989 titled "Safe at Home: A Baseball Wife's Story" that illustrates how the basic idea of marriage is no different — it still takes communication and teamwork from both sides. Sharon, and Michelle McMillan and Kathy Holmgren, understand family is their husbands' heart, but their sport is the blood pumping through their veins.

Sharon Hargrove, a former teacher, has formed her own career as a counselor for baseball wives. She has written newspaper columns, hosted a radio show and given speeches, all to shed light on the family lives of players and coaches. Now Sharon is bringing that vision to Seattle.

"We have our new wardrobe," she says. "They sent a huge box of Mariners stuff, and we've been passing it around. My family asked if we could move any further away than Seattle 'cause it's way up there. I tell them to keep quiet because they play (baseball) in Japan, too."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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