The most difficult part was game days, when he would stand off in the distance, away from the spotlight.
Sean Ireland had grown accustomed to center stage.
But a sabbatical taken last year for personal reasons reinforced both the Norwalk High School football coach’s love for the game and the players he worked with.
“It was hard,” Ireland said. “I wanted to make sure I gave free range to the coaches so I stayed back as far as I could. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.”
Ireland resumed his responsibilities last December, the day after the team banquet. Now he is back on the field, trying to help kids maximize their skills and, in the process, of course win games.
Ireland said he has noticed this preseason a change brought on by his absence, a taskmaster with a greater appreciation for a coach’s life. It may be trite, but sometimes you don’t realize what you have until it is taken away, even if the move was self-instigated.
“I’m more relaxed, more confident,” Ireland said. “I still expect nothing but their hardest effort and we are putting kids in the best place to be successful. We feel we have a lot of speed and athleticism and we are going to try and get those players into space and let them go.”
Ireland has never discussed the impetus for his time away, only that it was necessary and he has no regrets.
“It was very hard but it was something that needed to be done,” Ireland said. “It would have been tough on the kids if I wasn’t able to commit 100 percent. It wouldn’t have been fair to my family. It wouldn’t have been fair to everybody involved. It was the best thing to do at the time.”
Ireland joined the Norwalk staff in 1998 and was named the head coach four years ago. The Bears are coming off of a 5-6 season that was highlighted by a Thanksgiving win over heavily favored city rival Brien McMahon.
It helped that assistant Pat Moffett was elevated to the interim position, making for a smooth transition. Ireland deftly handled the difficult task of disengagement.
“Every now and then they would ask me small advice, nothing really big,” Ireland said. “I would say 95 to 98 percent was all Pat Moffet. He and all the other coaches, I thought they did a great job.”
What could have been an awkward situation has been handled seamlessly by all sides. Moffett is back as an assistant, though he made enough of an impression that Ireland named him offensive coordinator. It was not just a reward for a job well done but a tangible display by Ireland of his job security.
“He did a great job with the offense last year and he is now officially the full-fledged coordinator,” Ireland said. “The only difference is during offensive practice he’s pretty much running it. Other than that everything is status quo.”
Ireland has even retained some aspects of practice that Moffett introduced a year ago, calling them “a couple of tweaks here and there.”
Because 15 league schools have an opening-week bye as a way of maintaining the FCIAC championship, Ireland must wait another 17 days to coach his first game. While it is too early for league predictions outside of a few obvious contenders, Ireland feels the Bears could be a surprise with the talent he has, though he is quick to point out depth is an uncertainty. The early part of the schedule is dotted with teams that at this point would appear to be of similar status.
Ireland is counting down the days, though he is the first to admit that it will be hard to surmount his current level of elation.
“The fun part is the two and one half hours on the field,” Ireland said. “Being around the coaches and the kids. If you can’t have fun, you can’t do it.”