Borges knows best

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Al Borges slept in locker rooms, working as a small-school offensive coordinator and assistant coach, until he got his big break with Boise State in 1993.

He was single and childless, almost 40 and paying no heed to social norms. He was living his dream in which football defined him, and that was enough.

"I thought I was complete," Borges said. "You get caught up in this world of college athletics. It's easy to get entrenched and lose your perspective on everything else, and that's not good. I'm not saying everyone has to get married or have kids, but I definitely did even though I didn't think I needed that."

He's 57 now, married, with two children, and the architect of a creative offense in a state of flux. If he's not quizzing his daughter on vocabulary or watching his son's baseball practices, he's preparing for South Carolina's potent defense and the Outback Bowl.

Borges at 40 wouldn't recognize Borges today. He's a changed man with a better understanding of his life, his job and his effect on the athletes entrusted to him by their parents.

Jo Borges wasn't always sure her son Al would make the best father. Now, she'll admit she was wrong.

Al was a careless child, the last one out of the house for school, constantly forgetting his belt, backpack or shoes. He didn't even consider getting his driver's license until he was 18.

In high school, he bused tables at the local Elks Lodge but quickly lost that job when the owner cited Al's "lack of interest."

"It was evident that he had to be a coach because he wasn't worth a darn at anything else," joked Gordon, Al's father.

While his six siblings settled down, Al was making a cross-country coaching tour.

They always teased him, asking when he'd be ready to marry. He always skirted the question or brought up football -- which meant questions he knew he could answer.

But the truth was he had no interest in it. The X's and O's of the game filled his time, his interests, and he didn't look past that. He loved his nieces and nephews, and football was his companion.

"It put me in the position where I am now," Borges said. "I passed up a lot of things other people did -- getting married, having kids, a stable lifestyle -- for a more nomadic-type lifestyle. But to perpetuate my career I was footloose and fancy-free and I didn't have anyone other than myself to consider."

By the time he met his future wife, Nikki, he had moved six times in 20 years, worked with dozens of coaches, and coached hundreds of players.

The two met at a seminar. He was living in Los Angeles, and she in Tucson. For a bit more than a year, the two went back and forth to see one another before deciding to get married.

She was 16 years younger than Al and on a professional rise herself, within sports business and athletic departments. With each coaching stop Al made, Nikki found an equally impressive and time-consuming profession.

After being unable to have children, adoption seemed like the obvious choice.

He was 49 and the Auburn offensive coordinator when he and Nikki, then-Auburn assistant AD, adopted baby Cole.

Two years later, they adopted Mady.

"It seems to me that his priorities in life now are a bit different," Gordon said. "It gravitates to the fact that he thinks the sun rises and sets on his children. And you see that and know full well that before that it was football and nothing more."

As parents, Al and Nikki dove in head first.

They learned that Cole loved sports and war stories, while Mady like karate and Nikki's heels.

Cole was like Al. His attention span was incredible. Mady was more strong-willed, like Nikki. Her attention span was short, and her temper sometimes fast.

They learned that they couldn't discipline Mady by simply taking away a toy. She'd find something else to entertain herself just to prove to her parents that they couldn't break her. She was hardheaded, and they loved that.

"I'd rather have spunk that you have to tame rather than having to put it in them," Nikki said.

Al worked long hours but was a present, involved father. When he could take them to the park, he did. If he could scoop them up and go to Chuck E. Cheese's, he did. And when there was time at night, instead of TV he'd find a book and read to the children.

As the kids grew older, they learned about their parents and their jobs. Like any working parents, Al and Nikki did their best to keep work at work and home at home. But one Sunday after a tough San Diego State loss, Mady approached Nikki.

"I don't understand why Daddy isn't excited today," she said.

Like he had in defeats, Al went back to the drawing board, figuring out how he could make his children even bigger priorities.

His daughter could really care less about the high-profile job her dad has, as long as he holds her dolls at football practice when she's there.

When Brady Hoke came to Michigan and offered Borges a spot on his coaching staff, Borges took it.

It was an incredible opportunity.

Ann Arbor offered good schools for the kids, as well as several youth athletic and academic opportunities. At just 6 and 4, it would be the second move of the kids' lives. Hoke placed an emphasis on family at San Diego State, and Borges knew he'd do the same in Ann Arbor.

"He makes sure that he affords you every opportunity to see them," Borges said of Hoke. "It's not compromised. It isn't one of those deals of, 'We're losing now, we have to be here.' ... That's not the way it is everywhere."

Borges inherited an offense in chaos, a quarterback unlike anyone he'd ever worked with, and a fan base with the highest expectations.

But he started where he knew he must, with the players. Borges wanted to know them so he could coach them as best he could.

"When you're single you don't have an appreciation for what parents do for their kids," Borges said. "You tend to be a little callous to it. But when you have kids and you see them suffer in some way shape or form, something big or something small, then you become empathetic to the parents who send their kids here."

Denard Robinson's pain after losses became more real. Devin Gardner's anticipation while waiting in the wings became more evident. And the unit as a whole became an extension of his family. Borges wanted the players to know that.

On Tuesday nights, the 150-plus member Michigan football family comes together for a dinner. Every player, coach and staff member, and their children, sit and eat.

Cole will find Robinson, his favorite player, and tell him about his most recent baseball game, how he hasn't tied his shoes in a year, how he kneels after every touchdown, just like Robinson.

Mady will find Gardner, her favorite player, and tell him about her latest taekwondo move. He'll ask about her dolls and avoid the inevitable, as she'll eventually ask him to try out her latest taekwondo move.

Players will stop and ask Nikki about work or the kids.

"So much about what coaches stress is not just teaching the football pieces but helping them to become young men and to develop as student and within the community," Nikki said. "I think it gives all of that more credence when they see their coaches as family people, as dads, as husbands."

And that's what Borges has become -- not just a coach, but a dad and a husband. And his players see that.

"He always is checking in on us, making sure we're OK," Robinson said. "He's great at reading people, and I think that comes from his fatherly instincts. If one of us is down, he knows, and he'll try to pick us back up. At the same time, he's not afraid to give us some tough love, too. But that's what makes him a great coach."

Sounds like the perfect marriage of the old Borges and the new one.