Men's tennis coach in no-fly zone

BY BEN ROSS | MARCH 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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At first glance, one may not think Iowa men's tennis coach Steve Houghton and former NFL commentator John Madden have much in common. Houghton certainly isn't as large and imposing as the Hall of Fame coach, and being younger than Madden, he has a full head of dark hair. But like Madden, the tennis coach refuses to set foot on an airplane.

Houghton has flown before; he flew while he was on the Iowa tennis team in the late-60s and early '70s, which may have contributed to his problem. The squad traveled in "old World War II-like planes" that didn't handle turbulence as well as the aircraft of today. This could be why he says it isn't fear of flying that deters him from flying but a sick feeling he contracts while in the air, and in some cases, when entering an airport.

"It's a physical component," he said. "I would get sick, inner ear, nausea … I would get sick and vomit. It became psychological, I would get sick in airports before the flight. I dreaded flying and really got tired of it. I have no conscious fear of crashing; everyone knows that planes are safer than cars statistically."

To get around his discomfort, Houghton chooses to drive around the country, whether it is for road competitions or recruiting. (And no, he does not have a big bus with a picture of his face on it like Madden.)

And his wife, Leora Houghton, doesn't mind.

"I let him do his thing," she said. "I'm a more impatient person than my husband; I like to fly. This year I drove to Florida with him, I have options, we sort of let live as we do."

Houghton said his unique travel arrangements haven't impacted his coaching duties, either. He still travels in the States for recruiting, and assistant coach Steve Nash handles all of the international recruiting. When it comes to trips with the team, Houghton never misses more than a couple of days with the Hawkeyes, and he usually isn't that far behind them to the destinations, noting that with plane delays and connecting flights, the time difference isn't as big as one may think.

The players don't seem to read too much into their coach's quirk, and it certainly hasn't affected their ability on the court. Sophomore Garret Dunn doesn't think much of his coach's travel situation and says the team hasn't really asked him about it either.

"We don't really think about it," he said. "It's just an idiosyncrasy of his; everyone has them. No one really knows why [hedoesn't fly], but it's not that big of a difference."

Houghton said the last time he flew was in the mid-80s. That's more than 20 years of being on the road, with local radio, gas station fill-ups, and fast food sprinkled in. It's hard to imagine what number Houghton's odometer reads with a recent road trip to Florida for spring break and trips to California and Las Vegas in past years. It's even harder to imagine being on the road for hours on end without someone to have a conversation with.

Leora Houghton sometimes makes the trek to different parts of the country with her husband, but more often than not the coach of 30 years is on his own, which doesn't seem to faze him.

"I really don't mind it at all," Houghton said. "I am easily entertained by radio and talk shows. I obviously like driving, and I like the scenery and the slow pace of a car. If people think I'm psychotic, they're probably right."

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