AKRON, Ohio — The cafeteria inside Manchester High School smells like garlic.
It’s the night of the Manchester football program’s annual father-son lasagna dinner, a new-ish annual tradition bringing generations of Panther football players together on the Monday evening of the last week of the regular season.
Generations. Really. And only the current team and coaching staff are invited.
Over in the corner of the cafeteria, the oldest guy in the room is wearing the biggest smile. And it’s not that Jim France is admiring his living legacy, remembering the program’s accomplishments listed on the back of the t-shirts many of the attendees are wearing or even talking football at all. He’s simply enjoying a few minutes with two of his favorite things.
At this particular moment, France has a big plate of food in front of him and his grandson, JoJo, just a few feet away.
Life is good.
It’s been that way for a long time; a really LONG time. France has been the football coach at Manchester since 1971. He’s been the principal since 1985, the year he was forced to step away from coaching because the superintendent told him holding both jobs would be “educationally unsound.”
He remembers that conversation, and he remembers his lunch with the superintendent shortly after that 1985 football season, when Manchester went 2-8 and he was asked back for the 1986 season on a one-year contract, a verbal agreement of which either side could opt out – no questions asked – after any season if the arrangement wasn’t best for Manchester Local Schools.
In an educational system heavier on evaluations and ratings than ever, the numbers say it’s worked for France and a school system that perennially grades well on local and state levels. A recent, thorough dig through the archives by a school district employee confirms that an 8-2 regular season this fall makes France’s record as Manchester’s coach 362-97-3.
Saturday night, the Panthers play in the state playoffs for the 21st time since 1989 when they host Youngstown Ursuline in the stadium that’s been bearing France’s name for more than 20 years. He appreciates his up-close parking spot but doesn’t think much about the name on the marquee and doesn’t much like when the PA announcer calls him Ohio’s winningest active coach during his pregame announcements.
“It’s embarrassing and I wish he’d stop doing that,” France said. “Two-hundred (wins), 300, that just means I’m old. I really don’t care about records. I have a wall full of (pictures and trophies) in my office and at home, and they all mean something. I have those to remember and be proud of. I have a lot of great relationships, a lot of great memories.
“Winning is always better than losing, but win records don’t mean much to me.”
Those generations do. He half-boasts that he’s still “pretty dog gone good” at remembering people’s names, and that comes in handy: There are 49 players on Manchester’s roster for Saturday night’s first-round playoff game. Thirteen of them have fathers who also played for France.
Three of them are brothers who just happen to live right across the street from the stadium. France’s son, Jason, who’s Manchester’s offensive coordinator and JoJo’s dad, lives just down the road in the other direction. Defensive coordinator Jim Robinson started as a freshman coach in 1973, was promoted to the varsity three years later and has been on staff ever since except for 1985, when he became assistant principal and, like the new principal, had to watch football season from the bleachers.
Another assistant, Scott Cantrell, teaches English at the high school and is approaching 30 years of coaching football. Now-retired teacher Vic Nicodemo coached the freshmen and scouted for the varsity “for probably 25 years,” France said – he tends to round lots of numbers to 25 – and four other assistants all played for France; the least-tenured member of the staff is approaching 10 years.
Together, they’ve kept Manchester a very big fish in the small-town high school football pond. Together, they’ve consistently made Christmas for the printers of the state playoff t-shirts, eaten that lasagna on the last Monday in October alongside their sons and grandsons and helped each other when the days, years and names run together.
“We had a guy named Buff whose son plays on this year’s team, and as the name would suggest he was a very mean, hard-nosed tough football player,” Jim France said. “There are days I have to call his son ‘Puff,’ if you know what I mean. The ones whose dads I coached, I usually start calling them by their dad’s name when they’re freshmen – just to let them know that I’m watching, that I know who they are.
“The coaches, I think that 98 percent of the time we all get along. And the other times, we usually end up laughing about them later.”
The home locker room inside James R. France Stadium smells something awful.
Like, indescribably awful.
It smells like sweat and grass and shoes that have been in the locker room maybe not for 25 years, but at least for 25 months. The smell doesn’t matter to any of the inhabitants, though, as they pound each other’s shoulder pads, make one last check of their wristbands and ankle tape and occasionally let out screams of “LET’S GO!”
It’s about 20 minutes before last week’s regular-season finale, and the locker room goes completely silent the second Jim France comes to the middle. He starts by asking the players to reflect on last week, when they lost on the road amidst a flurry of turnovers and miscues.
“You all read on the computer that we already clinched a spot in the playoffs, and you went out there and played like you really had it figured out,” France said. “Forget about the dog gone playoffs. Forget about anything else but right now. That team over there (Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy) can get in the playoffs if they beat us. They want this game. They can make their season by beating you.
“Go out there and play with pride. I don’t give a darn about the playoffs or anything else. I give a darn about you guys going out there and playing Manchester football with some toughness. We win with blocking and tackling and having a good attitude.”
It’s always been a no frills program – nothing shiny, team-first and apparently no air freshener in the locker room. An ex-Marine who studied the methods of Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant, Manchester always played straight-ahead, power football. T-formation, blitzing 5-3 defense, emphasis on blocking and tackling and the old belief that the three things can happen when the offense chooses the forward pass, two of which are bad.
“I still believe that,” France said. “But the game has changed, and we’ve had to adjust with the times a little bit. We have enjoyed some success throwing the ball, and spreading out has helped our running game. We don’t have the tough, nasty (offensive) linemen we used to. You have to do some different things to run the ball; help your linemen, let the backs see the holes.
“You can spread ’em out, you can speed ’em up, you can give it a fancy name, but it’s still blocking and tackling. Any kid that’s ever played here will say there are three things we have preached, that it always comes down to blocking and tackling and having a good attitude.
“We want to be an aggressive defense. The spread has been a challenge to that…it kills you if you want to blitz or put too many guys up front. But even in a spread game that’s 42-40, it’s still fundamentals. Have all the schemes and fancy stuff you want. Fumbles still kill you. Missed tackles still kill you.”
The Panthers now line up in the shotgun and the pistol – France calls it “that fancy snap” – as part of their base offense. The other tenets of the program remain unchanged: Underachievers aren’t welcome, overachievers are as necessary as discipline and toughness, gratitude and attitude. For 43 years, France has been running many of the same practice drills and focusing on the same details, but his belief in not hitting too much or exhausting the players at practice remains.
“I learned a long time ago that we only have so many football players at a school our size,” France said. “If you’re beating them up during the week, you’re not going to have much chance on Friday nights.”
Those Friday nights still bring the community together, players past and future gathered in their red and black and to watch the present group. France doesn’t like talking about the best players or the best of those 362 wins as much as he likes talking about the journey, seeing the familiar faces and the pride the entire community takes in the program.
“I’m a normal person who’s been blessed with a good situation,” he said. “I guess we’ve done something right here, but how do you measure that? I’m proud of the kids who have played here, the guys who have coached here, the people who have given their time to help us.
“For me, the school board here has always been great. They let the principals run the buildings and the coaches coach and they don’t nitpick. The superintendents have always been understanding of the importance of sports. I’ve been in an ideal situation. Most years we have good kids who might not be the most athletically gifted but they love football and care about each other and they want to win.”
France has coached players who have gone to become community leaders, doctors, bankers, lawyers, ministers, policemen and paramedics. Many have gone on to teach and coach. Former Panthers are now business owners who support the program, accountants and salesmen who check scores from afar, common folk and even common criminals. Chances are, France remembers their names – and they remember his.
“My dad now is a lot more appreciative of things, a lot calmer,” Jason France said. “Football is not life or death anymore, which I sometimes forget, but he’s changed. He’s enjoying it. He really likes going to school in the morning. He really likes standing in front of the kids at practice and talking about how it’s not just about winning and losing. I think seeing second generations come through and maybe realizing he can’t do this forever, he appreciates the transfer, the carryover, that people still care and tell him thank you for things he did 20 years ago.
“I know he’s proud of the relationships he’s built with other coaches and administrators. He loves every day because he’s a people person and he loves being around the kids and practices. I think he’s probably nicer to everyone now but the referees.”
Jim France’s face still turns the color of his shirt on some game nights, but he admits he sees things differently now. Some of that is a sign of the times – “I don’t grab kids by the facemask anymore because it’s not worth the crap I have to put up with the next week,” he said – and some is that he does appreciate the little things more than he used to.
“I’m just proud of a lot of kids who have come through here,” he said. “I want kids 10 and 20 years from now to look back and be proud of what they did, football-wise, but also to have learned something that helps in some other part of their lives.
“Most of the time, when I see guys way on down the road, they bring up some halftime talk or some timeout conversation or something some goofball did in practice. It’s not usually about a specific game or some play, but guys tend to remember if I got really angry or sat somebody’s butt on the bench and sometimes, later, they realize that helped them. I like when they see the light.”
“Wins? It’s nice to win. You always want to win as many as you can and some more than others, but I’m really more proud that we have a program that kids turn into men and still look back and say, ‘Hey, that was a really good deal.’”
Only once in those 20 prior playoff appearances has Manchester advanced to the state championship game. That was in 1997, when the Panthers lost to Germantown Valley View in the Div. IV state title game in five overtimes.
Five overtimes. In the state title game.
The all-time record for wins by an Ohio high school football coach is 381, held by ex-Ironton coach Bob Lutz. France immediately cuts off any discussion of that. He says he’s very proud of what Manchester football has become but doesn’t measure it in numbers. He’d love to win a state championship but said “that wouldn’t change what we’ve done over the years. If you stink for five years then win one, you still won it. And I’d love to have that ring, but if we stunk for five years I’d ask somebody to kick me out.
“If we don’t ever win a state title, I’m cool with it. I’ll be disappointed. It would be really, really, really great to have one. We had a really great chance at that once and it stings that we didn’t win it, but I’m still very proud of that team. Getting all that way was next to a miracle. I won’t spend the rest of whatever life I have left beating myself up over not having a state championship, no.
“There’s too much to be proud of, too much to do to try to win the next game.”
The temperatures are colder. Leaves are everywhere, some burning in nearby backyards. It’s a privilege to be practicing in November, France reminds his players, because the alternative is turning in your equipment and “finding something else to do.”
That part might scare France more than he’s ever scared a 16-year old who just got 15 yards for clipping.
He’s been on this job a long time – 43 years doesn’t round down to 25 the way it used to — and every year, those 13 wrought-iron stairs up to the coaches office seem a little steeper. For a long time he’s told everyone who’s asked that as long as he’s happy and everyone’s healthy, he has no plans to do anything else.
His wife, Nancy, beat breast cancer a few years back. They celebrated 49 years of marriage earlier this year. JoJo France is an eighth grader, a year away from officially being part of the program he grew up in, just like his father and uncle and his honorary uncles all across town did. Retirement is at least something France thinks about, right?
“I turned 70 a couple months ago,” France said as if it was more a task than a milestone. “My family insisted I have this goofy party and stuff. And it was great, but it’s the first time I really ever thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m really 70 years old.’
“As long as I can get around and not be a hindrance, I want to be the principal and the coach. If we can be successful and the kids still want to listen to an old man, I don’t have any timeline. I’m having a lot of fun.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, he’s waiting for JoJo,’ but that’s not true. I’m not sure I want to coach him; I might screw him up. I might cause him more problems than he needs. I think he might be pretty good one day and maybe I’ll just want to watch him. But if I’m still feeling good and he doesn’t mind me being there, that would be pretty cool.
“I’ve had it pretty good here. I think I’ve been fair and the school has been good. I don’t get to pick how the seasons end and I don’t know if I’ll get to pick how this ends. Health issues sneak up. And even if I stay healthy, they might just change the locks on me one day.”
France said he understands today’s high school football players relate to their younger coaches better than they relate to him, but his messages are mostly the same as they were 30 and 40 years ago.
“He talks about character, dedication and pride,” one of this year’s team captains, Dakota Craig, said. “We look up to him. We trust him. Being a captain is something I worked (five years) for, to earn his respect.
“He seemed very intimidating when I was younger. I thought I was over that until last year in the first round of the playoffs when I intercepted a ball on (Manchester’s own) one-yard line on fourth down. I was all pumped up and came running off expecting praise and there he was asking me, ‘Are you an idiot?’
You’re really not a Manchester football player until Coach France calls you an idiot. Or a meat head. Or a big dummy. Mostly, they’re terms of endearment. A quick survey of dozens of former players shows that most got the France facemask grab at one point, most got called a meat head and that most had a more permanent nickname. That goes for the coaches, too.
Robinson, who has a PhD and is known by the younger generation of players as “Doc,” is still “Rocket” Robinson to France in their 40th year of working together.
“We’re like the Odd Couple,” Robinson said, chuckling because he realizes he dated himself with that reference. “I think to say we get along almost of all the time is a pretty fair assessment, but I tell him I’m going to divorce him soon.”
France’s nickname is Koach, and there’s a simple story to that. Some years back – maybe 25 – his kids got him a custom license plate for a birthday present. The DMV sent Jim France a letter saying that “C-O-A-C-H” was taken, but he could replace the first letter with a ‘K.’
“That was awfully nice of them to spend the 65 bucks to get that for me,” France said. “They forgot to tell me that I had to pay for it after the first year.”
Jason France said his father “is still into that Marine stuff, still aims for perfection, but he likes talking to the kids. He likes the ones he can trust and joke with.”
The goofiness, of the man and the program, comes out in the good times. He often tells his teams that upcoming opponents are so good that “we’ll be lucky to get a first down,” and even through all the winning he still manages to get his players to embrace the underdog role.
As his players went through their early-practice drills before an especially big game a few years back, Jim France walked around yelling: “The Crusaders are pretty darn good this year. Everybody’s talking about the Crusaders. The Crusaders are telling everybody this is their year. If we don’t come ready to play our best game, the Crusaders are going to kick our butts.”
One of the team captains went through his drill, then coyly approached his coach with a gentle reminder.
“The team we’re playing on Friday, Coach, they’re not called the Crusaders,” the player said.
France never flinched.
“Well,” he said, “from what I hear, they think they’re gonna crusade all over us on Friday night.”
The crusade continues at Manchester. The years change, the opponents change, the (first) names change, but the model does not.
“What makes a Manchester football player? I think toughness, attitude, work habits,” France said. “The better ones have been willing to work and play tough, play hurt – can you say that anymore? Dig deep, you know? Attitude has a lot to do with it. Will to win.
“We have good assistant coaches, and I just kind of try to keep the players in the right direction. It’s tough, hard-nosed kids doing what they’re asked and getting maybe a little more out of themselves than they might think they have. It may not be great athletes. There are a lot of years we have won games we shouldn’t have.
“We don’t change much. We’ve changed with the times a little bit but it’s still about what we believe in. I think coaching is overrated, to tell you the truth. I think you can win with kids who work their butts off and are tough and want to be great, and that coaches can do things with those kids to make them better than what they are.”
Before this new spread look was Manchester’s offense, it was a series of plays and concepts Jason France had drawn up his garage, added to at coaching clinics and while watching games on TV, and eventually taken from pad and paper to the muddy practice field and to Manchester junior-varsity games. At first it was just a package called Lightning, and Jason kept telling his father that with a promising sophomore quarterback named Nick Peyakov coming, it could work.
And Jim France watched every pass thinking that two of the three things that could happen were bad, but the offense eventually worked.
Eventually. It took all of two turnovers for Jim France to temporarily bench Peyakov and bottle the Lightning offense in Peyakov’s first game as a starter. Peyakov came back late, the other team’s best player got hurt and Manchester won on kind of a miracle. The Panthers won the next week, too, against another good team on another semi-miracle and a late, long touchdown pass.
By the end of that season, the Panthers had actually taken to the offense. They ran the table in the regular season, scored more than 100 total points in their first two playoff games and didn’t lose until the regional final, when they ran into a superior Chagrin Falls team and that particular crusade ended.
Blocking, tackling and Lightning got to stay. Peyakov has graduated, but the spread has evolved. There’s also a “Hog,” package, too, with two tight ends and two big running backs, and Manchester has used that a good amount this season.
Like, every time Jim tells Jason to use it.
A little over two weeks ago, some of the Manchester youth football coaches asked Jim France if he’d take a few minutes to speak to the two youth teams that had qualified for the playoffs in their local league on the practice field, not coincidentally right in front of the sign that reads ‘Tradition never graduates.’
France did, of course, and the eyes of a bunch of 9-12 year-old football players – many the sons of former Manchester Panthers – remained fixed on a coaching legend who’d rather be known for his homemade wing sauce. He talked to them about how effort can overcome superior size and talent, how the opportunity to play for a championship at any level is special and how they should always be appreciative of their parents and coaches and community support. He told that them Manchester football has been built on toughness and hard work, and that any football game is usually decided not by individual play or “fancy stuff,” but by two principles he’s been stressing for a very long time.
Blocking and tackling.
Zac Jackson graduated from Manchester High School in 1998. He doesn’t have kids, but if he ever does, there’s a chance they’ll one day play for Jim France. Follow him on Twitter at @FSOhioZJackson
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