It was a Friday evening in September of 2008, and Matt Murray, then a senior lineman on the Tyrone football team, did what most young people were doing then, an action even more commonplace ten years later.
He sat back at his locker and checked his phone for texts and messages.
What he heard was alarming. But it wasn’t an isolated incident.
Someone had called and left a threatening voicemail, which may not in itself be all that unusual. Teenagers harass each other in all kinds of ways, and in 2008 the cell phone was becoming a popular method for doing just that.
However, this message wasn’t left by a disgruntled ex-girlfriend or an angry buddy from school. It was left by an adult, and the subject of the message was football.
Just minutes earlier the Golden Eagles had lost to Clearfield 35-34 at Hyde Park. The game was a classic – high powered offenses, back and forth action, dramatic plays – and it ended when Johnny Shaffer’s 46-yard field goal attempt with a minute left fell short of the uprights.
The loss snapped a record-setting regular season winning streak that had reached 35 games, and it crushed every player in the Tyrone locker room.
What those players may not have anticipated was the way it affected members of their fan base. Some, like the caller on Murray’s voicemail, were disgusted.
“It was along the lines of, ‘You guys are a disgrace to Tyrone football and all its tradition,’” Murray, now a Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps stationed at Camp Lejeune, recalled. “My locker was next to Johnny Shaffer’s, and he had gotten a voice mail that had something along the same lines. Both of us got coach and let him listen, and he said these guys are low-lifes, don’t worry about it, move on.”
As John Franco counseled the boys, another call came through on Murray’s phone, and the voice on the other end made it clear he felt the loss was an embarrassment.
“(The caller) said we were a disgrace and we didn’t deserve to be wearing Tyrone uniforms,” Murray said. “We had speculated on who it might have been, but we never completely figured it out.”
Both calls, Murray said, came from grown men, and they were clear demonstrations of the darker side of the expectations the football team had built during one of the more magical periods in the program’s history.
You see the dark side of it. In small towns, during the fall, you have high school football and not much else.Matt Murray
By then, Tyrone had been a regional powerhouse for more than a decade. The Golden Eagles had played in two state championships, winning one of them in 1999, and gone to the PIAA Final Four on four occasions. These were good times. Friday night at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field was a party, and everyone was going. Big games on the road often drew larger crowds of Tyrone fans than the home-standers. Tyrone football was something young boys wanted to be a part of, often dreaming of the day they would don that black jersey, strap up the white helmet with the orange “T”, and if they were lucky apply the eye black smeared like war paint when the playoffs rolled around.
The flip side of that, as Barry Switzer said of his Oklahoma teams in the 1980s, is by winning the way Tyrone did from 1995 through 2011 you are creating a monster that has to be fed. And when the monster misses a meal, it gets angry.
“You see the dark side of it,” Murray said. “In small towns, during the fall, you have high school football and not much else. When you’re good, it means more than it would to someone outside of that atmosphere. So when things don’t go as expected, it can make people bitter.”
To the players in 2008, the Clearfield game was a heart-breaking loss in a game they expected to win. Few of them at the time even knew exactly what they had been a part of creating while tearing down a record that had stood for 60 years.
“I don’t remember anyone ever discussing it,” said Brock Anders, the team’s center when it broke the record in 2007 who now works as an accountant.
In other words, it was business as usual for the Golden Eagles, but the 35-game winning streak was far from typical. In fact, it broke a record that had stood since 1948, when the program built a string of success that reached 29 consecutive wins.
It was a run that began on October 8, 2004 with a 35-13 victory over Bellefonte, and it would last for parts of five different seasons. It included many of the blowout wins that became standard procedure during the reign of John Franco, as well as some of the most memorable finishes in program history.
Three different quarterbacks helped construct the streak, while five different running backs gained more than 1,000 yards in a season over that span. One team won a District championship, while another came up just short.
When the run started Facebook was a fledgling social networking website just eight months old, and Mark Zuckerberg was relatively unknown. Barack Obama was campaigning in a senate race in Illinois, and the iPhone was three years from its U.S. release. By the time it was finished Americans were using apps on mobile phones to access a new participatory form of technology called social media, and the country was on the verge of electing its first African American president.
The record winning spree allowed the Franco-Era Golden Eagles to catapult themselves past the star teams of the Steve Jacobs era, establishing once and for all that the greatest era in Tyrone football history not the “Golden Years” of the 1930s and 40s, but the modern era.
However, as the streak took shape, no one was contemplating record-setting runs into the history books. Instead, the winning streak began where all such streaks begin – in the aftermath of a loss, and this loss was particularly painful. On October 1, 2004, a Tyrone team lauded as highly as any group since the state championship team of 1999, a defending District champion, slipped up, and nobody was happy about it.
OCTOBER 1, 2004
The Golden Eagles were good in 2004, good enough, in fact, to compete for a state championship. They were coming off a season in 2003 when they won a District 6 2A championship with a team composed mostly of juniors, and through four weeks nobody could come close. Tyrone won each game by an average margin of 29 points and surrendered only four touchdowns.
On October 1, Philipsburg-Osceola was better.
The undefeated Mounties, bolstered by a rowdy home crowd, stunned Tyrone with a 41-yard touchdown pass to Lou LaFuria on their first possession, and then watched Tyrone unravel every time it had a chance to steal back momentum. The Eagles reached as far as the Mounties’ 25 on each of their seven possessions and scored only once on a late touchdown in the fourth quarter by Brinton Mingle. Even then, with throngs of Tyrone fans who had made the trip up the mountain agitated to a frenzy, the Golden Eagles collapsed, allowing Tyler Good to penetrate into the backfield on the PAT and block what would have been a game-tying kick.
The steady Leonard Wilson, then a junior in his second year as a starter, threw two picks. P-O’s lone score came after a facemask penalty had wiped out a third-down stop.
When Ben Gummo’s 42-yard field goal attempt with 39 ticks remaining came up about three yards short, Philipsburg fans had to be held back from rushing onto the playing surface. Once the clock did reach all zeroes it was bedlam as the P-O band, student section and several hundred fans stampeded Memorial Field.
The Tyrone locker room in the aftermath was a quiet and lonely place.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a foul taste in my mouth,” said Tyler Gillmen, a sophomore defensive back in 2004 who is now in his final year of anesthesia residency. “We knew we were the better team, and we had just lost to people who worked harder than we did that night. It’s one of the most gut-wrenching losses I have ever been a part of. When we got to practice on Monday there were newspaper clippings from the game all around the locker room. We took it as seriously as anyone could.”
If Tyrone’s players took the loss seriously, they may not have done the same with the Mounties before the game began. P-O was an up-and-coming team, but the Eagles had seen this story before: an upstart looking to make a name for itself with a signature win over the region’s premier program. The script usually went the way it had 10 months earlier, when Tyrone had embarrassed the Mounties 58-14 in their first trip to the District playoffs in more than a decade.
“We didn’t take them seriously,” said Terry Tate, a star center and defensive tackle in 2004 who would later be named the Pennsylvania Football News Defensive Player of the Year. “They were good, but I remember thinking, ‘It’s Philipsburg. They’re always supposed to be good, and they end up getting crushed.’”
No one took the loss harder than Wilson, who felt personal responsibility in Tyrone’s fall.
“It was one of my worst games ever. I threw two picks and gave up another touchdown on defense,” recalled Wilson, who was responsible for covering LaFuria on the Mounties’ lone score. “Talent wasn’t the issue. We had a lot of hype going into that season coming off a District championship and a lot of expectations. I think the loss turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it motivated us.”
What Wilson didn’t know then, what no one could have known, is just how clearly that one game set in motion the events of the next four seasons. If the core of Franco’s philosophy for winning began with taking each challenger as seriously as an opponent in a state championship game, the Philipsburg-Osceola loss laid out in black and white just how significant that mindset was. Stumbling against the Mounties demonstrated precisely what can happen when the acutely honed focus Franco was demanding wasn’t there.
“After that loss, guys realized we can lose, and we needed to start working harder to avoid that feeling again,” said Tate. “I remember the bus ride home that night. Everyone was like, we’ll get another shot at them in the playoffs, and it’s going to be a different story.”
It would be years before anyone involved with the Tyrone program walked off a field feeling like they had somehow shortchanged themselves by not giving an opponent the attention it deserved. Credit for that began at the top with Coach Franco, and the man who left Tyrone in 2011 as the winningest coach in program history may be the single most important factor in the record-setting streak. After all, he was the one constant over the five seasons it lasted.
However, there were other influences, as well. Tyrone had an amazing array of talent pass through the program during those seasons, some good enough to set records that stand to this day, others good enough to play on the next level in college.
But by then the Eagles had also established something much greater than talent, which comes and goes from year to year, and that was, in Franco’s words, a “culture” that went beyond X’s and O’s. When players stepped on the field playing for Tyrone, there was an expectation of not only success but dominance, and it was a swagger that was very real. “Some of the teams we played were beat before they ever got on the field,” said Franco.
The culture permeated the program so much so that by the time the streak was in its fifth season it was clear that it hardly mattered who was suiting up where. Seniors with zero varsity experience were stepping into major roles and playing like veterans. Other players changed positions time and time again and excelled despite their inexperience in the place they found themselves at the moment. Running backs became linemen, receivers became running backs, seniors who had never lettered grew into conference all-stars, and all the while egos were neatly checked at the doorway of the field house.
A last piece of the puzzle is something unique to high school football and that is the bond the players had developed among themselves over a decade of playing sports and going to school together. Call it camaraderie, call it brotherhood, it impacted the program as much as any drilled workout or Thursday walk-through. The players felt a responsibility on many levels – to their coach, to the tradition, to the community – but none of that trumped the accountability they felt to each other.
Any one of those factors can contribute to winning football games. Great coaches make average teams better all the time, and tremendous talent often trumps everything else. But what Tyrone had from 2004 through 2008 was what Gillmen referred to as “the perfect storm,” a period of time when Franco and the Eagles had it all – coaching, talent, selflessness, culture, unity, and players who understood their roles and played them to perfection.
With that in place, all they needed was to put it together on the field, and the desire to do just that took on an added intensity on October 2, 2004.
WINNING WITH TALENT
The talent we had was definitely a factor. There was so much depth at different positions, it was really a next-man-up mentality. And it just carried over year to year.Johnny Franco
The Golden Eagles in 2004 knew they were good. Up and down the roster you saw all-state players, all-conference players, record-setters, players who left an indelible mark on the program. While Franco was a master of getting the most from what he had to work with, sometimes drawing blood from a stone, it didn’t take much with the Eagles in 2004.
At quarterback, Wilson was coming into his own after sliding into a full-time job there as a sophomore. When he turned around he could hand it off to Brice Mertiff, who ran for 2,000 yards that season and remains the program’s No. 2 rusher all-time, or Brinton Mingle, a beast of a fullback who moved to tailback a year later and gained 1,000 yards. His top receiver was Ben Gummo, who is the only Tyrone player to make first-team all-conference at three different positions in one season, but he also had big targets like Josh Crabtree and tight end Tad Chamberlain.
In front of Wilson was a group that was referred to in that time as the biggest line in Tyrone history. While that may be true, there were no definitive numbers to verify the claim. Instead, there was the eye test and a roster, where heights and weights were there for the glancing. Tate, who would win a PIAA heavyweight wrestling championship later that school year, was the center, flanked at tackle by Ralph VanAllman (295 pounds) and Mike Jones (250 pounds); Ron Miller (255 pounds) played at one guard, while at the other the diminutive Jake Houck (190 pounds) carried on a Franco tradition of mobile and speedy guards who could pull.
“The 2004 team was probably the most complete Tyrone team next to the 1996 team,” Tate said. “To my left, I had a 270-pound guard; to his left he had a 300-pound tackle. Our line was big.”
Tyrone ran for 258 yards per game behind its massive front, but the group, along with other titans like Tyler Hoover (300 pounds) and Robert Emigh (210 pounds), was just as dominant on defense, contributing to 25 sacks and 81 tackles for loss.
However, what’s striking about the 2004 team is not so much the amazing array of talent it possessed but that it wasn’t all that unusual. If you’re going to win at small school football with the consistency Tyrone was winning in those days, then you have to have the best athletes in school playing on the team. During that era, all the best athletes wanted to play football.
“Tyrone had some of the most athletic people in the state playing football,” said Tate. “Matt Sharer (Class of 1998) may be the best athlete ever to come out of Tyrone. I don’t know if that’s even arguable. Scotty Gummo (2000) was the same way.”
While Sharer and Gummo were from a tick earlier on the football timeline than Tate and the streak, his point remains solid. Players were always coming down the pipeline, and they were hungry to produce.
So take a coach with the proven track record and work ethic of Franco and give him the best athletes in a school district that draws from parts of three counties. Something good is going to happen, and from 2004 through 2006 it was championship football on a level rarely seen in the borough, which is quite a statement for a program that has played for a state championship four times.
As 2004 progressed beyond the loss to P-O, the talent gap between Tyrone and its opposition became more apparent each week. The team scored at least 34 points in each of its next four games to close out the regular season 8-1 and claim a No. 2 seed in the District playoffs.
While the story of the 35-game regular season winning streak ends there for the Golden Eagles of 2004, the story of a program overflowing with talent is only heightened when you consider what Tyrone did that year in the postseason.
To start, Tyrone got its long-awaited rematch with Philipsburg-Osceola in the District 6 semifinals and, playing at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field, atoned for its earlier gaff with a 34-0 win. Wilson went 6-for-12 and threw a pair of touchdowns. Mertiff, held to 39 yards in the earlier game with the Mounties, ran for 142 yards and two more scores. The defense limited the Mounties to 139 yards.
“It was nice to get a little revenge later that season,” said Wilson.
The Eagles would win the program’s ninth District championship a week later with a 15-6 win over Bishop McCort, a game in which Ben Gummo, who had completely torn the meniscus in his left knee against P-O, kicked three field goals, despite being medically cleared to play just a day before the championship. Just one more on the list of incredible athletes moving through the system during the era, Gummo would later walk on at Penn State.
That set up a showdown with WPIAL champion Seton LaSalle the following week in Monroeville, a game that clearly demonstrated for all Western Pennsylvania that the talent pool in Tyrone was on par with just about anybody. The Rebels had one of the top offenses in the country, averaging 38 points per game led by 3,000-yard passer Bill Stull, who would later start at Pitt, and Carmen Connolly, who that season set a state record for receptions.
The game ended with a 28-7 Tyrone victory, but beyond the first quarter it was in many ways a blowout, partly because of scheming and execution – Tyrone’s defense limited Stull to 11-for-20 passing, picking him off three times while sacking him on three other occasions – but also because they could match the Rebels man for man. Tyrone’s line dominated LaSalle on both sides of the ball, and when the Rebels sold out to contain Mertiff, Mingle was there to batter them for crucial first downs and yards after contact. He finished with 118 yards on 23 carries.
“Coach Franco had a way of instilling confidence in his players,” said Gillmen. “I remember seeing him in the locker room after the Seton LaSalle game and he just smiled at me and said, ‘I told you we would win!’”
The season ended a week later with a 21-17 loss to Grove City in one of the more notorious games in program history. After holding Grove City on a late fourth down stop – the officials initially signaled Tyrone had gained possession of the ball – the head referee knelt down to measure the distance of the ball to the chains with an index card, and on that one Grove City had done enough by a matter of millimeters to move the chains. They would score one play later and steal a berth in Hershey, but while it wasn’t the way anyone had envisioned the season ending, the cupboard was far from bare, and just one season later Tyrone was even more dominant during the regular season than it had been in 2004.
Wilson and Mingle were both back in 2005, when Tyrone produced a 9-0 regular season before being upset in the District semifinals by Bishop McCort. Added to that mix was the coach’s son Johnny, who later received a scholarship to play for Army before transferring to IUP, as well as a quickly-maturing Gillmen, who would play four seasons at St. Francis.
These were players who were studs in the competitive arena no matter what the game. Tyler Golden, who was the Eagles’ starter at quarterback in 2006, started as a freshman at Lock Haven University, along with his favorite high school target, Justin Schopp. When injuries became a problem, Golden moved over to the baseball diamond, where he was a four-year member of the Haven’s pitching staff.
“The talent we had was definitely a factor,” said Johnny Franco. “There was so much depth at different positions, it was really a next-man-up mentality. And it just carried over year to year. It seemed like when we lost a good player to graduation, the next just stepped up and did the job. Leonard seemed like he would be irreplaceable, and then Golden came in and had an incredible year, followed by Levi as a sophomore.”
There were players everywhere, with 22 players from the streak era making all-state teams on one level or another.
“An all-time quarterback like Leonard graduates, and just like that Tyler Golden steps in, plays one season, and is a scholarship quarterback,” said Gillmen. “It wasn’t like this was the only scenario, either. Leonard, Johnny Franco, Tyler Hoover, and I were all East-West All-Stars. We not only had an incredible system built by Coach Franco, but we had some real-deal players ascribing to the system.”
In 2005, Wilson became the program’s all-time passing yardage leader, later earning a scholarship to play at Bucknell, as Tyrone bulldozed its competition in a 9-0 regular season. The Golden Eagles scored more than 40 points five times and allowed more than two touchdowns only once. They shut out two teams and limited three others to a single, late score.
Every game was a mismatch. On paper the team’s toughest opponent should have been Bellefonte in Week 6, a team that, like Tyrone, had come to the season’s midpoint with a perfect 5-0 record.
The Golden Eagles led that one 17-0 by halftime and went on to win 41-6, beginning the backside to a season Tyrone would close out by winning three of four games scoring at least 40. When it came to the regular season in 2005, it was apples to oranges, and the streak grew to 13 straight games. There was no competition.
That all changed in the playoffs, when the Golden Eagles made it only as far as the semifinals, a point they reached only because they were able to miraculously overcome a 30-13 halftime deficit against Penn Cambria in Round One and win 47-30. They lost a week later to McCort in overtime, 23-20, a team that, like Tyrone, had an amazing array of talented players, many of whom would go on to play on the next level.
If you ask Franco now, he says the reason for the loss to McCort was because “2005 was such a rebuilding team,” and in a way that’s true. That enormous line from 2004 was gone, and to replace it meant starting from scratch. He faced a similar challenge in 2006, but this time he was losing most of his starting skill players as well.
But Gillmen was ready to assume a bigger role in the offense than he had ever done before. Hoover was a senior on the offensive and defensive lines, and at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, he had Penn State recruiter Mike McQueary over several times to personally watch him in action. There were still incredible players who were better than everyone they faced from the minute they got into a three-point stance.
It was into that landscape that Johnny Franco and Tyler Golden were unleashed.
Johnny, the coach’s son, was born to play the game of football, and it’s quite possible that Tyrone was the ultimate spot for a player of his demeanor. He had run for more than 400 yards and averaged nearly eight yards per carry in 2005, so it wasn’t like he was an unknown commodity, but he was clearly the backup to Gillmen when the season began, until Gillmen was struck with a case of mono.
It was an illness that could have opened the door for Franco to become the featured back; instead he kicked it down.
In his first game as a starter her ran for 163 yards and a touchdown in a win over Bellwood-Antis. He also returned a kickoff 57 yards to set up another score.
Franco would go on to run for at least 100 yards in 8 of 10 regular season games before gaining 370 yards in three playoffs games. He finished the season with 1,651 yards on the ground and 175 receiving, all while Gillmen, who missed the first three games, ran for 915 yards with 158 yards in receptions.
Meanwhile, Golden was orchestrating a season that was, at the time, the second-best year for a Tyrone passer in school history.
Despite having never started a game or taken a significant varsity snap before his senior season, Golden was magnificent. Leading an offense that ran the ball 527 times, Golden completed 79 of 142 passes for 1,479 yards and 14 touchdowns while throwing only three interceptions.
“It was definitely a special time,” said Golden, who is now working with prison systems installing computer software. “Especially for me, stepping in to fill the shoes of Leonard in my first and only year as a starter, you feel you’ve got to keep it going. There can’t be any lag from one season to the next.”
Golden’s welcome-to-the-world moment came in Week 2 against Huntingdon. Yes, the B-A win had been nice, but it came in the rain and the mud, the entire Bellwood community was reeling from the loss of Coach Randy Miller, who had died during game week after battling cancer, and Golden didn’t do much to set the world on fire, completing just 1 of 8 passes.
So there were still questions and concerns: of course Tyrone could run the football, but what was this kid going to do when a team forced him to be a passer? Those questions were answered against the Bearcats, when Golden completed 8 of 9 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-13 win.
“When I finally had the opportunity to step in, I wanted to prove I was as good if not better than the quarterbacks who came before me,” Golden said. “I was fortunate enough to have two really good running backs behind me and two very good receivers in Shayne Tate and Justin Schopp. As competitors we didn’t want to leave anything on the field, especially me because I only had one year.”
By the time the season was complete, Tyrone had ripped off 10 more regular-season victories. Gillmen’s return in Week 4 made the Golden Eagles’ offense all the more dynamic, and Golden and Schopp established a chemistry as strong as any quarterback-receiver combo in school history.
If there was one potential stumbling block after Huntingdon it was a Week 10 showdown with Johnstown in Tyrone. The Trojans had only one loss, and they had as many top tier athletes as the Golden Eagles, but the game developed into a showcase for Tyrone rather than a donnybrook between two teams bound for the playoffs. Golden and Schopp connected for two touchdowns in the first quarter, and Johnstown never recovered. Franco scored in the second, Gillmen ran for 125 yards and scored twice in the fourth, Hoover came up with two sacks – in short, all of the Eagles best players played big, and the result was a 35-7 blowout.
“Growing up, all I knew was Tyrone winning football games. I went every week and it seemed like they never lost,” said Golden. “Now, we’re playing Johnstown, and they’re a bigger school, and this is a great test for us. If we can take down a team like that, we know we can have success in the playoffs. I was always trying to find myself as a quarterback from week to week. I was learning my role on the fly and continuing to win.”
By the end of 2006, which culminated in a 35-28 loss to McCort in the 2A championship, the Golden Eagles were just six shy of the mark set from 1946-1948, and for the first time in a long time Tyrone didn’t have Division I players popping up at positions on both sides of the football. This is where the heavy lifting began because now it was going to take the genius of Franco, combined with the selflessness and versatility of players buying into his system, to push the Golden Eagles to 29 straight and beyond.
Whatever Coach Franco was selling, we were buying it. It was a trust thing.Brock Anders
Coach Franco has taken three teams to PIAA championships. He’s been named the AP Coach of the Year twice, he’s in the PA coaches Hall of Fame, and he’s got more than 300 career wins to his credit. His resume clearly sets him apart as one of the top coaches in Pennsylvania high school football history, but you would never hear him make that claim himself. He lives far too passionately in the moment to place himself in that kind of wide-sweeping context.
So if the lifelong coach heaps praise upon himself, it’s an event, and it’s best to give that credit ample consideration.
“If there’s one thing I have always had an ability to do it’s that I feel I know where kids can do well,” he said. “For us, it became a pride factor. I didn’t matter where kids played. It was all about winning.”
Tyrone still had talent in 2007 and 2008, but it was talent of a different sort than some of the teams that preceded it. Penn State wasn’t coming to see any of these players play. There were no PSAC starters in the group. Instead, it was a bunch of kids who had grown up on Tyrone football who would have done anything to be a part of the winning tradition.
“Whatever Coach Franco was selling, we were buying it,” said Anders. “It was a trust thing. Even as far as the position changes – at another school, it might have been an issue. A player might have said ‘This is my position, and I’m not playing if you move me.’ At Tyrone, we just accepted it and bought in.”
It becameeasier for players to buy into position changes once they began seeing theresults. Even before 2007 Franco had a knack for finding diamonds in the roughby shifting players from spot to spot. He had moved James Updike from fullbackto guard and in 2006 Updike had an all-conference season. Donnie Conrad had gonefrom quarterback to tight end and became a primary target for Golden in 2006.Josh Bradley had moved from running back to guard.
But it was in 2007 that the personnel adjustments became so amplified they had to be noticed and appreciated. On the eve of the season, Johnny Franco was sidelined with a broken leg, the result of a freak injury in practice. There goes the season, right?
No. Instead, the week before playing Bellwood-Antis in the Backyard Brawl Coach Franco took Shayne Tate, the team’s second-leading receiver from the year before, and had him dotting the I at running back. All he did was go out and run for 120 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries to lead Tyrone to a fifth straight win over its rivals to the south.
It was the start of a record season for Tate, who would place his name in the 1,000-yard club by rushing for 1,546 yards and 15 touchdowns on 208 carries, which remains the fifth-best single-season total in school history.
“By then we had all spent so much time together and had so much pride playing for Tyrone,” said Shaye Tate, who now lives in Alabama and works as a business analyst for PPG. “If Brock had gotten hurt and Coach Franco told me we need you to play center and you’re not going to get the ball, I would have been fine with it. I’ve always loved football. I grew up playing with my friends at Shea Field, and when we did that you played anywhere. It was a game you loved.”
Coach Franco said by 2007 the culture of winning football had created an atmosphere where everyone in the locker room felt the same as Tate.
“It became a pride factor. Kids realized it didn’t matter where they played. It was all about winning,” said Coach Franco. “They trusted us as a coaching staff, and they trusted me. You’ve got to be able to see where kids can feel their best. Shayne could run the football. He had been a receiver because he had great hands. But kids were seeing that wherever we put them they were going to be successful.”
In spite of the injury to their top player, in spite of the shifting and moving that was occurring throughout the roster, the Golden Eagles had positioned themselves to break the winning streak and make it to 30 consecutive regular season games by Week 7 in a game against Philipsburg-Osceola.
That such an important game would come against the Mounties, the team whose victory over Tyrone in October of 2004 set the wheels of the Eagles amazing run in motion, should have been no surprise. Some of the biggest games in program history were against P-O, classics like the miracle catch by Bill Kimberling in 1987 and the Eagles’ 6-5 thriller that secured the Big 8 championship in 1995.
The Mounties came into Gray-Veterans Memorial Field with a single loss and the understanding that, this late in the season, a win would have meant not only an end to the streak but a piece of what was then the MAC championship, and they played an inspired game. It was 7-7 until midway through the fourth quarter when P-O put the lid on a 10-minute, 55-yard drive with Dimitri Sidorick’s second touchdown run to grab the lead. But Mark Mingle slipped free on the PAT try and extended himself to block Zac Czap’s kick.
The teams exchanged punts until the Eagles got the ball back at their own 33-yard line with 2:30 left to play. It was the moment most fans would have rather avoided: down a score in a big game, needing a long drive to at least tie, with a sophomore quarterback, Levi Reihart, steering the ship. In most huddles, that’s panic time. In John Franco’s huddles, that’s where the fun begins.
“Coach Franco is always calm, so once they scored he just told us we’re fine. We’ve been driving all second half, we’re going to do this,” recalled Shayne Tate.
But it didn’t seem like they would do it when they were facing second-and-10 with the clock winding, in need of something special. They got it when Tate completed a halfback pass to John Shaffer, who made a play on the ball despite being blanketed in double coverage, to move the ball 27 yards to the P-O 40.
“We had that play drawn up at the beginning of the week for that exact same situation,” said Shaffer. “I knew there were P-O players around me, and I just hoped Shayne would give me a shot. I turned around to find the ball was there, just like we had practiced. I blocked out everything but the ball. The trust was there, and that’s what helped make the play successful.”
Tyrone eventually maneuvered to the 10 with under a half a minute on the clock when Franco went to another gadget play – one he called the Friday Night Special. It’s another halfback pass, but this time instead of going downfield to a receiver it goes back across the field to the quarterback, who ideally drifts unnoticed into the flat after delivering a pitch. Against the Mounties, it worked to perfection, partly because Shaffer and Tate had connected earlier on a similarly designed play. Tate tossed it back to Reihart, who went untouched into the end zone, and Shaffer came on to crush the extra point.
With 15.9 seconds to play, Tyrone had found a way to pluck a victory from certain defeat.
“I believed so much in our kids. For so long we had pulled so many games like that out,” said Coach Franco. “It was always like, we’re Tyrone! We’ve done this for years. You’re special. You live in Tyrone. That was a long drive, and we had to convert several crucial third down plays. Once we completed the halfback pass to Shaffer, I knew we were scoring. P-O had way more talent than we did. They should have beaten us by 30 points.”
It was a play that summed up the philosophy of winning during the Franco Era nicely, and it was fitting the streak would be broken in that way. We don’t have our star running back? Who cares. We’ll let our best receiver take the carries. Short a lineman? Big deal. We’ll have our fullback shift down there. Quarterback’s only a sophomore? So what. We’ll have our tailback, converted from wide receiver, throw the biggest pass of the season.
“Coach Franco always figured out a way to get the best out of everybody,” said Reihart, who is now a quality specialist for a private label food manufacturer in Pittsburgh. “He demands your best, and he has a way of finding that spark and getting you to perform to the best of your ability.”
Despite the numbers Tate produced in the absence of Johnny Franco, the 2007 team was built on defense as again the team played to its strengths. By then, production from the running back spot was common, but what was uncommon was the way the Eagles swarmed to the football and understood the defensive system they were playing.
“I remember us installing complicate blitzes and those guys just understood immediately what we were trying to do,” said Jason Wilson, the Golden Eagles’ current head coach who was just getting his feet wet during the streak as an assistant. “We could call a blitz and they could audible out of it based on what they were seeing. They were so smart to be able to understand that on the fly. There was a time during pregame warmups when (defensive coordinator Steve Guthoff) and I were watching the other team line up as our defense and they had 12 and 13 guys on the field. Steve and I just laughed because they really couldn’t figure out what we were doing.”
Through the first five games opponents managed just one touchdown as Tyrone pitched three shutouts. They finished the season with 22 takeaways, including 17 interceptions – four each by Shane Emigh and Ben Ingle – and 18 sacks, as Murray and Shaffer became dominant pass rushers.
The streak lasted through the 2007 season, which ended with a loss in the District 6 2A semifinals to Central Cambria – a bizarre game that was moved from Friday to Saturday and from Tyrone to Altoona’s Mansion Park following a bomb scare at the school – growing to 32 regular season games in a row without a loss.
“The 2007 team had no business doing what they did,” said Coach Franco. “They just found ways to win.”
That was the brilliance of Coach Franco. I don’t necessarily think we had a ton more talent. I think we had better developed talent.Josh Bradley
It continued into 2008, and some of the same characteristics that marked the 2007 run were apparent once more – players were moving and shifting, others who had rarely played a major role on the varsity team were rising to the occasion, a team was believing everything its coach had to say about preparation and focus.
As 2008 opened the Eagles were again in need of a running back after both Tate and Franco graduated, and this time, in order to take advantage of the speed of his fastest player, Coach Franco moved Larry Glace – an offensive lineman – into the backfield, not to be a bruising blocking back, but to be the featured back.
After collecting 134 total yards and a touchdown in a win over B-A to open the season, Glace went on to post six 100-yard games, including a career-high 202 in Week 9 against Central, on his way to 1,363 rushing yards.
His play underscored something that was happening on a yearly basis during the streak: players who had just one shot to be the man were producing with astonishing regularity. Glace had lettered the year before, but never had he been asked to carry a team. Never had he been relied upon to make plays every play.
But his situation was nothing unique.
“That was the brilliance of Coach Franco,” said Josh Bradley, who shined as an offensive and defensive lineman in his junior and senior seasons in 2006 and 2007 after starting his career as a running back and linebacker. “I don’t necessarily think we had a ton more talent. I think we had better developed talent.
“I’m coaching at a high school now that has won three games in the last four years, and frankly, they are just as talented as we were. They just don’t put in the effort and work into being a dominant performer.”
Brandon Gehret experienced the same thing in 2007 when, after getting the chance to start for the first time, he became an integral part of the Eagles week-to-week plan. He finished the season with three interceptions and four total takeaways on defense when before he was best known for a kickoff return for a touchdown against Forest Hills his junior year.
“When I finally started and got significant playing time my senior year I just wanted to go out and play like there was no tomorrow, and that current game was all that mattered,” said Gehret, who is now an assistant athletic trainer at UMBC.
Throughoutthe entirety of the streak you’ll find plenty of players like Gehret, who didthe most with a single year at the top of the depth chart. Trey Brockett ledthe team with 565 receiving yards in 2005 after being a non-factor in thepassing game a year before, waiting his turn behind Ben Gummo. In 2006, Jason Reese started for the first time and finished second on the team with eightsacks.
“One thing I have always looked back on is that no matter where you go, teams are going to have their stars,” said Murray. “You know they will dominate. What made Tyrone so special during that time was, yes, the stars, but especially the players I would call program players. Whether it was the coaching, or the atmosphere, or their work ethic, they were guys who made a difference. Jordan Good (in 2008) is a great example. He came out of nowhere for one season and shined.
“You know who all of the superstars are. It’s the ones who surprised everyone who made all the difference.”
In part, lesser known players could shine because of another aspect of the culture at work that can’t be quantified. Unlike other programs where sophomores and non-starters might be relegated to holding blocking pads and serving as tackling dummies, at Tyrone, under Franco, each player was coached up to the max. On top of that, players felt like a part of a continuum. The brass ring had been handed to them, and when it was their class’s time in the spotlight there was a palpable desire to keep things going, for the players of the past, and for the players on your left and right.
“I think what made us great with minimal talent was how close-knit and connected we were,” said Gehret. “We were pretty much a core group of guys who played football from pee-wee all the way to high school.”
Shayne Tate said the unity extended well beyond the playing field, with Thursday night team dinners and Lasagna Wednesdays. “We had so much fun together, and so much pride playing for Tyrone,” he said. “We were close as friends. No one cared about minutes or carries.”
The feeling of camaraderie, or esprit de corps, came together under a leadership style provided by Franco that players of the era praise effusively and from many angles.
My practices are intense, and you better not screw around or we’ll do it again. I don’t care about the clock. You’ve got to be intense to play football, and the head coach has to set the tone.Coach John Franco
Coach Franco was and is a coach in his very soul, and in one way or another it all comes back to coaching for Franco. After Altoona opted not to renew his contract in 1993 Franco actually considered taking some time off from the business, perhaps to get a different perspective but maybe also because he was burnt out on the job. When some boosters from Tyrone approached him about applying for the job recently opened up in the borough, he did so almost reluctantly.
It was the perfect marriage almost from the start because Franco understood the mentality of being a teenage boy in Tyrone better than anyone before or since.
“It was a great match with them and me,” said Franco. “They took the game very seriously. Then, once the 1995 team did it, they all felt like ‘We can do this.’”
It would be hard to pick one period from Franco’s tenure at Tyrone where one might say he was at the top of his game because his success spread across nearly two decades, and his teams found paths to success in many ways. But from 2004 through 2008 you truly saw an artist at work as he made runs with teams that were loaded and made contenders of teams that, in terms of talent, were outmanned more Friday nights than not.
“My senior year we should have been a .500 team,” said Reihart, another player who rebooted his career with a position change in 2009. After starting at quarterback for two seasons Franco asked him to move to running back as a senior to give some life to a so-so rushing attack. Reihart accepted the switch without batting an eye and went on to become the only player in Tyrone history to post 1,000-yard seasons as a runner and a passer.
“Coach Franco gets to know players as individuals. He was at track meets and baseball games. He studies players so well, and that all came from him investing his time in the program. He’s a student of the game.”
The individual concern to which Reihart attested was something echoed by many members of the team during the streak era, but the players placed even more value on Franco’s preparation and organization.
“We would have so much of our offense in through summer practices, but the time the season started we were already off and running,” said Shayne Tate. “On defense, we watched film and most games we knew what was coming. Against Bellwood our senior year, Shane Emigh and I recognized a formation we had repped in practice and I called that it would be a slant-lance. He knew he could jump the route and I would have his back. He ended up getting a touchdown off a pick.
“By Monday practice it was all shell and films. He and Jason Wilson had it all broken down. We knew coach didn’t take a break, so we couldn’t either.”
The one time Franco did take a rest, the team had his back. Gillmen recalled an unreported event from 2006 when the coach had passed out at church on a Sunday and was taken to the hospital, where he remained until Tuesday, two crucial practice days in a week leading up to a District 6 2A semifinal against Forest Hills.
“He decided to call the field house on Monday, and he asked to speak to me,” said Gillmen. “It was a short conversation. He said, ‘You know what this is about. I’m putting it on you to keep all of the guys accountable.’ We were self-managing by then. If someone missed a block or a tackle, we were going to tell them about it. We never brought that up in the papers because he didn’t want anyone to know and possibly give a team an advantage. But he knew that I knew what needed to be done.”
The team’s confidence flowed from its coach, and the coach’s confidence began at practice, where he and the team were going to out-prepare every opponent on the schedule.
“I’ve never seen a guy as organized and well-prepared as Coach Franco,” said Anders. “From the center position, I can honestly say I never saw a defense in a game that we didn’t go over in practice.”
“How many (other) teams were having meetings in February?” said Russell Beck, who rose to a starting position as a senior. “By 7-on-7s in July we would be throwing all over Johnstown, and we were a running team. Nobody outworked us at anything. I’d say most other seniors didn’t outwork our sophomores.”
As a result, practices were no picnic. Shayne Tate said after the miraculous comeback against P-O in 2007 he made the mistake of making a joke about the team’s game-winning gadget play to Franco, and his reward was up-downs on the spot. For a man as intensely focused as Franco, it was almost incomprehensible that his players wouldn’t feel the same way.
“I stay in coaching because I love the practices,” said Franco, who is now coaching at Penn Cambria. “One thing that upsets me is when players don’t. That’s what’s been taught to me. Games take care of themselves. My practices are intense, and you better not screw around or we’ll do it again. I don’t care about the clock. You’ve got to be intense to play football, and the head coach has to set the tone.”
Terry Tate, who would eventually find his way onto Franco’s staff, said his time spent coaching with Franco gave him a better appreciation of just what kind of magic the coach was working with his all-or-nothing practices and meticulous attention to detail.
“Coach Franco just expected you to give your best self,” he said. “It was different with everyone, but he knew what you had to give. He knew what Terry Tate had to give and how much more was left in the tank. Coach Franco was incredible at making you feel that if one guy on this field believes in me, it’s this coach. Whether you were a starter or on special teams or whatever, if you had on a helmet with a T on it, you believed that John Franco loved you and believed in you.”
Those were bonds built during the most successful era regular season football in school history, but they would be more important than ever when the streak finally came to an end.
I was only 16 years old and I was hearing that we let the town down and let alumni down. That’s a lot of weight for a kid to carry on his shoulders.Levi Reihart
The Golden Eagles were still rolling by Week 4 of 2008. After starting the season with wins over Bellwood-Antis and Huntingdon, Tyrone made a statement in Week 3 by defeating 4A Central Mountain 6-3, getting a pair of field goals from Johnny Shaffer in the first quarter and then using its defense to dominate a team that had been averaging more than 40 points per game.
That set up a showdown with 2-1 Clearfield in a game that renewed a series that had begun in the 1920s but had not been played since 1991.
For fans of offensive football, it was a dream match from the start as neither team kept the other out of the end zone until three minutes were left until halftime. By then it was 21-18 and scoring drives not withstanding Tyrone had a problem – the Eagles couldn’t convert points after touchdowns. Shaffer missed his first kick and then Tyrone came up short on a two-point try following its third score.
They were points Tyrone would chase the rest of the game. In the closing minutes the Eagles trailed by a single point after Clearfield opted to take a safety rather than punt from its own end zone. The free kick gave Tyrone optimal field position for a drive that ultimately reached as far as the 31 before stalling, and after mulling over his options during a time out Franco decided to put the game on the toe of Shaffer, who came on to attempt a 46-yard field goal.
The kick came off his foot flat from the start, never got any rotation, and died on line but short of the crossbars.
And that was it for the streak.
“I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t feel responsible for the loss,” said Shaffer. “I know the finger was pointed at me from some people in the stands, but the best thing about it is I never heard anything from any of my teammates, and that’s what mattered most to me.”
Shaffer needed his teammates to have his back because things only got worse as the night went on.
“We pulled into the school, and I remember looking into the trees by the middle school, and there was some sort of doll wearing a No. 85 practice jersey hung by its neck on a tree branch,” said Murray. Shaffer wore No. 85 so the message was clear and quite upsetting for the team.
“I’ve seen Shaffer drill 55-yard field goals in practice, but to put that much pressure on a 17-year old kid, there was no way he was going to make it in that game,” said Murray.
And the heat wasn’t thrown in the direction of Shaffer alone. Most of the players felt it, and for the first time in years the Eagles were faced with the harsh realities of high-level high school football in small communities.
“It hurt,” said Reihart. “I was only 16 years old and I was hearing that we let the town down and let alumni down. That’s a lot of weight for a kid to carry on his shoulders.”
Eventually, everyone recovered. It took only seven days for the fan base to remember that regular season games in Tyrone continue even after losses. Tyrone decked Bald Eagle Area 41-0 at home the Friday following its loss to Clearfield, and things were right in the world once more.
It might have been better for us if we had lost a game to Philipsburg or Penns Valley or even Bellwood. In my three years we never practiced after a loss, and that could have helped us. We never saw the real Coach Franco after a loss.Shayne Tate
Tyrone would win five more in 2008, and when you consider their only other loss over the previous five seasons had been its 7-6 nail-biter against P-O, and before that a 23-20 loss in overtime to Huntingdon in 2003, it’s conceivable that the team could have been building on a regular-season winning streak in the 50s.
But in a program like Tyrone’s, where regular-season wins are only a preamble to playoff glory, that much is expected.
“I would trade five or six regular-season losses for another District championship,” said Anders.
It’s somewhat striking that an era where Tyrone dominated its conference as thoroughly as one could imagine would produce just one District champion, but there were a lot of factors at work in that area. The talent at Bishop McCort during the same span is one, as the Crushers and Eagles met three straight seasons from 2004-2006, with McCort winning two of them.
“In District 6 Double-A football at that time it was basically ‘When are Tyrone and Bishop McCort going to meet?’” said Gillmen. We were the heavyweights, and there was real athletic talent in that 2006 championship game. There were several scholarship players on each team. You don’t often see that amount of talent playing in a small school football game.”
Strange matchups also played a role. Central Cambria was a team Tyrone just couldn’t figure out in 2007 and 2008, bringing the Eagles’ season to an end both seasons in the semifinals.
“It kills me that we only played in one District championship in my years,” said Shayne Tate. “My sophomore year we laid an egg against Bishop McCort. My junior year we played our best game against McCort and just lost. My senior year we had never heard of Central Cambria, and we overlooked them. It might have been better for us if we had lost a game to Philipsburg or Penns Valley or even Bellwood. In my three years we never practiced after a loss, and that could have helped us. We never saw the real Coach Franco after a loss.”
Even without a plethora of District championships, the legacy of the era remains strong. Tyrone teams from 2004 through 2008 won four conference titles, which was no small feat, even in an era when the program was clearly the class of what was then known as the Mountain Athletic Conference and has since grown into the Mountain League.
Tyrone’s recent fall from grace in its own conference emphasizes just how special the run was. After finishing with six straight losses in 2018 the Golden Eagles haven’t had a winning season in three years, something that a decade ago was inconceivable. Regular season wins then seemed to come from the sky like manna from heaven, but as it turns out it wasn’t quite that simple.
But just like any streak, the run of 35 games in a row is one made to be broken, and for many of the players who set the bar, they feel that time will come.
“Absolutely,” said Golden. “There’s something special about football in Tyrone.”
“Winning isn’t easy,” said Gillmen. “You need a lot to go right just to win one game. It could happen again though, with the right kids and the right coaches, but it would be difficult.”
Terry Tate said the emergence of conference powers that were far from powerful when he was playing make the task of winning on the scale of the Franco era much more challenging.
“Everyone else has caught up,” he said. “It would be harder. This isn’t the same league we played in. It’s not impossible, but it would take a special group of kids.”
In the end, it may not matter. Even if a team from Tyrone could find a way to create the kind of dominance Tyrone displayed from 2004 through 2008 again, it would be a different team with a different set of circumstances. It would be a unit with its own unique personality in its own unique era, forging its own unique identity.
“My gut reaction to that is of course it could happen again,” said Beck. “But then I think about how far away they seem to be from those golden years, and I don’t know. I would trade multiple regular season losses if it meant we stopped Grove City on fourth down or stopped that McCort guy from stretching the ball over in overtime my junior year, or a few more plays my senior year against. McCort. So I guess truthfully it’s a nice record – is it a ‘record’ – but ultimately it’s not really a goal for anybody to beat.”