Officially, John Franco ended his relationship with the Tyrone football program seven years ago in 2012.
Technically, he never left.
If you ask the coach who led Tyrone during the most successful run of its nearly 100-year history, there was always a piece of him in Tyrone, even when he was coaching somewhere else.
“It’s where my heart always was,” Franco said Monday night, just a day before he was set to be voted in as the Golden Eagles new football coach, a position he held previously from 1994 through 2011.
The Tyrone Area School Board released the agenda for its February 12 meeting on the district website Monday, and listed on the docket was approving Franco to replace Jason Wilson, whose position was opened last month.
“The decision to hire Coach Franco was based on his prior coaching experience and ability to build a competitive football program,” said Tyrone Area Superintendent Cathy Harlow on Tuesday. “We are excited to have coach Franco return to Tyrone.”
Wilson had taken over as head coach in 2014, replacing Franco successor Steve Guthoff, and his first two years were an undeniable success. The Eagles won the District 6 2A championship in 2014, making Wilson only the second rookie head coach in program history to win a District crown, but the program began to slide two years later. From 2016 through 2018 Tyrone posted three straight losing seasons, culminating in a six-game slide to end 2018 on the outside of the District playoffs.
It was the first time the Eagles failed to make the postseason since 1994.
That prompted to Board to begin looking for new coaching candidates, and Franco, who had coached at Penn Cambria since 2017, was at the top of the list.
“I’ve missed Tyrone football since the day I left,” Franco said. “When I left it was purely for financial reasons. I may not have liked it, but it was something I had to do. It was nobody’s fault, and I always continued to follow Tyrone football, regardless, and I kept in touch with most of the coaches. I’ve been away, but not that far away, and I’m happy to be back.”
When Franco left in 2012, it was on the heels of one of his most successful seasons. In 2011, Tyrone went 14-2 and played in the PIAA 2A championship game, but as a teacher in the Altoona Area School District he could do more to contribute to his retirement pension by coaching at Altoona, where he had been the head coach from 1986-1993, going 40-45-2.
In his four-year return to Altoona from 2012-2015, the Mountain Lions went 17-23 while competing in the WPIAL.
After leaving Altoona, Franco worked on the staff of Steve Guthoff at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy before taking over at Penn Cambria in 2017.
There had been speculation of a Franco return to Tyrone in 2014 before Wilson’s hiring, and again prior to last season, but none of those opportunities came to fruition. However, this time Franco felt the time was right to officially throw his hat in the ring.
It wasn’t an easy decision, Franco said, considering the relationship he had with Wilson, who played for Franco from 2001-2003, and then was a member of his coaching staff beginning in 2005.
“Jason was one of my players and one of my assistant coaches,” Franco said. “I tried to help him, but I needed to stay away. I’d like to get him back in the fold. I’ve reached out to him already. He’s young, and maybe together we can solve some of the problems here. There’s nothing I would like more than to have him be a part of this, but that’s his call.”
In the meantime, Franco said, his staff for next season is already filling out, and it includes some of the men familiar to his staff over the years.
“I’ve got a lot of people who will do well, like Dan Bender and John Gressler, and I’m working to try to bring back Steve Guthoff,” said Franco.
The coach said he will also be reaching out to former players and former staff members like Scott Gummo, Corbin Nevling-Ray Steve Johnson, Terry Tate and Murray Fetzer to help complete his coaching staff.
Beyond hiring assistants, Franco said he is focused on bringing out the kind of athletes a coach can build around.
“It’s going to be a challenge. From what I have heard, a big problem has been that kids are not coming out,” he said. “We’ve got to get them back out. I’ve always felt Tyrone kids are football kids at heart, but they’re good at all sports. I’ve always loved that and encouraged that because they’re always competing. I want to get that special feeling back, that great intensity not just for football but for Tyrone football.”
In his 18 years at Tyrone, Franco led the Golden Eagles to eight District 6 championships, three appearances in the PIAA title game, and the 2A state championship in 1999. He left as the program’s leader in coaching victories with 190.
When Franco first came to Tyrone in 1994 it was to begin a rebuilding process similar to the one he faces now. From 1989 through 1992, the Golden Eagles fell into one of the worst eras in program history, posting four consecutive losing seasons. From 1991 through the early part of 1993 Tyrone dropped 19 consecutive games before a strong finish in 1993 allowed the team to finish 5-5.
Despite a strong conclusion to the season, the coaching position, which was held by Tom Miller, was opened, paving the way for Franco to take over in 1994. That season, the Eagles finished 5-5 but made headlines with victories over Huntingdon and Central before finishing just a game off the lead in the Big 8, the precursor to today’s Mountain League.
Tyrone followed up 1994 with a meteoric rise to regional and statewide prominence, a position where the Golden Eagles would remain for most of the remainder of Franco’s tenure. In 1995 Tyrone won Big 8 and District 6 2A championships, advancing to the PIAA Western Final.
The team defended its titles in 1996 and defeated Aliquippa in the PIAA semifinals to advance to the championship game, where it lost to Mount Carmel.
Franco guided Tyrone to a third straight District championship in 1997, and two years later he forged the best campaign in program history when he led the Eagles to a 15-0 season and a 13-6 win over Mount Carmel in the PIAA finals.
The Eagles returned to the state playoffs three more times under Franco’s watch, including deep runs in 2004 and 2011.
Franco was named AP Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2011 and is a member of the PSFCA Coaches Hall of Fame.