It started in the backyard…just me, my dad, and my brother, and an oblong pigskin. We played simple games of pitch and catch before escalating into full scale tackle football on the gravel playgrounds at East Side Elementary School. I don’t remember ever loving this game. I do remember loving my team-mates in the 12 years I played organized football and loving and respecting the young boys and men I would coach for 40 seasons.
Football is not a contact sport. It’s a violent game. If played the way it must be played to maximize success, you must mentally and physically condition a group of young boys, or men, to have little to no regards for their health, or the health of their opponents. You must swarm to the football and destroy everything on your pathway to reach it.
Over the years I have been both the destroyer and the “destroyee” as a player and as a coach. I’ve witnessed and partaken in the splattering of brain cells and the breaking of bones. And on November 21, 2020 at the ripe young age of 63, I ended this violent experiment in an unexpected final game of the 2020 season at Troy University. It is time to discover what I want to do when I grow up.
I’m not a “big-name” coach, though I’ve had my share of recognizable successes. I’ve been labeled an innovative offensive guru, as well as an epic failure. I’ve won championships and I’ve gone 1-11. I’ve been paid more money than anyone should be paid for coaching a game that some men would do for free. Most of my peers in my profession would recognize my name well enough to have a strong opinion as to whether I was worthy of accolades, hatred, or indifference.
From 1981-1982 and from 1993-1995 I coached high school and middle school football with men who would form my football soul as a coach. Billy Mitchell was the football savant, Bill Taylor was the charismatic tough and loving guy, and Steve Aull was the quarterback guru with an entrepreneurial background. Joe and David Morris were the sons of a legend who would embrace me and make me part of a family I hadn’t earned the right to be associated with. And Paul Leahy would publicly and privately praise me to the point where I thought maybe I belonged in the discussions of being referred to as a “good coach”. These men made me fall in love with coaching because of a camaraderie and brotherhood that was rare. They spoiled me. We coached, drank, gambled, and worked as brothers who loved each other enough to always tell the truth. I’d discover over the next 39 years how unusual this camaraderie was. I never found it in college football or in any other phase of life outside of my relationships with my brother and two close coaching comrades and former team-mates, Bruce Raley and David Barnes.
I have an all-time favorite player. I’ll call him “Johnny Cobra”, a sixteen-year-old whom I coached from one of my early jobs as a 20 something year old who thought he knew a lot more than he did. “Johnny Cobra” wasn’t a good player. He didn’t run fast or hit hard or throw a ball particularly well. He was just “Johnny Cobra”, a guy who needed the game and needed to be on the team, more than the team needed him. A teenager who longed to belong to something bigger than himself. A loner whom football would make feel as if he were no longer alone.
“Johnny Cobra” gave me more than football would ever give me. He gave me a sense of purpose and the ability to see and to realize that the game of football was a conduit to share differences in life and to make one have a sense of belonging whenever the world didn’t make sense. A football team provides an environment where most misfits in society could be accepted and “Johnny Cobra” was certainly a misfit.
Over my forty years in coaching I haven’t always said or done the right things. At times I’ve allowed to much ego and false pride to serve as a pathway for poor decisions that have no doubt hurt some of the young men I’ve coached. Early in my career as a 26-year-old head coach I made a decision that would hurt a young man’s self-respect and make him feel less accepted by his peers, which in turn angered his parents and made them feel as if they should attack me. They did and they were right. Thirty-seven years later I made a journey to apologize. I was forgiven.
I also am keenly aware that I’ve made a positive difference and that I’ve radically changed the life perspective of many of my former players. I’m without doubt that hundreds of young men have a better life because of the relationship we shared. And I’m also keenly aware that others will go to their graves with the firm belief I wronged them in some way and didn’t treat them fairly. Both groups would believe their truths to be somewhat right.
The football life I’ve lived has been one of a peasant, as well a prince. I made $250 my first coaching gig and I’ve made over $3 million total the last eight seasons. I’ll profess the years where I made less than $10,000 as a high school coach were much harder work than the luxury life of being a college coach. Listening to college coaches who are making six and seven figure incomes bitch about how difficult their life is makes me excited to move back into the world of realistic and appreciative workers.
But I regress.
This is a love letter. A letter of resignation to a way of life, a way of comfort and ease. I’m so fortunate and blessed to have been able to capitalize on this sport. Thousands of high school and middle school and youth league coaches are better than me, more talented, and more successful. But I was one of the lucky ones who took advantage of a small window of opportunity and made a good career and income out of coaching a game.
So, I say thank you to all the young boys who are now men and the young men who are now older men. Thank you for making my life memorable and easier than I deserved. Every pay raise, every new house, every college education of my children, every article of praise, and every personal and professional accolade came because of you.
I’ve already revealed my all-time favorite player and now I’ll share my most beloved team. It’s not the 1993 or 1995 state championship squads of Mayfield High. Neither is it the 2012 Louisiana Tech team that averaged 52 points per game and broke national records. It’s not the 1997 University of Kentucky squad that beat Alabama in overtime and had thousands of fans storm the field and tear down the goalpost. Nor is it the bowl and championship winning teams of Troy, MTSU, or Louisiana Tech. It isn’t the record-breaking bowl winning team at Cal in 2015 with the #1 NFL draft pick, quarterback Jared Goff.
No. The all-time favorite team is a tie. It’s the 2019 and 2020 MTSU Blue Raiders. Never have I had a group of young men so disparaged by people who supposedly care about them. Never have I had a team compete as hard, or practice any better, or lead by example than these last two seasons. The toughness and courage to compete while being disparaged and told day after day that you’re not good enough, combined with the tenacity and love for each other to continue in the face of a worldwide deadly pandemic makes these guys easily my favorite group to have had the honor to coach.
I’ve listened to leaders and critics accuse them of being “entitled” and “not working hard enough” or “not being tough enough” to score more points than their opponents. In the meantime, some of these young men pulled late night shifts at Wal Mart, Amazon, Uber Eats, Door Dash, and other workplaces to pay their bills, pay for parts or all of their education, pay for their food, while simultaneously helping their families by sending money back home. And they did this while competing and training at the highest level of college football, which is a full-time job by itself. Some of these critics meanwhile raised their children in a life of comfort and historic privilege.
Winning games has never been the final measure, or even the most important measure, of my success as a coach or a man. As I listened to different coaches’ whine that “nothing is worse than losing” Kentucky offensive line coach John Schlarman, while fighting for his life, would send me a message after every game. He was the source of motivation and love…a message of inspiration, encouragement, win or lose, reminding me how lucky I am to have this life, this one more breath of oxygen. His voice reminded me over the last couple of years that there are so many things more important than whether we scored enough points or not.
I reflect upon this toughest human I ever had the honor to spend time with, both as a player I would coach and as a man I would later give his first college coaching job to. He fought his painful, heart wrenching, two-year battle with the deadly cancer cholangiocarcinoma (the same disease that killed my wife’s sister), while continuing to coach, just to have one more day with his wife and four children, one more breath of oxygen, so that he could share his philosophies of love, compassion, hard work, brotherhood, and teamwork with his players, his friends, and the fraternity of coaches lucky enough to have shared time with him.
So in making this final decision of how to end this 40 year adventure in coaching, if I had to choose and could pick any group of men and be guaranteed to win a championship and score 50 points a game and be recognized and lauded…I’d have to say thanks, but no thanks. I’ll take the 2019 and 2020 Blue Raiders and be grateful that my final coaching experience was with young courageous talented men who just so happened to not score enough points to win as many games as some thought necessary to earn their conditional respect.
But oh my God, they are winners. And man, oh man, will they make this world better than my generation left it.
Thank you, football, but most of all thank you to the young men who gave me a 40-year football life full of competition, love, respect, friendships, and satisfaction. I can never repay you for this amazing journey you allowed me to live with you. I never loved this game, but I loved, respected, and cherished the young men courageous, talented, and empathetic enough to play it.
Coach Tony Franklin
PS- To those who wonder if I will continue my war on the cowards of the college football world who have shown horrendous leadership in our greatest time of need, you need not wonder. That fight has just begun. Stay tuned
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