Jim France has always been consistent – always present on the Ohio high school football head coaching rolls, always a winner and always a man of his word.
So, then, it makes perfect sense that, in announcing his retirement from coaching over the weekend, ending his historic nearly half-century run at Manchester, he is being all those things again.
As the seasons and victories just kept mounting over the years and he would constantly be asked how much longer he wanted to coach, he would steadfastly say that he would do so until he knew in his mind and heart that it was time to go.
He reached that point over the last four months.
In an exclusive interview with The Suburbanite early Saturday afternoon, France said he has submitted his letter of retirement from coaching to the Manchester Board of Education for consideration at its regular meeting on Tuesday night.
“It’s just time – the right time – to do it,” France, the state’s all-time leader in victories with 401, said after a meeting of his men’s group that he runs at Sawyerwood United Methodist Church in Springfield Township. “It wasn’t just one thing really, but just a lot of things.
“Some of my assistant coaches – John Forret, Jason (France, his son) and Mark Yocum -- said they would probably not be coming back next season. They’ve been doing it a long time. Jason has been with me for over 25 years. He has a landscaping and plowing business that he owns and operates, and it’s tough for him to keep up with that during the football season. They all have different reasons for wanting to move on to some other things. I would be having to put together an almost entirely new coaching staff, and I just didn’t want to do that.
“We’re coming off the greatest comeback season we’ve ever had here. We were bad for a good portion of the season (being 3-4 at one point), and then we got very good by beating three really great teams (Northwest, Orrville and Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy) right in the row at the end of the year to get into the (Division V) playoffs. Two of the best players I’ve ever had (running backs Hunter Foster and Ethan Wright, the greatest player in Panthers history) were seniors on that team.
“It was just time.”
France said the decision had nothing to do with the death of his wife of 55 years, Nancy, a week and a half before the start of last season.
“No, not at all, but she would approve of this move,” France said.
However, the decision, though firm now, did not come easily, or quickly. When the Panthers’ 9-4 season – and six-game winning streak in which they posted two shutouts and outscored their opponents by a combined 195-75 count – ended with a 32-7 loss to eventual state champion Kirtland in the Region 17 title game at Bedford, France’s initial intention was to return this fall for what would have been his 49th season at Manchester and 50th overall.
And why not? The Panthers never had a losing season in France’s tenure from 1971-84 and then 1986-2019. He was 398-122-4 at Manchester and 401-129-4 overall after going 3-7 at Coventry in his first season in 1970.
But things soon changed.
“The coaches and I talked about it a long time,” France, 76, said. “We wanted to be certain we were doing the right thing. We went over it about four times. We kept saying to each other, ‘OK, are we sure we want to do this, because this is a really big decision?,’ and each time we did, the answer was clearly yes.”
It was hard because France and his coaches all loved what they were doing.
“We had a lot of fun,” France said. “We were really close. It was just a great group, and great times, and I will really miss working with them.
“Then there’s everything else, and I will miss all of that, too – the practices, the games, the preparation and the kids, of course.”
France said he will remain for one more school year in his role of high school principal, which he has held for 36 years, since 1984, after arriving in 1971 as a physical education teacher.
He will come to the games next season but won’t sit with the Manchester fans, in part so as to not be a distraction.
“I’ll go to the opposite side,” France said.
He said he plans to use much of his new-found free time doing things with his grandchildren. He is already doing plenty of that, driving to Western Pennsylvania to see JoJo France, his grandson and former Manchester football and basketball star, play basketball at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg, where the coach is also a former Panthers standout in Brody Jackson. France just finished his sophomore season and was the team’s best player.
You can bet that France will also go see Wright play for the University of Cincinnati. Wright is already there and working out, being the first-team running back before the coronavirus shelved all work indefinitely. He finished his high school credits requirement following the end of the first semester two months ago and was an early enrollee for the Bearcats.
France said he has no one in mind to be his successor at Manchester and will give input on the search only if asked. For a while now, one of the candidates being rumored for the job whenever it came open, is former Chippewa head coach Mike Bohley, one of France’s former players. When Bohley took over in 2013, the Chipps had not had a winning season in 10 years, but he quickly transformed the program into a big winner, going 44-22 in six seasons, including in his first year earning only the school’s second playoff berth and then winning 10 games in 2015.
He resigned in January 2019, stating that he needed a break, but remains a history teacher at the school.
Bohley’s relationship with France, the program and the Manchester community, and his success at a school the same size as Manchester, would seemingly make him a good fit if he’s interested.
France has remarked to those close to him that he would “help the new guy get started,” and if it would be someone like Bohley, then it would be a labor of love.