NEW FRANKLIN Jim France was head coach for a heckuva lot of high school football games in his 49-year career.
There were 534, to be exact, the first 10 of which were at Coventry in 1970 and the remaining 524 at Manchester from 1971-84 and 1986-2019 before he announced his retirement exclusively to The Suburbanite last Saturday afternoon.
So, then, to look back through all those games, seasons, teams and players, and pick the greatest, most memorable or most satisfying this or that would be virtually impossible, even for a guy like France who has a sharp-as-a-tack recall.
And it would not be fair in terms of players, because, with that many – a lot of real good ones considering all the success France had – you always run the risk of forgetting someone.
But it’s different with games. They are intangible entities, not people, and as such you can have a little more freedom to pick your favorites without running the risk of hurting someone.
With that, then, while reminiscing after his retirement announcement, France did select two games that stand out from the rest to him. And they were played just a week apart a little more than 22 years ago, in 1997.
One was an exhilarating victory, 14-7 over Cleveland Benedictine in the Division IV state semifinals at Byers Field in Parma, and the other a heartbreaking defeat, 31-24 in five overtimes to Germantown Valley View in the Division IV state championship game at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon.
“Those two would definitely be my picks for the most memorable games,” France said.
That’s not a surprise at all. It represents the only time the Panthers made it to the state title game. The next-closest they ever got was to the 2013 Division V state semifinals, where they lost to Columbus Bishop Hartley 49-22.
With a wealth of talent and experience in all phases, the 1997 team is generally regarded as the best in Manchester history, at least in the modern era, which includes since France arrived. In hardly breaking a sweat, the Panthers rolled through the regular season with a perfect record and, by finishing second in Region 13, made the 16-team state playoffs (four teams from each of four regions qualified) for the seventh straight time, and the eighth in school history.
In addition to Manchester, Valley View and Benedictine, the field included Canton Central Catholic, Wickliffe (which finished way ahead of the runnerup Panthers in the Region 13 rankings), Coshocton, Wellington, Orrville, Bellville Clear Fork, Nelsonville-York, Wheelersburg, Bellaire, Piketon, Plain City Jonathan Alder, Ottawa-Glandorf and Cincinnati Wyoming.
Manchester defeated Coshocton 20-7 in the opener and then topped Central Catholic 18-0 in the region title game to set up a state semifinal contest against Benedictine in a battle of unbeaten teams.
“Benedictine was the overwhelming favorite,” France said. “They had three or four guys going to Division I colleges. They were considered to be not just the best team in Division IV, but the best in the state overall that year.
“They were so much bigger than we were. Everybody was saying, ‘How in the world is this little country school going to beat them?’ But we did. That was the greatest victory we ever had.”
How did the Panthers do it?
With speed and quickness. They easily ran past the Bengals both offensively and defensively to improve to 13-0.
That put them into the title game against Valley View (13-0).
Valley View, coached by Jay Niswonger, with whom France says he later developed a real friendship when both were elected officials of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association, rallied in the second half to tie the game and send it to overtime. Manchester had a chance to win in the third OT but missed a chip-shot field goal.
The Spartans then outlasted the Panthers to capture what, with five OTs, is still the longest championship game in playoff history and tied for the longest in overall playoff history.
The game was so long, in fact, that it caused a gridlock in the parking lot afterward with fans trying to leave that game and those coming in for the next title contest there. Tournament officials were thrown into a panic. There was nothing they – or anyone else -- could do.
The situation is what caused the Ohio High School Athletic Association to stagger the championship games in Massillon and what was then known as Fawcett Stadium in Canton. Up until then, all the title games for the first day (Friday) were held at one stadium, and the rest were at the other facility on Saturday No one had ever thought about what would happen if something such as a five-overtime game were ever played.
“We had a lot of great teams, but we never won a state title,” France said.
Yes, though in 1997, his Panthers came awfully close – so close, in fact, that, all these years later, he admits, “I still think about that game.”