When the Manchester Panthers saved their 2019 high school football season, what no one realized at the time is that it would also save Jay Brophy’s coaching career, giving him one more opportunity to be a head coach.
Brophy, who is set to be hired as the Panthers head coach at Tuesday night’s Manchester Board of Education meeting, didn’t know what the last part of his coaching career would look like – could look like, should look like – when he met with then Manchester head coach Jim France in 2018 for some advice.
Brophy had been a head coach at both St. Vincent-St. Mary and Sebring McKinley for a combined total of five seasons. But the last job, at Sebring, had ended almost a decade earlier, so he was at a crossroads. France offered Brophy a job as an assistant, and he accepted. Good for him that he did, because it put him on the right path to get to where he really wanted to go.
The Panthers started out well enough last season, going 3-1, the last two victories coming by a combined score of 96-19. Then came a real rough patch, with the Panthers losing big leads – and games -- to two opponents they usually beat, Tuslaw and Triway, to stand at 3-3. With the toughest part of their schedule yet to come, the Panthers were in dire straits. Making the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream and, in fact, simply avoiding the school’s first losing season ever under France didn’t appear to be possible, either.
What happened next changed the course of history for a lot of things, and people.
"Our assistants did a great job," France said several weeks later. "A lot of times in those situations when your backs are to the wall and you’re looking for answers, you end up yelling at the kids to get their attention and get them to be more focused. But we have a lot of young kids on this team who did not have much, if any, previous varsity experience. If we had yelled at them, it would have shaken them, and broken them, and things would have gotten ever worse.
"Instead, our assistants were very patient and calm with the kids that week in practice. They concentrated on teaching, breaking everything down and correcting the mistakes we were making in a way that it could be easily understood. Our players really responded to that. It was the turning point of the season."
Brophy was a key part of that effort.
"Coach France and I are polar opposites in our personalities," Brophy said. "He says hardly anything. I like to talk. I’m talking all the time."
Brophy was at his talkative best then.
In their ensuing game, against Fairless, the Panthers drove nearly the length of the field for a late touchdown to break a tie and provide a much-needed 35-28 win.
Their confidence buoyed and brimming, the Panthers followed that up by going on one of the best – and most surprising -- three-week runs in school history, defeating backyard rival Northwest, defending Division V state champion Orrville and archrival Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy by a combined score of 95-33 to finish the regular season at 7-3. That got them into the Division V, Region 17 playoffs as the No. 2 seed. Manchester won two games in the playoffs, increasing its string of consecutive victories to six, before losing to eventual state champion Kirtland in the regional championship game for a 9-4 finish.
"That’s the greatest turnaround that any of my teams have ever had," France said.
It saved him from a losing season in what turned out to be his final season. It got the Panthers righted and into the playoffs yet again. And, most importantly in terms of going forward, it served as critical prep – indoctrination under fire, as it were – for France’s successor.
So. when France announced his retirement on March 14, and his son, Jason, the team’s longtime offensive coordinator, said he wasn’t interested in applying for the head coaching vacancy, the obvious choice was Brophy.
"We received a lot of feedback from players and their parents about Jay and how good of a communicator he was and how much they liked him," Manchester Schools Superintendent James Robinson said. "He is a very positive individual."
It’s that trait – especially in that critical portion of last season when good vibes born out of communication were really needed -- that earned Jay Brophy another shot to be a head coach and, if you hear him talk about his long-term commitment to Manchester, possibly also his final shot.