Former Manchester coach Jim France staying busy in retirement

Steve King
Suburbanite correspondent
Manchester's coach Jim France watches his team take on Rootstown in the first half of their game at James France Stadium on Saturday Nov. 9, 2019.

When Jim France was head coach of the Manchester High School football team, his play calls were no secret.

They were the same plays the Panthers had run since the beginning of his nearly 50-year tenure. His players on those first teams could have stepped into the huddle several years ago and still recognized the plays. The same could be said for Manchester's opponents. They knew them so well that they could also run the plays themselves, but they couldn't stop them because Manchester executed them flawlessly.

Now, in retirement, it's a different story. France is not giving away his one special secret, so don't even bother asking.

It's his recipe for none other than hot sauce, which, judging by its popularity with about everyone who has ever tasted it, is about as good as his Manchester teams were.

"People try to get it from me all the time, but I won't tell them," he said. "The only people who know other than me are a few family members, and they're not saying, either."

It was a little over a year ago when France, the state's all-time leader with 401 career wins, announced exclusively to The Suburbanite his retirement from coaching. He did it in the same simple, old-school, unpretentious, fly-under-the-radar fashion that he had exhibited since getting hired at Manchester in 1971. Attired in a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, he was sitting in a metal folding chair in the basement of Sawyerwood United Church in Springfield Township, which he has attended his entire life and at which he has volunteered as the janitor for longer than he can remember. He grew up two doors down from the church, which is nearly 100 years old. He has lived in Springfield his entire life.

Yes, this is a man whose life – both personally and professionally – has been built on longevity.

Surrounded by everything, and everyone, he knew, with the members of the church's men's group that he has led for, again, longer than he can recall, milling about, totally unaware of what was going on other than the fact it was their annual big shindig with a guest speaker coming in, France felt comfortable making the pronouncement.

"It was time," he said simply, explaining that his assistant coaches, almost all of whom had been with him for decades, were just tired and worn out and ready to do something else on Friday nights in the fall.

Then, after saying that day he planned on returning as school principal for one more school year, he stepped down from that job at the end of last June, ending a 36-year stay in that role.

He was not happy at all at first about leaving the school job, feeling he wasn't quite ready yet and wanted to use that final year to wrap things up and say goodbye to all his staffers and others in the school and community,, but as he said recently, "That was a good decision, too. Looking back now, I'm gladI did it. With all the problems that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, it would have made for a very difficult school year for me and I don't think I would have wanted to be part of that."

Still, he admits he misses being at Manchester in both roles.

"I did the coaching and the administration stuff for so long that it just becomes a part of you," France said. "I miss the people and the relationships. I still see a lot of the people from time to time, so that's good.

"But it was strange at first, I can tell you that. Last summer, when it was time to get ready for the football season and then the school year, I realized that that was not part of my life anymore."

He watched all of Manchester's football games last season, though not in person, but at the home of his son, Jason, just a half-mile away – if that – from James R. France Stadium, on a national high school sports streaming service. Jason was his dad's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for 30 years.

"He's got a nice set-up in his basement with a big-screen TV," France said.

Another former assistant, Jay Brophy, who took over as head coach, has an open invitation for France to attend practices and games "whenever he likes. We'd love to have him come out and visit with us."

France decided to stay away, though, and that might not change. He didn't – and doesn't – want to become a distraction. It's time for the new guys to be able to coach the team without interference.

And anyway, France already has enough on his plate. In fact, he has gotten so busy doing other things that he wonders how he ever had time to work.

He has lunch regularly with his two close friends and fellow retired head coaches, Bill McGee, formerly of Akron Garfield, and Joe Yost of Ellet.

There's also the upkeep of his Springfield home that he and his late wife, Nancy, bought in 1969. Nestled at a spot that, as France describes it, is where the township, Mogadore and Uniontown all come together, there is plenty of grass to mow and any number of other chores to do.

In addition, he and his sons, including Jeff, just finished turning his basement into a mancave, adorning it with many of the pieces of memorabilia from his coaching career that he hauled out of his principal's office when he retired. He was urged to keep it all, or at least most of it, for it was not just his own personal history, but also that of the football program, and the school, for 50 years. So he did just that, at first dumping it into his garage and then beginning to take inventory of it. He was doing that while also sorting through the belongings of his wife, who passed away in August 2019, a week and a half before his final football season began.

These were obviously bittersweet jobs in both regards.

There was a strong belief that France might retire from coaching after that season. That was the senior year of probably Manchester's greatest player ever, running back/defensive back Ethan Wright, now playing for the University of Cincinnati. The Frances became close with Wright, treating him like another grandson, so France wasn't about to retire before he got Wright through the completion of his high school career. With Wright leading the way, the Panthers went 9-4 and made it to the Division V regional finals before losing to eventual state champion Kirtland.

Then there's the peppers France raises in his big garden in the back yard. Handled with the utmost care, they are the key – or at least it is believed so, though we can't tell for sure without the recipe – that famous Jim France hot sauce. He brings those plants along each summer like a young, inexperienced football team. Can you coach up plants, like you can kids? Maybe so, but whatever the case, it is the thing that has become France's passion, along, of course, with doing the dad and grandpa thing, being there when those people need him, because he can now. Retirement has afforded him the time.

But there are those who thought Jim France would never retire. School and football. Football and school. They were both in his blood, and it kept him going.

Then, about a year ago, it all went away.

What would he do? He didn't seem to have any hobbies.

Oh, but he did.

They didn't know about the peppers and the hot sauce.

Now they do.

The men's group annual big meeting has been moved to the summer this year to accommodate inside restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, It will be held outside on the grounds of the church as a barbecue.

The hot sauce will be available again.

"You can have as much as you want," France always says when he serves it – but the recipe for it won't.

There will be no big announcements this time, other than telling every, as he did to a reporter on the other end of the phone, "I'm doing fine now. I'm doing good. I really am."