Growing up just outside of Girard, Dennis Franchione never thought his love for football would lead him to the success he had.
Franchione, 66, came from humble beginnings in southeast Kansas and went on to coach at some of the largest and most decorated college football programs in the country, before being inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame on Oct. 1.
“All I ever wanted to do was play or coach the game of football,” Franchione said. “So when I couldn’t play anymore, I went into coaching. I really enjoyed football the most because of the strategy and all of the different elements that go into it. I just always loved the game, so it was a good choice for me.”
Shortly after graduating from Pittsburg State in 1973, Franchione began his coaching career at Miller High School and went on to take accept a position as an assistant coach at Kansas State in 1978.
“I was fortunate to get the assistant coaching job at K-State,” Franchione said. “Coach [Jim] Dickey was looking to hire a few high school coaches in the state to be assistants. We struck up a good relationship and I was fortunate to be one of the coaches to get hired. That was really the foundation for the rest of my career because I was around a lot of great coaches and great people who taught me how to do things and them the right way.”
Franchione’s experience with the Wildcats helped him land coaching jobs at Southwestern and Tennessee Tech, before coming back to Pittsburg to accept the head-coaching position at his alma mater in 1985.
Franchione was a two-time national coach of the year winner with the Gorillas, as he led them to five conference championships with a career record of 53-6.
“It was pretty special to come back and coach at Pitt State,” Franchione said. “I didn’t come back without some anxiety about taking the job because I didn’t want people to think of me as the kid who grew up here rather than thinking of me as the coach, but it was great. We had a great fan base who were great supporters. I already knew a lot of people and had friends in the community. Plus, we had a lot of success, which made it even more special.”
Franchione’s five years at PSU acted as a launching pad for his career, as he went on to be the head coach at several Division I schools including Texas Christian University, Alabama and Texas A&M.
“I certainly have been blessed to have the career I’ve had,” Franchione said. “I never really changed a great deal over the years, I was just able to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses at every school. My core values of coaching applied to every school I was at and I stayed true to who I am. Fortunately, it ended up working pretty well.”
The expectations are high at a school like Pittsburg State, but Franchione said the bar was raised when he stepped into the spotlight at places like Alabama and Texas A&M.
“You just have more of everything at larger schools,” he said. “You have more players, more coaches, more talent, more alumni and more fans in the stands, but coaching is still coaching. Every place is a little different, but when you make a big jump, you just have more things and higher expectations.”
Franchione’s final coaching stint was at Texas State, where he was the head coach for four years, before taking a job at ESPN as a college football analyst.
Although working at ESPN allowed him to stay close to the game he loved, Franchione said his priorities changed as he grew older.
“It was a hard choice to retire,” he said. “I had been out of coaching and was working with ESPN when one of my good friends was diagnosed with cancer and that really hit home with me. I realized that at some point, I wanted to be able to reflect, enjoy my life and do other things. I think I was blessed to have the career that I had, but I think I left at the right time. When people ask me if I miss coaching, I just say that I only miss putts now.”
Being inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame was an appropriate way to cap off what was one of the best coaching careers from a native of Southeast Kansas.
“It’s pretty humbling and it’s a huge honor to be in the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame,” Franchione said. “Anytime you can have something like that happen which allows you reflect on your career is pretty special, especially with it being in my home state. I was blessed to have a lot of people in my family with me that night. It was a pretty neat occasion.”
Franchione has seen a lot of talented players come and go throughout his life of football, but there will always be a few he will never forget.
“There’s two players who I would consider the most memorable players to coach,” Franchione said. “LaDainian Tomlinson, who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Brian Urlacher. Those were special athletes to coach, but there were a lot of guys at Pittsburg State who were pretty special too. Every school along the way had some special athletes who I enjoyed coaching.”
Throughout it all, Franchione said he is thankful to have experienced the journey he took in his lifetime of football.
“I feel blessed to have been around all of the coaches and players I was around,” he said. “To be able to get to do something I loved do made it feel like I never had to get up and go to work. It was more of a labor of passion because it was something I loved to do. Fortunately, I was able to win a few games along the way.”
— Jordan Buckamneer is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jbuckamneer.