John Franco couldn't help but laugh at the irony. "It's kind of a crazy world, isn't it?" Franco was saying Monday night after being named Altoona Area High School's new football coach. "I'm just amazed at how things turned out."
Join the club.
Nineteen years ago, Franco was jabbed off the plank by the same Altoona administration, led by superintendent Dennis Murray, that is now only too happy to welcome him back.
In voting to open the position in 1993, Dick Lockard, then as now a board member and advocate for athletics, said Franco would be "a tremendous assistant coach."
After eight seasons and a 40-45-2 record often filled with frustration at his bosses' perceived indifference, Franco fired off a few salvos himself, suggesting he was not the common denominator in Altoona's record for discouraging football coaches.
"When I first came here," Franco said Monday, "it was a battleground."
To expect the two to make peace and hatch a new alliance in this lifetime would have been akin to the Hatfields inviting the McCoys to Thanksgiving dinner.
But time also has a way of healing.
Now Murray, in pushing for the hiring, isn't sure Franco will be making enough money.
Altoona's appreciation for Franco grew while watching him take a Tyrone program, once in the same depths that the Mountain Lions find themselves today, and lead it to three PIAA Class AA championship games, including delivery of the gold ball in 1999.
Franco left Altoona with almost no maroon-clad believers and, thanks to his 190-37 record in 18 seasons at Tyrone, returns as a member of the Pennsylvania Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
As Altoona struggled to win five of its last 28 games, Franco's potential candidacy was helped by the fact that he continued to work as a teacher at AAHS.
Clearly, the best coach in the Altoona district was right under its nose: It just took some time to admit it.
"I have come full circle, yes," Murray said Monday, "but I think John's come full circle, too. I think when he came here originally, he did a good job. There was a greater expectation at the time. It's a matter of maturing and growing, and he's done that.
"My appreciation has grown immensely for the kind of coach John has evolved into it and following the [Tyrone] program because he was one of us was exciting."
"We've all grown and changed, evolved," Franco said. "No doubt."
While Altoona needed Franco and its hiring is a no-brainer, Franco did not deny that some close to him wondered how much he has to gain.
Aside from perhaps only Earl Strohm, who didn't have the benefit of a playoff system to prove his program's greatness but did turn out four NFL players, Franco is the best football coach in Blair County history.
Other than boys track, Altoona's programs are not enjoying the success they once did. Plus they're now in the WPIAL, playing Gateway, Central Catholic and McKeesport. Franco - or anyone - likely won't succeed like he did at Tyrone, but he's not concerned about a legacy.
"I never coached to go after personal acclaim," he said. "The goals and successes are different. [At Tyrone], you're 9-1 and people thought, 'geez, we thought we'd do better.' Talk about creating a monster. We're starting from the ground up. I think Altoona can be successful or I wouldn't have come back. Honestly, I'm not concerned about that [legacy]. I measure myself."
Having covered Franco's bumps in the road, and his success story, I admire that he's willing to give Altoona another shot.
"I think I've proven myself," he said. "I look at it as a challenge. There were a lot of problems here, and hopefully I'll be able to solve them. Who would have ever thought I'd ever come back here? I never did. But the more I thought about it, I thought this would be really neat to see if we could revive this."
In the Strohm era, the home side of Mansion Park was full of season-ticket holders. The visitors' side was often crowded, too, and portable bleachers were needed for the biggest games.
That's changed dramatically, but credit Altoona for trying to turn back the clock.
"I don't think the community enthusiasm for the football program is nearly as strong as it was," Murray said. "I can't tell you why, but we would like to see it come back, and I think it can come back. I think we needed to bring somebody in here to bring it back."
That somebody was already on the payroll.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.