Longtime Montgomery High School football coach Jason Franci dies at 75

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Jason Franci, the longtime Montgomery High School football coach for whom the Vikings’ stadium is named, died Monday afternoon at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital after a recent spate of health issues.

Franci, 75, was synonymous with Vikings football, and Vikings athletics, for decades. Franci retired after the 2012 season as the winningest football coach in the Redwood Empire. His Vikings recorded 232 wins and collected three North Coast Section championship banners in his 33 seasons at the helm.

“He is Montgomery football,” said Dean Haskins, Montgomery’s athletic director. Haskins played football for Franci when he was a student at Montgomery and became his colleague when he returned to campus to teach and coach.

“He was somebody you would run through a wall for,” Haskins said. “But he was never afraid to put his arm around you and help you through a hard time. And he was never afraid to kick you in the butt if you needed it.”

Jim Lance, a teacher at Montgomery who coached with Franci both when he started with the basketball team and moved to the football squad, said Franci cultivated the feeling of family by always being accessible and available on campus.

“We saw those kids all day long,” he said. “A lot of times they told us more than we needed to know. At the same time, they knew Jason had their backs. If you messed up, he’s going to yell at you, but that said, those kids knew that he loved them. Consequently, they played for him.”

And they came back to see their coach.

“He was beloved by players and the students he taught,” said Jan Smith Billing, the North Bay League commissioner who was assistant principal at Montgomery for a period when Franci taught and coached. “They just loved the man.”

Born Oct. 17, 1943, in Fort Bragg, Franci was the eldest of Kathleen and Londo Franci’s three children. Reared in Manchester, Franci graduated from Point Arena High School.

He enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he was a three-sport standout in baseball, basketball and football. In 1996, Franci was inducted into SRJC’s inaugural Hall of Fame class.

Franci transferred to UC Santa Barbara, where he was a member of the 1965 Gauchos that went 8-1 and earned a berth in the western regional championship. The team was later inducted into the Santa Barbara Athletic Hall of Fame.

He played 10 games for the American Football League’s Denver Broncos in 1966, making one catch for 8 yards, and then spent two seasons playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League.

Despite that resume, Franci told The Press Democrat in 2009, “I didn’t have the talent. I wasn’t big enough. I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t strong enough. I just wouldn’t quit.”

That attitude came to exemplify Franci’s Vikings.

He started at Montgomery in 1971 and coached the JV squad for nine years. He took over the varsity team in 1980.

“We didn’t always have the best players. Usually if you have two or three really good players you are going to win. We didn’t always have that, but if everybody goes out there and does what you ask them to do, you are going to win a lot more than you are going to lose,” Lance said.

Franci’s Vikings won more than they lost. They won three North Coast Section championships — 1996, 2000 and 2004 — with Franci. The 2004 team went undefeated at 13-0 and included Koa Misi, who played linebacker for the University of Utah and then the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins from 2010-2016, and defensive back Marcus Ezeff, who played at Cal.

Franci’s on-field demeanor was legendary. The man could yell. But when the game was over, it was over, colleagues and friends said.

“You get him off the field, it’s a totally different personality,” said longtime Vikings baseball coach Russ Peterich, who worked alongside Franci in the classroom and athletic department for decades.

“He cared about football, but he cared about the kids more,” he said. “I thought of him as a brother.”

From the beginning, Franci was a believer in sports, especially team sports, said his first wife, Caren Franci, the coach of the SRJC women’s basketball team from 1970-2002.

“I think it was really important to him to transfer that love and what the sport could do to make them better men and citizens. It was about what the actual participation in team sports did for young people,” she said.

“I just see it as a tremendous loss to our community and certainly to the coaching community,” she said. “He was really a good guy and lived his life with a lot of integrity.”

Franci is survived by his wife, Michele, of Windsor; his son, Matt, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado; his daughter, Michelle, of Santa Rosa and one granddaughter.

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