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Written by: Phil Myers on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021
John Manion has been to the Lampeter-Strasburg football program what chocolate candy is to kids. He has installed a football program at L-S that is sweet and very likeable to those who partake. He is a dedicated family man and his love for teaching, for football, and for the kids who have come through his program is unparalleled. So, to many, his decision to retire after 23 years at the helm came as a shock, but to those who know him probably not so much. This interview was conducted in February and deals with many issues including coaching philosophy and the reason for retiring from coaching at the young age of 50.
After some preliminary pleasantries, I asked Coach Manion who his toughest opponent was over the years while he was head coach at Lampeter-Strasburg.
JM: “Cocalico. It’s always been a program I strive to be like. Anytime we beat them I feel like we got a good team.” Coach also mentioned Manheim Central’s program but the Barons were not someone they have played consistently because of the two teams being in different sectionals at times throughout the years he’s been coaching.
In his 23 years of coaching the Pioneers, Lampeter-Strasburg never had a losing regular season. (They had a losing record one season, but that was due to a playoff loss.) Mr. Manion has amassed 177 victories, losing only 84 games. His blue and white clad Pioneers chalked up three District 3 championships (2007, 2019, 2020) and made the state semi-finals the past two years.
PM: “Do you have a most memorable game or season if you could pick one?”
JM: “Boy, that’s tough. Memorable season…fresh on my mind, this has been one heck of a year. I think looking back on it, 2011 was a really fun team to coach. We didn’t win the district, but we pushed McDevitt in the finals in a close game. Those kids were just super-talented. It was fun from the beginning until the end of the year. They were a joy to coach.”
“A really cool game…we had a kid on our team, a manager, we called him Coach Hershey. He was a special needs student and was just a great kid. He was with us for his high school years. CV (Conestoga Valley) agreed to let him do the opening kick-off since he kicked in our practices all the time. That was a really neat moment.”
PM: “Tell me a little about your family.”
JM: “My wife’s name is Rachel. We’ve been together since high school and have been married 24 years. She’s been by my side for every one of those years. This has been like a family affair. My kids, my daughters and son, were managers for us. My son played for me. It’s been pretty cool. My son, John, is a junior at Millersville (University). My daughters, Jenna and Megan are twins and are seniors in high school right now.”
PM: “If you don’t mind, talk about your decision to retire.”
JM: “I can’t believe I coached 23 years varsity ball. It’s been a great and a fast ride. The last three years when I went to my doctor at the end of the season, it was like always my worst blood readings. I’m a Type 2 diabetic. The stress and everything got me worried a bit cause I’m starting to think beyond the football field now and beyond the coaching career.”
“The other thing is the amount of time it was starting to take to be a coach and a teacher and try to do both effectively was getting to be harder and harder every year.” (Coach Manion is a Middle School math teacher.) “If this was Texas I could be paid just to coach, but not up here in Pennsylvania. I had to get rid of the part time gig or the other one.”
PM: “As a high school coach it’s got to be a 365-day a year job anymore, doesn’t it?”
JM: “For a head coach it is, yeah. For assistant coaches there’s definitely a lot that goes into it. For the head coach there’s never a day off. It’s not a bad thing. It’s like I said, it’s getting too tough for me to do both.”
PM: “What are you going to miss the most about coaching?”
JM: Without hesitation he answered, “The kids and the coaches both. Those moments on the field with the kids. The moments in the coaches’ room with my buddies. Most of my staff has been with me from near the beginning. None of them quit. They are still here. It’s going to be really strange walking by that room and knowing it’s not mine anymore.”
PM: “Tell me about how you got into coaching.”
JM: “I guess it was when I decided to become a teacher. I started out in engineering at Penn State but went into teaching and transferred to California University of Pennsylvania. I love football. I love the strategy of it. I love offense especially. I wasn’t even 21 yet and was coaching a midget league back in Western Pennsylvania. When I turned 21 my high school coach said, ‘you’re old enough if you want to come with us.’ So, I joined my old high school staff. They worked me pretty hard as the young guy and forced me to be creative and come up with things. It was a really good beginning with a really good group of guys I trusted.” Coach Manion said that coaching at Charleroi, where he played high school football, was one of his part-time jobs when he was in college.
PM: “Let’s go back a little farther and talk about your family growing up in Western PA.”
JM: “My dad’s name was John and my mom’s name is Rosemary. Dad had season tickets to the Steelers since I was two. So, we shared that experience. I have two sisters, Donna and Chrissy. Dad has passed away and my mother and sisters live in Penn Hills now. I went to Pittsburgh city schools until I was 9.”
In high school he played quarterback at Charleroi. So, we talked some about his playing days at Charleroi and all the small towns and how every game felt like a rivalry game. Coach Manion said it was pretty intense. Then he switched gears for a minute and talked about how football has gotten big in the Lancaster area. “The level of play in my years living out here is just getting better and better. There’s a deep talent pool,” he stated.
PM: “So, you’re hired as head coach at Lampeter-Strasburg. How were you able to build upon what was already there?”
JM: “I think they always had good athletes. When I got here, I was impressed by the athletes and their toughness. I thought they could do more. I think the number one thing right away was we got into the weight room. We turned it more into a year-round program. We did preach other sports and competing hard. We wanted year-round athletes. It might have been the first time it really happened there.”
“My coaching staff, I think that’s the number one thing. A lot of us had similar philosophies. I brought in people that fit with my personality. We love football, but we love kids more. We push them, but we have fun. I always want to have fun on that field and the group of guys I had working with me and the kids bought into that. We always tried to have the kids do the right things and win the right way. The number one thing I’ve heard since I retired is that a lot of people really appreciated that.”
“The community has really rallied around us. When I first started, we put a system in that everyone bought into. We started youth camps and made those connections and we made it more of a K-12 program around here. It’s good both ways, the young kids look up to the high school players. Then our guys are good role models in return.”
PM: “What’s the most important concept over the years that you and your staff tried to teach the kids or instill in them?”
JM: “Oh, that’s tough. We always wanted the kids to believe in themselves and believe in one another. The first year we won a section title was the first year we actually had a theme, and that’s what we chose. We chose belief. That was 2002 and I’ve always believed that was the team that turned it around for us.”
We chatted about the team concept in football compared to other sports for a while. “Football is a complete team effort,” he declared noting things like how a player practices, how well the junior varsity kids are prepared and contribute, and even the game plans the coaches come up with.
PM: “How do you measure success, coach?”
JM: “The number of kids that have gone through the program, I think, then going out and being future coaches, future fathers and husbands. If we’re raising kids the right way and teach them the right lessons on a football field, they are going to be great at whatever they do. That’s the ultimate success. As far as the wins and losses, more than championships, it’s just the longevity we coached together for 23 years, my staff and I, and we never had a losing regular season. We had one losing season because of a playoff game. That continuity together, I think was a great thing for us.”
PM: “What did you find was the toughest thing about coaching?” Coach Manion has a very interesting take on this question.
JM: “I did it so young, it became who I was so fast. Even my friends called me coach at times. I never really thought ‘Wow, this is bigger than who I am at times.’ When you go out into the community, you’re always ‘coach.’ It’s interesting.”
I think what he was trying to say is that when you’re known as ‘coach’ and not John or Mr. Manion there may be a little distance in what one perceives as closer friendships. There is a lot of respect, which is nice, but it apparently places you in a position you’d rather not be when around friends.
PM: “Anything else?”
JM: “Because we have a JV game on Monday and a walkthrough on Thursday, we really got 2, two and a half hour practices to get a whole game plan in to teenagers. You have to streamline it, you have to communicate well, you have to know your personnel, and kids have to buy in. I love it. I love the challenge of getting them ready for a Friday night and all that goes into it in such a short time.”
Coach Manion also said, “I don’t care about trophies. I don’t care about all of that. I just put our best out there and enjoy watching the kids perform.” Sounds like a fantastic coaching philosophy.
PM: “What would you like your legacy to be?”
JM: “I think the kids are my legacy. The legacy is already there. It’s what they become. We already have kids coming back to coach. The longevity of the program, the way we did things. You’d have to be inside the program to really appreciate it.”
PM: “What did you do with your free time when coaching?”
JM: “I never hardly had any. Building a program and having kids almost the entire time, my spare time was their time. Early on my wife came onto the field at practice to tell me she was pregnant with our son. So, whatever time I had was theirs. The number one rule in my life is right here in this house, it’s where I’m most needed. My wife has been so awesome in holding down the fort when I couldn’t be here. Our whole family grew up as a part of this. It was really neat that they were always on the sidelines. In the summer when she worked, they would come to practices and just kind of hang out on the field with me.”
PM: “If you could go back in time, is there one person you’d like to meet?”
JM: “Jesus would obviously be the number one if I could go back in time.”
PM: “Is there a coach, living or deceased, that you’d love to pick their brain?”
JM: “Tony Dungy. I love that guy. The way he carries himself. The way he tried to take young men and make them into mature men as they came into the pros. I’ve read a lot of his books as well. The passion he has in his life for his religion and his family and for the game. To be able to balance all of that is admirable.”
PM: “What would your favorite meal consist of?”
JM: “Any bar food after a Friday night win.” (He laughs.) “I love Stromboli.”
PM: How about a favorite dessert?”
JM: “I don’t like many, but I like cheesecake.”
PM: “Do you have a favorite TV show?”
JM: “Ah, my poor wife. It’s almost always sports.”
PM: “Do you have any favorite movies?”
JM: “There’s no particular movie that’s a favorite.” He thinks for a few seconds and says, “there’s one football movie I loved, called ‘When the Game Stands Tall.’ It’s the one about the Catholic school in California.” (The movie deals with Coach Bob Ladouceur and his De La Salle Spartans, their 151-game win streak, the end of that streak, and how Ladouceur deals with that, his health, and his players’ off the field issues.)
Coach Manion adds ‘Field of Dreams’ as he is a big Pittsburgh Pirates fan along with the Steelers and Penguins too.
PM: “What is one thing that people may not know about John Manion?”
JM: “I’m a teacher over a football coach. I always take the teaching side of me more serious than people realize.”
PM: “Forgive me for asking, but is there a chance we will see you on the sidelines again at some point?”
JM: “Less likely than 50/50. It depends on how I feel when I retire from my teaching job. I think there is good coaching left in me, but it just cannot happen as a head coach for sure. Maybe an assistant at some point after a few years. If I’m going to head coach again, it’s going to be after I retire.”
We talked a few more minutes about him having the Covid virus last summer and what a stressful season 2020 was, not only worrying about the virus, but knowing that if he lost a regular season game, the team probably wouldn’t make the playoffs.
PM: “Is there anything else you’d like to say or comment on?”
JM: “Retiring has been a blessing. When coaching, as soon as one year ended, I was thinking about the next. It’s been kind of cool to just sit back and think about all the things we did do, the kids that we worked with, and to talk over all those moments with my family.”
John Manion has done a lot of good things at Lampeter-Strasburg. He has set the bar high for the next guy. He is well-respected in the community, not only for football, but for teaching as well. The world right now could use some more Coach Manions. He’ll obviously continue to make an impact as a teacher, but my gut tells me that someday, somewhere, we will see him pop up on the sidelines again leading his troops to more victories and having fun every step of the way.
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