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Conversation with Coach – Carmen DeFrancesco @AreaBerwick @jakelann65 @masonlaubach1

Written by: on Friday, October 16th, 2020

 

Note: This interview was conducted in July, 2020

All Pictures via Tom Brooks Photography

How does a guy who owned 2 NAPA franchises end up coaching high school football?  On top of that how does he land head coaching gigs at Mt. Carmel and Berwick, two of the most storied high school football programs in the state of Pennsylvania?  This is the story, in a nutshell, of Coach ‘Carm’, how he paid his dues, how he approaches coaching the game he loves, why he thinks he’s the luckiest guy in the world, and his personal thoughts on a variety of other topics.

PM: “Coach, could you give us a little bit of your background?”

DeFrancesco: “Sure.  I graduated from Mt. Carmel in 1971 and matriculated to Juniata College and received a BS in Psychology in 1975.  Then I went on and was an entrepreneur for most of my career.  I started coaching in 1980 as an assistant coach and then I just got the ‘bug’.  I went back to college when I was 39 years old and got my teaching degree.  Then that began my career as a teacher and coach.”

“I started my career as an assistant under Jazz Diminck at Mt. Carmel.  My first head coaching position was at Cardinal Brennan High School, which was a small parochial school in Fountain Springs, PA. in District 11.  Then I got the head coaching job at Danville High School.  I was there five years. We had success there.  Should’ve stayed there, that was a great gig.  I left there and assumed the head coaching position at Shamokin High School.  I was there for seven years.  We couldn’t beat Mt. Carmel and if you know anything about Coal Region football, the Mt. Carmel-Shamokin game is a huge rivalry.  We were never able to win that football game.  So, the school board decided they wanted to make a change.  I was let go and found my way to Upper Dauphin in District 3.  I was there three years.  I was head football coach, head track coach, and had a great teaching position there.  We did well and my wife and I even looked at homes there.”

“Then my alma mater, Mt. Carmel Area, opened up and I couldn’t resist the urge to come back home.  So, I got that job in 2010 and was there five years and retired.  One day I was playing golf, working at a local pro shop, and missing football terribly when a college friend of mine mentioned that he was talking to Bo Orlando at Berwick and the Berwick job was open.  I called him and we talked back and forth.  I went up for an interview, and I am the luckiest guy in the world!  I never thought I’d be coaching at Berwick.  What a great place!  I am going to end my career there.  Phil, I’ve coached at Mt. Carmel, which is the winningest football program in the state and I think Berwick is number three.  So, I’ve been a lucky guy and very fortunate.  In the twilight of my career to assume this position is…(pause)…I’m so very fortunate and humbled.  We’re just having a ball.”

PM: “How did it feel to come in and coach Berwick, a rich and proud program that has three mythical national championships to its name?”

DeFrancesco: “When I walk into that stadium and see its picture on that wall and walk into our field house and look at all those names and pictures of All-Americans, it’s just fantastic.  It makes me feel young and vibrant.  It’s a torch that I bear and bear it proudly.  We had a great first year and are looking forward to this year if we have one.”

Coach DeFrancesco added this story that may not be known to many people.  He said, “Coach Curry (George Curry who is the winningest coach in the history of PA high school football and spent most of his career at Berwick) and I, at the end of his career, were very close.  I applied for the job in 2005 when he left and went to Wyoming Valley West.  I was at Shamokin and the rumblings were starting about the position being opened up because we couldn’t beat Mt. Carmel.  I got to the final interview and got cold feet.  I thought that if I don’t get the job, I’m going to lose my job at Shamokin if they find out.  So, I dropped out and boy was Coach Curry mad at me.  My wife and I, and he and his wife had gone out to dinner when I had originally applied.  I wound up losing my job at Shamokin anyway.”

PM: “How are you aiming to put Berwick back into the state spotlight and contend for another state title?”

DeFrancesco: “Phil, you just build on the history here and appeal to the kids’ pride.  I remind the kids daily about their school and the storied past.  That’s what motivates our coaches and the kids.”

PM: “Tell me a little about your family.”

DeFrancesco: “I have one brother and one sister.  I am the oldest.  My brother, Dr. Martin DeFrancesco, was All-State as a safety at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Shamokin.  He is a Brown University grad, he played football and was a wide receiver at Brown.  He’s an OBGYN in Savannah, Georgia now.  My sister, Barbara Romano, is a radio executive in Pittsburgh.”

I have a great family.  I’m a proud father of three.  I have a daughter, Coryn Parker, who owns a company called Century Services.  It’s a company that employs special needs people.  She has three children.  My son, Carm (Carmen DeFrancesco the third) played football for me at Danville.  He was All-State two years.  He earned a scholarship to Villanova and played at Villanova.  One of his teammates was Bryan Westbrook who played for the Eagles.  Carmen has one son, Carmen the fourth.  We call him C-4.  (he chuckles) And my daughter, Cheryl, is married Andy Smearman who teaches in Altoona.  They have three children.  This is my second marriage.  I’ve been married to Virginia for twelve years.”

PM: “How did you get into coaching?”

DeFrancesco: “To make a long story short, I graduated college and started detailing cars.  My father and I bought an empty building in Mt. Carmel that used to be a Ford dealership.  We applied for and received a NAPA franchise.  I owned two NAPA franchises, one in Mt. Carmel and one in Shamokin.  Our businesses were doing well and that freed me up a little bit.  The Mt. Carmel coach, Jazz Diminick who I played for, was looking for some assistants.  So, I started as a volunteer in 1980 and went on his staff full-time in 1981.”

“I worked for him for 13 years and boy I’ll tell you I was bit hard (by the coaching bug).  Then, I sold my businesses and went back to college.  I got my teaching degree from Susquehanna.  I’ve been a teacher for 23 years.  I just retired two years ago.  Altogether, I’ve been coaching for 38 years.  When I got my first coaching job, I was ready.  It was an easy transition.”

“One little tidbit.  When I played at Juniata College, I played in the first Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl back in 1973, which was the D-3 National Championship (held in Phenix City, Alabama).  So, I had the privilege of playing in the first one.  It was televised on ABC TV.  We played Wittenburg University.  We didn’t win the game, but it was a great experience.”

PM: “What are the most important concepts you try to teach your players?”

De Francesco: “That’s a great question.  Here’s what we strive for.  I’ve learned over the years that if you treat players with respect and you treat them fairly, then they will respond to you.  There’s a big difference between treating your players equally and treating them fairly.  I learned this from John Wooden (UCLA’s men’s basketball coach from 1948 through 1975 who at one point won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years).  I’m a big fan of his and I’ve read all of his books.  I use his philosophy.  Players are not equal, they’re different.  So, we treat our kids the way they deserve to be treated.”

“We have a saying about staying above the line.  There are behaviors that are above the line and below the line.  We preach to our kids to stay above the line, which means if you are going to do something, do it with a purpose and skill.  Try not to be resistant.  Kids respond to positive coaching and you have to develop a relationship with each kid.  You can’t treat them the same because they’re not all the same.”

“I also preach to our kids never be afraid to make a mistake and never be afraid to fail.  I guess from being in business, I found that I’m not afraid to fail.  When you’re not afraid to fail, you’ll learn about yourself.  If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never learn what you’re made of.  So, that’s been my philosophy in life and I’ve taught that to my students and my players.  It’s worked out very well for me.”

PM: “As far as your teams go, how do you measure success?”

DeFrancesco: “That’s a great question.  We talk about the journey, Phil.  See, the journey is what it’s all about.  The score, the game, the scoreboard is like icing on the cake.  The journey is what’s important.  Success to me is if you know at the end of the game or after practice or after a play in your heart and soul that you did your best then you are successful.  You might not be successful on the scoreboard, but you did your best, and only you know that, then that’s how I define success.  If you go out and give your coach and your teammates the best that you have every play, every game, then no matter what the score says you’re successful.”

PM: What’s the hardest thing about coaching?”

DeFrancesco: “You know what’s changed from when I played back in the 60s and 70s and when I was coaching in the 80s?  I think ESPN and TV is what happened.  Everybody thinks they’re a coach.  When I started coaching, there wasn’t a lot of parental involvement.  I wouldn’t call it blind loyalty, but 30 to 40 years ago there was a lot more respect for authority.  That’s been lost somewhere and it’s just our whole society.  It’s harder to coach now.  These kids come to school and practice with a lot of baggage and they’re under a lot of pressure.  Coaching today, you better have a degree in psychology.  You have to get into their heads.  That’s why I say you got to treat them with respect and you got to treat them fairly.  I admire high school coaches because it’s a hard job.”

Coach Carm added, “When I got this job, I felt like I was 35 years old.  My wife couldn’t believe it.  I started getting up early and working out at the gym.  It has changed my life.  It’s been a great experience.”  I believe he feels re-invigorated, even though it’s a demanding job, it’s who he is and he missed coaching.  He is now motivated again, which led to my next question.

PM: “What motivates you to continue to coach?”

DeFrancesco: “It’s the relationship with the kids and coaches.  You know what?  I love practice.  I wish I didn’t have to look at the clock.  I would be out there all day, just being around the kids and also the coaching staff.  I have a great coaching staff.  After practice we’ll go to the fieldhouse and hang out for an hour talking about practice.  That’s what keeps me motivated.  Also, the competition.  I love to compete.  At Berwick, we compete at the highest level.  That’s what I love. That’s what it’s all about.”

PM: “What do you want your legacy to be?”

DeFrancesco: “Oh boy, I’ve never though about that.  I would hope that I treated my players with respect and dignity.  And I respected my assistant coaches.  I said this to my players, ‘I don’t want you to see me 20 years from now and come up to me and say, coach you know what?  I wanted to be a good football player, but you didn’t work me hard enough.’  I want you to say, ‘Hey coach, you did a great job, you worked me hard, you treated me fairly, and you made a man out of me.’  That would be a good legacy.  It has nothing to do with wins and losses.  I just want my legacy to be, ‘he was a fair guy, he treated me fairly, he worked me hard, and he taught me lessons about life.’”

PM: “Is coaching football a 365 day a year job?”

DeFrancesco: “It is.  It shouldn’t be, but I’m going to be honest with you.  There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not thinking about football.  When I played high school football, we didn’t see our coach till the second week of August when practice started.  It’s absolutely crazy now.  There’s 7 on 7s, these camps, you practice as soon as school is over in June.  If you don’t do it, you feel like you’re behind.  When I started coaching in the 80s there was none of that.  This Coronavirus thing has put us on our heels.  It feels like the old days.  We’re not running around to camps, linemen challenges, and going to 7 on 7s.  Maybe it’s how it should be.  Let kids just be a kid in the summer.”

PM: “What’s the biggest thrill or most satisfaction you’ve got out of coaching to date?”

DeFrancesco: “The biggest thrill is seeing the kids reap the rewards of their work.  The wins are great and the championships are great, but when you get to be my age, you’re not going to talk about winning a state championship.  You’re going to talk about the journey, meaning the practices and what it took to win the championship.  So, I think the biggest thrill I get is seeing the kids happy when they succeed.”

PM: “Now to what I call fun questions.  What do you do with your free time, coach?”

DeFrancesco: “Okay, so we got grandkids.  I got grandkids that are baseball players, wrestlers, soccer players, so we spend time visiting grandkids.  I also love to play golf.  I don’t get to play golf as much as I’d like.  And Virginia and I love to travel.  We’re big fans of the theater.  We take a week every year and go to New York City and see the Broadway shows.”

PM: “What does your favorite meal consist of?”

DeFrancesco: “Carmen DeFrancesco,” he says slowly emphasizing his name.  “So, my favorite meal has something to do with pasta.  I would say a good dry red wine, pasta, and I love veal.  That’s my favorite, favorite meal.”

PM: “What would be your favorite dessert?”

DeFrancesco: “You’re not going to believe this, I love chocolate.  So, chocolate ice cream, chocolate cake.  Anything chocolate.”

PM: “What is your favorite movie?”

DeFrancesco: “I love space movies.  I was a big Star Trek fan.  My favorite though?  There was one, I think it was called ‘Oblivion’ with Tom Cruise.”

PM: “What is your favorite Broadway play?”

DeFrancesco: “I have a couple I would say.  Number 1 is ‘Phantom of the Opera.’  Then ‘Anastasia’ and ‘Les Miserables’.  As a side note, Hugh Jackman is my favorite actor.”

PM: “If you could go back in time, is there anyone you’d like to meet?”

DeFrancesco: “Oh boy, yes.  Wilt Chamberlain.  Wilt Chamberlain is my favorite, favorite athlete of all-time.  I was a big 76er fan in the 60s.  My mother and father would take us to see him at the Convention Center in Philadelphia before the Spectrum.  So, I got to see Wilt Chamberlain play against Bill Russell (Boston Celtics Hall of Famer) a number of times.  Probably number 2 is Jimmy Brown.  I was a big Cleveland fan and still am.  In 1962, Mt. Carmel had this football banquet in February and Jim Brown was the guest speaker.  I was only nine, but my dad took me to see him.”

PM: “If there is one coach, alive or deceased, you’d like to sit down with, who would it be?”

DeFrancesco: “John Wooden.  He’s the greatest coach of all-time in any sport in my opinion.  Coaches are teachers and he always referred to himself as a teacher.”

PM: “What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?”

DeFrancesco: “Well, I’m very sentimental and emotional.  I cry a lot at movies.  I’m a softy.”

We talked a bit about the virus and the fact, that as of now, there will be no fans at the high school football games.  But Coach Carm remains optimistic and added that the kids are really excited for the season to start.  He has a career record of 161-100 and five D-4 titles in his 23 years as head coach.

Coach mentioned that his dad was a World War II veteran and that his brother spent 17 years in the Air Force as a doctor.  He has a lot of respect for the military.  We also chatted some about his playing days when he was a tailback in high school and college.  Coach DeFrancesco also did track and field and played basketball in high school.

Here’s a man who was successful in life, had his own business, yet stepped out of his comfort zone and went back to school at age 39 to follow a passion that had grown inside him.  He definitely has that desire and drive to be good at whatever he undertakes.  As it turned out, he’s done very well in his two new vocations, teaching and coaching.  This should be an example to many.  Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone if you get that gut feeling to change gears in mid-life.  Another piece of advice from Coach is ‘don’t be afraid to fail’ because that’s when you can learn a lot and a lot about yourself.  “I’ve lived a lucky life,” he says.  And who can argue with that?

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