By Jeff Nations
Millson French has no master plan for retirement.
The long-time Strasburg High School boys basketball coach has no firm idea about what life will be like away from the basketball gym, where he's made his living -- and a second home, it often seemed -- for nearly four decades.
Someday soon, maybe as early as Wednesday night when the Rams visit William Monroe for the opening round of the Region B basketball tournament, French's long career molding kids into basketball players, and basketball players into teams -- it will all be over.
"I'm not really ready," said French, who made it known before this season, his 39th as Strasburg's head coach, that this would be the last. "Somebody told me it would be sort of like dying, but I don't know. I don't really have any hobbies. My hobby was basketball."
That "hobby" has been a life-long passion for French, dating back to his days as a player at Central High School. He fondly remembers making the junior varsity squad as a freshman -- the school didn't have a proper jersey for him, instead providing a plain white top that his mother dyed for him to proudly wear during games. French got cut as a sophomore, didn't go out as a junior and then made the varsity squad as a senior. He was never a star, didn't play all that much even.
After graduating from Bridgewater College and landing his first teaching job in Shenandoah County at Strasburg Middle School, French had no definite plans to coach. He was spending that first summer out of college, renovating an old house with his father. But at the urging of Strasburg boosters Gary Rutz and Tommy Simmons, French interviewed with then-athletic director Glenn Proctor for the vacant junior-varsity boys basketball position. That was 1971 -- for French, the first step in what would be a decades-long passion. It wasn't just basketball, though -- French was also hired to help coach the JV football team.
"I didn't know anything about football," French said. "So I was kind of learning that on the fly."
French says much the same about his early days as the Rams' head coach, after taking over from Rich Hardy to start the 1974-75 season.
"In reality, I probably wasn't ready," French said. "I learned a lot on the job. I'm sure there were times when I could have been a little bit better if I'd had 40 years on the job."
Strasburg mayor Tim Taylor, who played on those first two French-led varsity squads as a junior and senior, has a different recollection.
"He was so animated, whenever he coached," Taylor said. "He still is some, but I liked it most obviously when he was younger. I think the perfect term for the way he cared about his players is kind of a tough love, I guess you'd say. He really, really cared so much about the players. But he made you respect the game, respect others, really big on discipline.
"It's like a cliché, but all the stuff that he really taught us besides playing basketball carried over into our adult lives, when it comes down to what we're doing now, how you succeed in life, etcetera."
French also made a habit, right from the start, of opening up the gym three times a week during the summer.
The wins started coming soon enough, district titles, regional appearances -- in back-to-back seasons (1997-98 and 1998-1999) French led Strasburg squads paced by standouts Jeff Whittle and Andrew Dellinger to Group A state tournament semifinal appearances. Those were memorable seasons, to be sure, but French is just as proud of many other Strasburg squads which didn't achieve quite so much on the basketball court.
"I love the competition," French said. "I love seeing the kids get better, seeing teams perform -- a lot of time, performing better than they thought they were capable of playing."
Along the way, French developed some memorable rivalries, among them legendary Central coach Jerry Walters, current Clarke County coach Brent Emmart and longtime Stonewall Jackson coach Ron Smoot.
"Certainly Jerry Walters at Central, he was a tremendous coach who always had good teams, well-prepared teams," French said. "Brent Emmart at Clarke County is a great coach -- we've been on the wrong side of too many games against his teams over the last 10 years or so. Sometimes that's talent level, but a lot of it is his coaching. Ron Smoot at Stonewall always did a great job -- I'll tell you what, when we played them it was all we could handle."
French has had great players, like Whittle and Dellinger, but more often he's coached kids who didn't have the talent to play beyond high school.
"A lot of people think coaches can just move their hand over a kid and make him a player," French said. "If you're a good coach, you've got good players -- kids with potential and ability. But its like giving piano lessons -- you can teach them to play, but you're not going to come up with too many Mozarts."
The challenge has been one French long embraced, supported by his wife, Bonnie, and his children. The long hours sacrificed to the gym, working to bring out the best in his players -- that he did without qualms.
And although he's changed his coaching style to fit the times or his personnel from year to year, French's teams have always been based on that bedrock of gritty man-to-man defense and a controlled offense.
The kids have changed, too, and that has been a tougher adjustment for a self-described "old school" kind of coach. Players, and parents, have in many cases become more expectant of praise and playing time whether earned or not.
"I think kids are a little more skilled than they once were," French said. "That being said, I don't know if players now are as mentally tough as they were maybe 30 years ago. That's a generality, of course, there are still kids who are mentally and physically tough."
French has never been one to coddle, not now, not ever -- in his eyes, doing so is a disservice to his players.
"I'm not the easiest coach to play for, I've never been accused of that," French said with a chuckle. "But what I've hoped and believed as a teacher and as a coach -- I don't really care if you like me right now. I want you to like me 20 years from now.
"It's been a real eye-opener for me in some ways. I've had a lot of kids write me notes or come back and thank me -- usually not the year after or two years after, but years later."
Count Taylor, who graduated in 1976, among those former players who appreciates the life lessons learned from French.
"He's a major influence on my life," said Taylor, who later coached alongside French at Strasburg. "He's one of the major reasons I got into education and also into coaching, without a doubt."
Strasburg athletic director Matt Hiserman knows that French will be hard to replace.
"Just his overall love of the sport of basketball stands out so much," Hiserman said. "You just don't see coaches who have that love of the sport that he does. After 39 years, he still loves to learn and teach things that can help our basketball team."
With 453 wins and counting, French has his eye on one more victory -- at least. His last season guiding the Rams (18-5 ) has been a successful one, regardless of Wednesday's outcome. He knows the end, whenever it does come, won't be easy.
"It's hard, in that some of these kids have been here and I'd like to see them through their senior year," French said. "But no matter when you retire, that's something you've got to deal with. Whenever you go, it would be tough.
"... I hope it's not too soon. We're going to have our work cut out for us at William Monroe. I think it's doable, but it doesn't matter what I think. It's up to the troops to decide."
Sports editor Jeff Nations can be reached at 540-465-5137 ext. 161 or at email@example.com