by Scott Kindberg
January 11, 2019
Faith, Family & Football
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article on the Sirianni family appeared in Gridiron, The Post-Journal’s high school football magazine, in August 2006. With Nick Sirianni, the Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator and the youngest of Fran and Amy’s three sons, preparing for a showdown with Kansas City in the AFC Divisional Playoffs on Saturday, it was deemed appropriate to run the story again.
Amy Sirianni sits at one end of a table in her West Ellicott home. She’s joined by her husband Fran and two of their three sons, Jay and Nick. It’s only late July, but Amy, a kindergarten teacher at Holy Family Catholic School in Jamestown, decides — more than a month before classes begin — that it’s time for a little lesson in faith.
“Sometimes,” she says as she looks a visitor squarely in the eye, “you have to completely trust because the Lord knows.”
But — you want to ask — how in the Lord’s name can He ever connect all the dots on what has turned out to be the Siriannis’ faith, family and football odyssey, dating back almost 40 years? Can His “players” — in this case the Siriannis — hear or be willing to accept an “audible” when it’s called? Can He look at a situation and get them to trust that He’ll steer them in the right direction, even if there are obstacles in the way?
Fran, Amy, Mike Jay and Nick are convinced that He can and that He has, and they aren’t about to second-guess His play calling.
So as Fran, who taught at Southwestern Central School for 34 years, coached various sports, including varsity football for nine and middle-school football for the last dozen, watches his sons continue in the teaching/coaching professions, he admits that, “We couldn’t be more happy with where they are.”
“I just believe the Lord leads you,” Amy adds.
Need convincing? Read on.
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After World War II, Fran’s father, Frank owned a women’s clothing store in Kane, Pa. that afforded his family a comfortable lifestyle. By the time Fran had graduated from Clarion University in the late-1960s, he felt he needed to sit down with his father and have a little talk.
“I said to him, ‘Dad, what do you think? Would you like me to come back and take over the business?'”
Privately, Fran, a two-sport athlete at Clarion and the owner of a bachelor’s degree in education, never had any desire to enter the retail world, but he felt he owed it to his father to ask anyway.
The response was short and to the point: “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” Frank told his son. “It’s been great for me, but the day of the small business owner is over.”
“If he had said yes,” Fran said as he pointed to Jay and Nick sitting to his left, “these guys would have probably grown up in Kane. The Lord leads us in strange ways.”
Jay, 31, will be starting his fourth season as the head football coach at Southwestern, his alma mater; Nick 25, will begin his first year as the wide receivers coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; and Mike, 34, is beginning his fourth year as the head coach at Washington & Jefferson University.
“We were raised that everything we do happens for a reason,” Mike said.
After a visitor spent an hour with the family, one can understand why they believe in that philosophy so passionately.
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Upon graduating from Clarion, Fran spent part of a year as safety with the Orlando Panthers of the old Continental Football League. Nursing a knee injury and unable to play, Fran decided to return home for a weekend to visit Amy and his grandmother, who lived in Jamestown.
“My grandmother, who lived on City View, came with the newspaper and said, ‘Look, there’s a job over at Southwestern,'” Fran recalled. “I called on a Sunday, got an interview on Monday and got hired the same day. I never went back to Florida. I called to apologize (to the Panthers organization), but in the best interests of me and my family, we stayed in Jamestown.”
The Panthers’ loss was Southwestern’s gain.
But, at the time, who knew the magnitude of such a decision?
The dots, even all those years ago, were beginning to be connected through a series of unanticipated events.
Let’s review: A knee injury prevents Fran from playing. He flies home to visit Amy. Fran’s grandmother and happens to see the classified advertisement in The Post-Journal about a job opening at Southwestern. Within days, Fran is hired. And the next 34 years, he teaches and coaches at SWCS, which is but a mile or two from his Howard Avenue home.
The Siriannis don’t believe so. Fran, who founded a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at SWCS years ago and is a cancer survivor, is of the mindset that when one door closes another one opens.
In his case, the teaching position at Southwestern — seventh and eighth grade science — afforded Fran an opportunity to eventually take over as head coach of the Trojans’ varsity team, which, in turn, exposed his sons to the gridiron at an early age.
“These guys have memories of diving into (tackling) dummies and crawling under the bleachers growing up,” said Fran, who coached the Trojans’ varsity from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s when he was forced to step down after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.
But one thing he and Amy couldn’t anticipate was that their boys would charge through that figurative door like blitzing linebackers, and follow their mother and father into education and, ultimately, into coaching.
There were plenty of dots that still needed to be connected back then, but the Sirianni boys — whether they know it or not — had begun to lay the groundwork for what has turned out to be a rather amazing journey with football as the common denominator.
Like father, like sons.
“It’s really neat to just think back on their accomplishments,” SWCS athletic director Rich Rybicki said. “I don’t know if there is a family in the United States that can top that.”
Tom Priester, who began teaching at the high school in the early 1960s, has known Fran since the latter arrived at SWCS in 1969 and served as Priester’s junior high track coach.
“I know the ideals he brought to the program, and he continues to have the same ideals — God first, family and a dedication to what you do, and he’s instilled that into his boys,” said Priester, who is a retired physical education teacher, but still coaches cross country at the school. “I know they have a great deal of respect for their father and they just picked up the tradition their father established.”
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Late last October, Fran could be seen walking the Southwestern sidelines during an overtime thriller at Springville in the regular-season finale.
For most of the game, which would ultimately propel the Trojans into the postseason and their first division championship since the 1960s, Fran was on his cell phone, relaying reports to Mike and Nick, who were rooting for Jay via the wireless connection.
Mike was scouting a high school football game. Nick, who at the time was an assistant at Mount Union College, was anxiously awaiting word, too, as he and some friends were holed up in the school’s football offices in Alliance, Ohio.
“I actually remember it vividly,” Mike recalled.
So, Fran, doing his best John Madden impression, gave Mike and Nick a play-by-play of a game the Trojans ultimately won, 37-30.
By the next morning, Fran and Amy hopped in their SUV and headed to Mount Union to watch another game involving another son in another town. Such has been Fran and Amy’s fall weekend lifestyle for the last 16 years, ever since Mike arrived at the campus as a freshman in the fall of 1990.
Fran could probably make the drive to Ohio in his sleep because he’s done it so many times over nearly two decades. In fact, for only the second time in 16 years a Sirianni will not be playing or coaching at Mount Union this season.
“We’ll have to learn a new route,” Fran said. “I don’t know if the car will be able to do it.”
Ironically, were it not for Amy, the Sirianni boys may have never stepped foot on the campus, never played or coached football at the premier Division III program in the country or counted eight national championship rings between them.
In fact, when Mike was considering his college options during his senior year at SWCS, Amy took him to St. Bonaventure University where representatives from scores of schools were gathered to recruit prospective students.
“I saw this Mount Union and we talked to them,” Amy recalled. “We’d never heard of Mount Union before.”
Impressed with the woman from the school’s admissions office, Amy became intrigued by the possibility of her oldest son attending there
“I said, ‘Why don’t you try this college? It’s something I think you would like, it’s a nice, small college, it’s a Christian school.'”
Ultimately, Mike was accepted, the Siriannis paid a visit in the spring and he was enrolled for the 1990 fall term.
“Anytime you make a decision, Fran always says to put the pros and cons of every place you’re deciding to go on paper, look at these and pray about it,” Amy said. “I just believe the Lord leads you. That’s where he led Michael.”
“Everything has worked out,” Mike said. “Knock on wood that it will continue to do so.”
Ironically, however, Mike wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence about continuing his football career after high school.
Although he was a three-sport athlete at Southwestern – football, basketball and track and field – Mike only planned to be a triple and long jumper in the spring. The way he figured, his football career ended when he took off his Trojans uniform for the final time in the fall of 1989.
That is until Fran gave him a gentle nudge toward the gridiron, suggesting that he would make friends quicker if he were on the football team.
“When we went down there, he didn’t know anybody, he didn’t know a soul,” Fran said. “Amy still has a picture of him that shows him standing all by himself. Amy cried all the way home.”
The Siriannis can’t help but smile at the memory now, but it’s hard to imagine what their lives would have been like had Amy not been so impressed with that woman from Mount Union’s admissions office. And, what if Mike hadn’t listened to his father’s advice? Would Jay and Nick have followed in their oldest brother’s footsteps? Would they all be coaching now?
The questions never had to be answered.
“Times like that you know the Lord is working in that situation,” Amy said.
For not only did all three sons ultimately attend Mount Union, which has the most wins and best winning percentage in all of college football (201-10-1) since 1990, they all are the proud owners of eight national championship rings. Nick leads with four (three as a player and one as a coach), Mike has three (one a player, two as a coach) and Jay has one (as a player).
“I hate to use the word, ‘lucky,'” said Mike, who was a two-time All-Ohio Athletic Conference selection during his college career, “but I’ll use the world ‘blessed.’ Mount Union not only opened doors for me, but by me going there, it’s the reason Jay went there and it’s the reason Nick went there.”
And those decisions continue to pay dividends years later.
“What Mount Union taught you, what the football program taught you is how to win,” said Jay, who led the Trojans to their first-ever Section VI championship in 2004. “It taught you the things you need to do to be a champion. The winning takes care of itself when you have that attitude.
“I think that’s what you try and instill. That’s what Mike does at W&J, what I do at Southwestern and what Nick does now that he’s going to IUP.”
And, along the way, the Sirianni name has become more and more recognizable in the coaching fraternity. In four seasons as head coach at W&J, Mike has recorded a 39-5 record and the Presidents are ranked as high as seventh in the Division III preseason poll.
Jay, whose early coaching stops were at Maple Grove Junior-Senior High School, Alfred University and a Maryland high school, has brought the Trojans to heights never before achieved while compiling a 25-6 record in three seasons.
Nick, meanwhile, has parlayed a stellar playing and coaching career at Mount Union into a new job at IUP under head coach Lou Tepper, the former head coach at Illinois and Edinboro.
“There’s always connections you make,” Jay said. “There are the coaches down in Pennsylvania I’ve come to know just through Mike. Mike is making his way up here because he’s got the roots and I’ll give guys for him to look at when he comes up here. Then Nick gets the job at IUP and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact he’s from Mount Union. He also knew that Coach Tepper knows Mike and knows us from doing stuff with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Erie.”
Heady stuff, to be sure, but it appears none of Fran and Amy’s kids have lost their perspective.
“When I played at Mount Union, I wore a Southwestern shirt underneath my uniform, because I’ve always been taught remember where you come from,” Jay said.
For the Siriannis — Mike, Jay and Nick — that’s a tradition, started by their father and nurtured by their mother, that they’re proud to uphold.
“I’ve grown up through football and I’ve become a better person through football,” said Matt Mazgaj, an all-state linebacker on Jay’s 2004 Southwestern team, who also played for Fran as a middle-schooler and is now a sophomore defensive end for Mike at W&J. “The Siriannis had something to do with it. They try and teach more than football. They teach you values as well as stressing academics.
As Mazgaj’s mother, Loretta, noted: “What Fran passed down to all three (of his sons) is remarkable
Which brings to mind a tract by an anonymous author that finally connects all the dots in this feel-good family story. It reads:
You got it from your father,
It was all he had to give,
So it’s yours to use and cherish,
For as long as you may live.
If you lose the watch he gave you,
It can always be replaced,
But a black mark on your name, son,
Can never be erased.
It was clean the day you took it,
And a worthy name to bear.
When he got it from his father,
There was no dishonor there.
So make sure you guard it wisely,
After all is said and done,
You’ll be glad the name is spotless,
When you give it to your son.