November 24, 2012 at 1:00 am

Terry Foster

Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa earns right to go out on own terms


The old man doesn't move like he used to, but Al Fracassa is hardly washed up. Did you see the crazy plays 80-yard-old Fracassa and Birmingham Brother Rice (12-2) called during the final quarter of its 35-28 Division 2 football finals victory over Muskegon Friday afternoon at Ford Field?

Fracassa cleaned out a lifetime of playbooks and he needed every one of them to win his eighth state title in 44 years of brilliance at Rice and 53rd year overall. It was his second straight title and capped off his state-record 416th win — 372 of them at Brother Rice.

He called a flea flicker that went for 77 yards to break a 21-21 tie late in the fourth quarter. And after Muskegon (12-2) tied it, Fracassa listened to his assistant coaches and approved a trick play on the ensuing kickoff that went 91 yards and proved to be the winner in a game Fracassa thought would never end.

There is still some spice running in those veins.

"You do what you've got to do when your back is up against the wall," he said.

Now we must wait to see if this was the last call for Fracassa, who might announce his retirement soon. Better yet, it would be nice to see the old man on the sidelines calling more of those zany plays.

Fracassa does not want to leave as Rice's football coach. He wants to stand on the sidelines for another year. But the reality is some inside the Rice family believe he is too old and too antiquated. They want Fracassa to become a figurehead who has an office in the school and oversees football operations. Fracassa is not a shiny trophy you stack in a glass case. He is not some old guy you stack in the corner for rich boosters to shake his hand.

Yeah, he is old. But he remains in touch and in tune with the game. For argument's sake let's say he is over the hill and doesn't know what he is doing and the program is being run by assistants. What better guy to represent your school? When Fracassa took over, Brother Rice was just another school. Now, it is one of the premier programs in the state.

When a guy builds nothing into something, he deserves his own exit strategy. Rice must be careful how it handles this.

Loves to coach

He said he must talk things over with his wife and the school principal and athletic director. But does this sound like a man who wants to step down? After the celebration I asked him if he wants to leave as football coach.

"Oh, I am thinking about," he said. "I don't know what to do. They want me to stay at the school for a while and be like Bo Schembechler — go in the office now and then and talk to people. I don't know if I want to do that or not."

Can you return as football coach?

"I think I can," he said. "Maybe if I tell them I love it so much I would die if I don't coach, maybe they will let me coach. I love to coach."

This is not a cut-and-dried case of whether Fracassa wants to go or stay. Brother Rice is in a very delicate spot. I spoke to some alumni who want him to stay. If Fracassa is forced out, they will disassociate themselves from the school. If they are convinced that Fracassa is going out on his own terms, they will stick by the Warriors.

The school wants a fresh face and a new direction. Fracassa does not move like he used to. He is no longer that dashing and strapping lad who could play any sport at any time. Age catches up with us all. But this is not a Joe Paterno situation where they simply wheel him out for show and then throw bubble wrap around him between games.

Fracassa is Brother Rice football. In many circles he is Catholic League football and state of Michigan football. He deserves the right to go out on his own terms. If they made Fracassa come into an office and shake hands, he becomes a dog-and-pony show. That's if it is not under his own terms.

Retirement unimaginable

He is a football coach, not a casino greeter.

"I can't see him doing anything else," said linebacker Jon Reschke, who is headed to Michigan State to play football. "It is the game of football that he loves. If he does come back, he will be a legend just like he is and he will put together a winning team like he always does. I can't imagine him retiring."

Junior wide receiver Corey Lacanaria caught five passes for 137 yards, including a 16-yard strike from older brother Cheyne Lacanaria to open the scoring. He wants Fracassa to coach him his senior season.

"He does not just affect you as a football coach," Lacanaria said. "He guides you through life. He is an amazing person. He says it is not all about football. It is about life."

Fracassa did not join in the celebration when his team held the championship trophy. They brought a golf cart to bring him up the sharp Ford Field incline.

"Man, I was really suffering out there," the old coach said. "I thought the game was going to go on forever."

OK. So he is old. But is Al Fracassa really washed up and ready to be mothballed?

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Football championships

All game at Ford Field
Division 2: Birmingham Brother Rice 35, Muskegon 28
Division 4: Grand Rapids South Christian 40, Detroit Country Day 7
Division 6: Ithaca 37, Constantine 27
Division 8: Harbor Beach 35, Beal City 10

Today’s games

Division 7: Ishpeming (12-1) vs. Detroit Loyola (13-0), 10 a.m.
Division 1: Detroit Catholic Central (9-4) vs. Detroit Cass Tech (11-2), 1 p.m.
Division 5: Grand Rapids West Catholic (10-3) vs. Portland (12-1), 4:30 p.m.
Division 3: Grand Rapids Christian (12-1) vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (11-2), 7:30 p.m.

Al Fracassa won his eighth state title in 44 years of brilliance at Rice and 53rd year overall. It was his second straight title and capped off his state-record 416th win 372 of them at Brother Rice. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
Brother Rice players, including Joshua Flye (left) and Niko Jonna (right) ... (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
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