When you've been a high school head football coach for 26 years like John Franco has, the novelty of the opening game kind of wears off.
"We've all been so immersed in trying to get ready, I don't know if we've had time to think about that," Franco said. "Maybe on Friday night at about 6 o'clock, I'll be able to [give that more thought]."
While tomorrow's season-opening home game might be just another to Franco, it won't be to a lot of people. Mansion Park figures to have a buzz surrounding it as Franco returns as coach of the Altoona Mountain Lions for the first time in 19 years, after leading Tyrone to three PIAA championship appearances and one state title in the interim.
Kickoff against WPIAL Foothills Conference foe Norwin is at 7 p.m.
"It really has been quite a challenge to try to get these guys ready. We have a lot of seniors, and we really want to put them in the best position to be successful. That's really taken a lot of work and a lot of time," said Franco, who posted a 40-45-2 record in eight seasons guiding the Lions in the late 1980s and early 1990s before moving on to win nearly 200 games at Tyrone.
Franco inherits from Tom Palfey, a member of his staff, a team with a generous amount of experience if not many full-time starter returning. After winning no games in 2010, Altoona came up victorious three times last year, and both the junior varsity and junior high squads were unbeaten.
Game: Norwin Knights (0-9) vs. Altoona Mountain Lions (3-6)
Where: Mansion Park, Altoona
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
The coaches: Norwin - Art Tragesser (172-105-3, 27th year); Altoona - John Franco (230-82-2, 27th year)
Series record: Norwin, 1-0
Last meeting: Norwin, 14-6 (1939)
Still, there is the issue of trying to install a completely new system for Franco.
"We've made progress. We're definitely better than we were at the beginning of camp, but we're nowhere near where I think we need to be," Franco said. "We still need to be more disciplined in our assignments. That discipline leads to consistency. But the kids have been very receptive. They're working hard."
Lineman Austin Rosenberry is only starter back on offense that struggled last season, especially in the second half of the year. One of the positions being contested in camp was between seniors Matt Dry and Brennan Luciano to find a new starting quarterback. As of early this week, little had been settled according to Franco.
The pair combined to throw 10 passes in 2011. Dry went 5-for-9 for 53 yards. Franco said Luciano brings more arm strength, while Dry is the more accurate passer.
"Right now, Luciano has the upper hand and will probably start, although we would have no problem going to Dry," Franco said.
The first opponent to test Franco in his return to Altoona will be a team with some things in common with the Lions. Norwin is in a rebuilding mode, having gone 0-9 last season. The school brought in Art Tragesser to try to right the ship two years ago - Tragesser is a veteran of more than 40 years on the sidelines, including very successful head coaching stints at Jeannette and then Penn-Trafford.
"He's one of the few coaches older than me," the 56-year-old Franco quipped.
The Knights only have starters back at five positions. The three players that held down those spots are underclassmen, and Tragesser expects to start two freshmen in the opener, as well.
"I think we had a good preseason. The kids worked hard. We have a lot of potential to get better every week," Tragesser, whose team scrimmaged North Hills and Mount Lebanon, said. "The game speeds up quite a bit [for the younger players]. The seniors have to work with those young kids and provide leadership."
A 172-game winner, Tragesser has an idea what kind of an atmosphere his young team might be walking into.
"Obviously, anytime there's a new coach, there's a lot of excitement,"Tragesser said. "It'll be a big learning experience for our kids."
The Knights do possess some nice size. Returnees Dylan Keffer and Luke Micic tip the scales at 260 and 245 pounds, respectively.
"They seem very similar to us athletically. Talent-wise, they seem to match up with us pretty well," Franco said. "I think it's a good matchup. It should be pretty equal."