Roger French’s football coaching career spanned six decades, capped by his key role on Brigham Young University’s only national championship team.
French, a longtime Maple Grove resident who was also an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s, died on Feb. 3 at age 87.
“He just loved the game,” said Gail Luedke, one of French’s daughters. “He loved his family, he loved the Lord, and he loved his players.”
Andy Reid, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, was a player at BYU in 1980, French’s first year coaching there.
“He was a great man and a great coach — very innovative, creative and passionate,” said Reid, an offensive lineman in college who has been a head coach in the National Football League since 1999.
“He’d yell at you and scream at you and the next minute he’d give you a kiss,” he said.
Reid worked for a year as graduate assistant coach at Brigham Young, getting tips from French.
“He taught me how to coach the offensive line,” he said.
French helped design Brigham Young’s high-powered passing offense. The Utah school would go on to win a national championship in 1984 with French as its offensive line coach and offensive co-coordinator.
French coached at BYU for 20 years during the school’s football heyday under head coach LaVell Edwards.
After French died, Salt Lake City’s two daily newspapers both wrote obituaries using the word “legendary” to describe him.
French grew up in Minneapolis, where he was a four-sport athlete at Minneapolis Central High School in the late 1940s. He met wife Dorothy, a Patrick Henry High School graduate, at a school dance.
From 1950 to 1953, French played tight end and linebacker for the Gophers.
French had a brief stint in the National Football League with the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns before turning to coaching.
He was defensive coordinator from 1959 to 1965 at what’s now known as the University of Memphis, and from 1965 to 1969 he held the same post at the University of Wisconsin.
In 1970, he returned to his alma mater where he stayed until 1978 as offensive line, tight ends and receivers coach.
“You’re not always going to love your coach, but I learned to love Roger,” said Keith Fahnhorst, who played tight end at the U in the early 1970s and went on to a 14-year NFL career as an offensive tackle with the San Francisco 49ers.
“Roger wasn’t really a tactician. Not ‘Right step there, left step here,’ but ‘I don’t care how you step, hit the guy under the chin and get the job done,’ ” said Fahnhorst, who played golf with French over the years.
French left college coaching when he departed from BYU in 2000.
He was offensive line coach in 2001 for the Frankfurt Galaxy in the now defunct NFL Europe, and held the same job in 2002 for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League.
French finished his career in football in the city where he started — Minneapolis.
In 2003 at age 69, he became head coach at Patrick Henry High, a post he held for five years. French also worked with football programs at Minnetonka and Bloomington Kennedy high schools.
French was preceded in death by his wife and one grandson. He is survived by daughters Kathy Cottam and Gail Luedke; five grandchildren; and six great grandchildren. Services have been held.